Service music

First Sunday in Advent (December 1, 2019)

We launch our trajectory through Advent by singing “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.” Its austere, steady melody is a respite from the hurried confusion that this month typically brings with it.

Throughout Advent, our Sequence hymn will be “Creator of the stars of night.” You can learn more about this text and its plainchant tune from the page dedicated to this hymn. Both text and tune have been adapted by many composers for use in elaborate settings. Our choir has sung a setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), which you can hear (performed by Ensemble Nobiles) on this page.

The Sermon hymn for this Sunday is “O very God of very God.” The text is by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), best known for his many translations of Latin and Greek hymnody, including the text for our Sequence hymn, “Creator of the stars of night.” In addition to his translating efforts, Neale wrote a number of original hymns. “O very God of very God” was from his Hymns for Children, a third series (1846). A meditation on lines from the Nicene Creed, the hymn’s (and the Creed’s) emphasis on Christ as the Light of lights resonates with the antiphon “O Oriens” (translated “O Dayspring” or “O Morning Star”). This antiphon — a short phrase sung in a liturgy before and/or after a psalm or canticle — is traditionally sung with the Magnificat on December 21st: “O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” (You can read more about the “O antiphons” here.)

The Offertory anthem on this first Sunday in Advent revisits the Annunciation, an essential chapter in the story of Christ’s coming. Ne timeas Maria presents the Latin version of Gabriel’s astonishing announcement to the young virgin: “Fear not, Mary, for you have found favour with the Lord: behold, you shall conceive and bring forth a son, and he shall be called the Son of the Most High.” This text has long been sung as a Magnificat antiphon on the First Sunday in Advent. Our setting is by Tomás Luis de Victoria. It is sung here by Ensemble Corund, a Swiss chamber choir conducted by Stephen Smith.

The choir’s Communion motet is also by Victoria. It is one of several settings of Tantum ergo, a stanza from Thomas Aquinas’s great eucharistic poem, Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium, which we frequently sing as the twin hymns, “Now, my tongue, the mystery telling” and “Therefore, we before him bending.” Before singing Victoria’s rich five-part polyphony, the tenors and sopranos will chant the first stanza of the poem, which begins “Sing, my tongue, the mystery of the glorious Body.” And when we have completed the stanza beautifully crafted by Victoria, we will conclude by chanting the final stanza of the poem: “Jubilant praise, glory, laud, honor, and benediction be to the Father and the Son. Equal praise be to Him that proceeds from the two. Amen.”

It was very common during the Renaissance for composers to take familiar plainchant hymns that had multiple stanzas and compose harmonized, polyphonic settings for every other stanza, leaving the alternate stanzas to be chanted in unison. They would weave the plainchant melody throughout the complex harmonized sections, sometimes restricting the use of the melody to one voice, often revealing snippets of the melody bouncing from voice to voice.

The Tantum ergo text sung polyphonically is, in translation: “So let us devoutly revere this great sacrament, and the old covenant may give way to the new rite. May faith grant assistance to the deficiency of our senses.”

Here is the plainchant melody which our parishioners know well from frequent singing during Communion:

The choir will use this familiar melody for the first and final stanza of the motet. The setting by Victoria of Tantum ergo that we’re singing today is not based on this melody, although he composed other settings that did use this tune. The version we sing is performed below by Ensemble Plus Ultra.

Our Communion hymns are “O God, unseen yet ever near” and “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness.” The text for the first of these hymns was written by Edward Osler (1798-1863), a Cornish naval surgeon who wrote some 50 hymns and numerous Psalm paraphrases. Later in life, he served as editor of the Royal Cornwall Gazette, a regional weekly newspaper, in which he occasionally published some of his hymns.

Our closing hymn is “Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates,” which was written especially for use on the First Sunday in Advent by Georg Weissel (1590-1635), a Lutheran pastor and an important early Prussian hymn writer. First published in 1642, it is based on Psalm 24. Our Hymnal includes excerpts from the original as adapted by the prolific translator of German hymnody, Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878).