Music for Advent: A Playlist

The history of Advent hymnody is rich, and stretches back to the early Church.

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Given that for even the best-educated music-lovers so much valuable Christmas repertoire slumbers largely undisturbed by any hint of modern revivals, it is hardly surprising that most Advent repertoire tends to be even less known. What follows merely hints at the riches available.

To begin at the beginning, or at least, as near to the beginning as we are likely to come: the first traceable music specifically tied to Advent dates from the fourth century. The Edict of Milan, by which Emperor Constantine and his brother-in-law Emperor Licinius made it lawful to be a Christian, was issued in 313 AD. Almost immediately Christendom was threatened afresh by the Arian heresy. St. Jerome famously complained: “The world woke up and groaned to find itself Arian.” And although the Council of Nicaea promptly condemned Arianism, years elapsed before Arianism could be safely declared down for the count.

Two of the earliest hymn-writers in the Western Church were particularly conscious of the need to emphasize Advent as a means of stressing the Incarnation: “one in being with the Father,” as we say when reciting the Nicene Creed. St. Hilary of Poitiers, the so-called “Malleus Arianorum” (the “Hammer of the Arians”), and St. Ambrose could see how popular hymn-singing had become within Arian communities. They took the attitude expressed in a much later phrase: “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?”

Alas, no hymn which St. Hilary is known to have written has come down to us. With St. Ambrose, the case is different. The words of four hymns attributed to him have survived (there could well have been others, now lost), and among the most famous of them is Veni, redemptor gentium: “Come, redeemer of the Gentiles.” Even if, as seems probable, Ambrose had nothing to do with creating the melody, he appears to have sanctioned it, and centuries later it became part of the Gregorian chant repertoire. This recording originates from the Schola Gregoriana in Ambrose’s own city, Milan.

We now jump over more than a millennium, to the 1520s, and to the early days of Lutheranism. The extent to which Luther borrowed melodies wholesale from Gregorian and Ambrosian chant was long minimized—it suited both Lutheran and Catholic historians, for obviously different reasons, to downplay Luther’s own debt to these sources—but it was unmistakable. Luther had no intrinsic objection to using melodies associated with Catholicism. Quite the reverse. Often he would not only co-opt the melody, but supply a metrical German translation of the tune’s original Latin words; or, if he failed to supply it himself, he would obtain it from his friend and disciple Johann Walther. And that is what happened here. The same hymn known in Catholicism as Veni, redemptor gentium became, in the Lutheran rite, Nun komm den Heiden Heiland. A metrical English translation of this hymn begins:

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,

And manifest thy virgin birth:

Let every age adoring fall.

Such birth befits the God of all.

Bach based one of the most powerful of his organ miniatures on Nun komm den Heiden Heiland around 1717. He included it in his Orgelbüchlein, “Little Organ Book.” Typical of him is the way the setting almost buries the tune underneath luxuriant polyphonic elaboration. As Victor Borge said about Bach: “[the authorities] badgered him for making the harmonies so strange that they could hardly tell which hymn they were sleeping through.” Nonetheless, careful listening will disclose the main melody moving in the treble, slowly, alongside all the super-abundant passage-work. Aldo Locatelli is the organist in this performance.

Plenty of other Advent-related music remained in circulation well before the rise of Protestantism. For example, there was the group of chants—intended for Vespers—known as the “O Antiphons,” referring to the coming of Christ: “O Wisdom,” “O Lord,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O David’s Key,” “O Morning Star,” “O King of the Nations,” and finally “O God With Us.” These are very ancient indeed; Boethius, executed in 524, seems to have alluded to them, though others ascribe them to the eighth century. Long afterwards, these words were set to original music by the 17th-century Frenchman Marc-Antoine Charpentier; and in our own time, Estonia’s Arvo Pärt has also set them.

Among other pieces regularly used at Advent, as part of the Latin Mass, is the Gregorian chant Rorate Caeli. This takes its words from Isaiah Chapter 45: “Drop down, dew, ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.” Palestrina was among several composers attracted to these words, and he made them the basis for one of his best-known motets. The Regensburg Cathedral Choir is here directed by Benedict XVI’s brother, Georg Ratzinger.

Not only did Lutheranism periodically import chants from Catholic tradition, but sometimes Lutheran composers imported the Latin words as well. It is one of those persistent myths that Protestantism per se expunged Latin altogether from its various liturgies. Untrue. Calvinism and Zwinglianism did; Lutheranism and Anglicanism did not. The Lutheran Sunday service often had a substantial section devoted to music in Latin (which is how we come to have Bach’s Latin Magnificat); even Elizabethan Anglicanism  occasionally countenanced Latin singing, though Elizabeth herself cracked down hard on any Latin texts which hinted at devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

Germany’s greatest composer of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz, interspersed among his mostly German-language motets a fair number with Latin words: including, as it happens, a setting of Rorate Caeli. It dates from 1639. Note how utterly different it sounds from the Palestrina setting of only two generations earlier: how much livelier, how much less ceremonial, how much more intimate, and how much more like conversational give-and-take. This interpretation comes from the Concerto Vocale Ensemble, under René Jacobs.


Along with music for what might be called official Advent celebrations existed a parallel strain of more popular Advent music. One of the best-loved among all Advent hymns is Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. “A spotless rose e’er blooming” constitutes the usual (1894) English translation’s first line, but nobody can be confident of who wrote either the music or the words. It was first published in 1599 at Cologne, and was rapidly taken up by both Catholic and Lutheran congregations. Michael Praetorius, the early 17th-century composer and theorist, gave it further popularity in 1609, when he supplied the harmonies that are most familiar for this carol today. Here, to sing it, Chanticleer.



Within a very short time, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen had become part of, as it were, the Teutonic DNA. And Brahms, upon composing his set of Eleven Chorale Preludes for the organ, instinctively turned to this melody. These preludes are rather mysterious in origin. When Brahms died in 1897 from liver cancer, they remained in manuscript, and it is not even certain whether Brahms ever wanted them published. Nor do we know whether he wrote these eleven works in a surge of inspiration shortly before his death, or whether—as has recently, and convincingly, been maintained by former Boston University librarian Barbara Owen—he labored at them, on and off, over decades. What is undeniable is that they have a melancholy character, as if Brahms was making a conscious, autumnal farewell to his art. With Brahms, even more than with Bach, the melody is overpowered by complex figuration, but the atmosphere of serenity continues intact. Gilberto Guarino is the organist here.


Even the shortest overview of music for Advent would be incomplete without a reference to just about everybody’s favorite Advent hymn: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Easily the most spectacular variant—not to mention deconstruction—of this melody is the percussion concerto (of all things) composed by the Scotsman James McMillan: a wild ride to end all wild rides. A more straightforward but still stirring treatment of the tune—complete with ultra-Gallic toccata bravado for organ at the opening—comes from former Fulbright Scholar Samuel Metzger, currently based in Memphis:


Perhaps the above selection has opened up some unsuspected vistas to a few readers. At any rate, next time you are in the supermarket and your stomach heaves at the Muzak blaring forth (this is a recent real-life example) rap-infested versions of Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, spare a thought for the real Advent music available instead.


Related reading: A Tuneful, Off-Beat Christmas Music List

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About R.J. Stove 0 Articles
Australia’s R.J. Stove, organist and adult convert to Catholicism, is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).