Service music

Christmas Eve
(December 24, 2019)

For many years, our Processional hymn on Christmas Eve has been “O come all ye faithful.” During Advent, we have been invoking our Lord to come, and now, as we celebrate his birth we invoke his people to come to worship him. 

This hymn is so deeply embedded in the lives of many of us that we probably fail to notice some of its formal elements. The Psalter Hymnal Handbook makes this observation: “The text has two unusual features for such a popular hymn: it is unrhymed and has an irregular meter.”

The authorship of the text (originally in Latin) was long debated but most scholars believe it was the work of John Francis Wade (1712-1786), an English Roman Catholic who relocated to France to escape anti-Catholic hostility. Wade made his living by teaching music and copying musical scores, especially scores of plainchant. The tune — ADESTE FIDELES — was also probably by Wade.

Since I have served as music director, we have altered the order of the stanzas in this hymn in order to allow for the use of an arrangement by Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015), long-time director of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. In his setting, the stanza that begins “Sing, choirs of angels” comes next to last, allowing for the use of his stirring descant (with alternative organ arrangement).

Our sermon hymn for this service is “He whom joyous shepherds praised.” You’ll note that the Hymnal attributes this melody to a 1410 manuscript from the Hohenfurth Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in South Bohemia. The tune, QUEM PASTORES, was discovered at the same time, linked (as the tune name suggests) with this text. They were published together first in 1555.

Here is the original Latin of the hymn, sung in an arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams by the Choir of St. George’s Hanover Square, conducted by Denys Darlow.

Before leaving that text, here is a recent setting of Quem pastores laudavere with a different tune. The composer is James Bassi (b. 1961), and it is sung here by singers from Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, conducted by Harry Christophers.

The Offertory anthem is a setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “In the Bleak Mid-winter.” The music was written in 1911 by organist and composer Harold Darke (1888-1976). Here is the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge singing the carol.

During Communion, the choir sings O magnum mysterium by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611)

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum,
O great mystery and wonderful sacrament,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio.
that the animals should see the new-born Lord lying in a manger.
O beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Jesum Christum. Alleluia!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!

Here is this motet sung by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.

We will sing three more Christmas carols/hymns during Communion. The first, “A babe lies in the cradle,” is from David Gregor Corner’s Geistliche Nachtigal der Catholischen (“Spiritual Nightingale of the Catholic Germans”), published in Vienna in 1631. Corner was a theologian and priest from Silesia who became rector of the University of Vienna. His book included 546 hymns, and the text to the one we’re singing is thought to date from the fourteenth century.

Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this hymn on piano.

“All my heart this night rejoices” is from a 15-stanza hymn by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). The tune EBELING is from Johann Georg Ebeling’s Das ander Dutzet Geistlicher Andact-Lieder Herrn Paul Gerhards (1666).

Gerhardt is one of the greatest of Lutheran poets. German historian Georg Gottfried Gervinus (1805-1871) offers this description of his hymns: “With a firm grasp of the objective realities of the Christian Faith, and a loyal adherence to the doctrinal standpoint of the Lutheran Church, Gerhardt is yet genuinely human; he takes a fresh, healthful view both of nature and of mankind. In his hymns we see the transition to the modern subjective tone of religious poetry. Sixteen of his hymns begin with, ‘I.’ Yet with Gerhardt it is not so much the individual soul that lays bare its sometimes morbid moods, as it is the representative member of the Church speaking out the thoughts and feelings he shares with his fellow members; while in style Gerhardt is simple and graceful, with a considerable variety of verse form at his command, and often of bell-like purity in tone.”

Below, this hymn is sung by the Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter. (This performance is from an album I reviewed last year.)

Unlike most of our Christmas hymns and carols, “Now yield we thanks and praise” is of a relatively recent vintage. Its author, Charles Chandler Robbins (1876-1952), was for a time the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. He also taught pastoral theology at Union Theologcal Seminary. This hymn was included in a collection of poems entitled Vita Nova (1929).

The tune DARMSTADT was composed by Ahasuerus Fritsch (1629-1701), chancellor of the University of Jena and president of the Consistory of Ru­dol­stadt. In addition to his official duties, he edited two hymn collections. The harmonization to this hymn is taken from the concluding chorale of J. S. Bach’s cantata #94, Was frag ich nach der Welt! That chorale is sung here by the Stuttgart Gachinger Kantorei, conducted by Helmuth Rilling.

Our closing hymn is “Joy to the world,” which for some reason was not included in the Christmas section of our Hymnal. It was included later in the book (#319) with a somewhat (it seems to us) unconventional tune. When the Hymnal was revised in the 1970s, the hymn with the more familiar tune was pasted in with inconvenient typography, forcing us to turn the page to sing the last line. The text by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is part of his paraphrase of Psalm 98, which depicts all the earth making a joyful noise unto the Lord who comes to judge the world with righteousness.

The tune ANTIOCH is by Lowell Mason (1792-1872), who cribbed a few elements from music by George Frideric Handel (1685-1757). The first four notes are the same as the beginning of the chorus “Lift up your heads” from Messiah, sung here by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

There are also echoes in ANTIOCH of the instrumental interludes in the tenor aria in Messiah, “Comfort ye,” sung here by Rufus Müller with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Ivars Taurins.

Well, I can’t end this post there, on that unresolved chord. So here’s Ian Bostridge singing “Every valley shall be exalted,” with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Harry Bicket. Merry Christmas!