Service music

Second Sunday in Advent (December 8, 2019)

The Introit for today’s service is a text with phrases from Isaiah 30 and Psalm 80. From the chapter in Isaiah, portions of verses 19, 27, 29, and 30 are stitched together. The Introit begins: “O People of Sion, behold, the Lord is nigh at hand to redeem the nations: and in the gladness of your heart the Lord shall cause his glorious voice to be heard.”

That eschatological affirmation is echoed in our Processional hymn, “Savior of the nations, come.” The hymn is an English translation of a German paraphrase of an early Latin hymn. The hymn, “Veni redemptor gentium,” was written by St. Ambrose. The melody we sing is a Lutheran adaptation of a plainchant melody long associated with this venerable Advent text. The harmonization we sing is from one of the Advent cantatas composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Last year, I posted introductions to all three of these cantatas, here, here, and here).

During Advent, our Sequence hymn is “Creator of the stars of night.” This hymn is also based on a very old Advent plainchant text and tune, Conditor alme siderum. Numerous composers have taken this tune (and text) as the basis for some remarkable compositions. One of these is the setting by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, which you can listen to (and read about) here.

The Sermon hymn today is “The Lord will come and not be slow.” The text is from John Milton’s Poems, &c upon Several Occasions (1673). In that volume, Milton included metrical paraphrases of nine Psalms. The five stanzas in this hymn are taken from Psalm 85:13, 85:11, 82:8, 86:9, and 86:10. As in Isaiah 30 — the basis for today’s introit — the theme in these verses is the coming of the Lord in redemptive judgment.

The tune to which we sing this hymn — YORK — first appeared in print in a 1615 Scottish Psalter. It was apparently much admired. In A General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776), written by Sir John Hawkins (a friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson), we read: “This tune is so well known that within memory half the nurses of England were used to sing it by way of lullaby, and the chimes of many country churches have played it six or eight times in 24 hours from time immemorial.”

The Offertory anthem today is William Byrd’s vigorous setting of Rorate caeli. The text is from the Advent Prose, a traditional liturgical text with verses from the prophet Isaiah.

During Communion, the choir sings Jerusalem, surge, a brief motet based on the Communion proper for this Sunday: “Arise, O Jerusalem, and stand on high, and behold the joy that cometh unto thee from thy God.” The music is by Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784), a Franciscan friar and celebrated church musician from Bologna.

The Communion hymns are “Now, my tongue, the myst’ry telling” and “Therefore we, before him bending,” both taken from one of Thomas Aquinas’s great Eucharistic hymns.

We close our service with one of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns of the Second Advent, “Lo! he comes with clouds descending.” Wesley was inspired to write this by an earlier hymn written by John Cennick (1718-1755), a Moravian friend of the Methodist brothers 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 sing 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.