Service music

Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 23, 2018)

Our opening hymn on this final Sunday in Advent, “How bright appears the Morning Star,” is another one of Philipp Nicolai’s stirring Advent hymns (we sang “Wake, awake, for night is flying” two weeks ago). It turns out that the text we sing is inspired by a poem by Nicolai, but it is actually quite a bit different (see here for an explanation).

The Introit for this Sunday is from Isaiah 45 and Psalm 19:

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open and bring forth a Saviour. The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament showeth his handy-work.

That text from Isaiah is also the first section of the music the choir will sing during communion, the plainchant for a traditional text called Advent Prose, which comprises several quotations from Isaiah.

During the Offertory, the choir will sing a hymn that is also inspired by Isaiah, this time from chapter 40. The text to “Comfort, comfort ye my people” was by Johannes Olearius (1611-1684), and was originally written in honor of the feast day of St. John the Baptist. The original German was translated by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), a remarkably prolific translator of hymns. The melody to this hymn was written by Claude Goudimel (c.1514-1572), and was originally used in the Genevan Psalter to sing Psalm 42. Our arrangement is by Johann Crüger, whose craftsmanship our parish knows best through his music for the communion  hymn, “Deck thyself, my soul with gladness.”

Our closing hymn — and the last thing we sing together during Advent — is “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,” Our Hymnal credits Charles Wesley with writing the text, but it’s worth noting that he was inspired (at least in part) to write this by an earlier hymn written by John Cennick (1718-1755), a Moravian friend of Methodists Charles and John Wesley. Cennick’s hymn — which began “Lo! he cometh, countless trumpets blow before his bloody sign” — was published in 1752. Six years later, Charles Wesley completely rewrote the hymn in the elegant and moving form in which we sing it today (with very minor alterations).

The tune to which we sing this hymn, HELMSLEY, is one of half-a-dozen that show up in different hymnals to use with this text (our own Hymnal has another tune which we’ve never used during my time in the parish). HELMSLEY was first published in a collection of hymns edited by the Rev’d Martin Madan (1726-1790). Madan was a contemporary of the Wesleys, and one of their converts. As The New Oxford Book of Carols reports:

As a law student in London he had gone to hear Wesley preach, with the sole purpose of studying his mannerisms for a later impersonation in a drinking club to which he belonged. Immediately converted, he was soon laboring energetically in the social and spiritual morass that was eighteenth-century London.

The question of where Madan discovered this stirring tune is one that has occupied many hours of work for hymnologists and musicologists. Suffice it to say that it was probably picked up by a composer from a folk tune.