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Advent Sunday: the Advent Carol Service

11/29/18 | Music | by David Sinden

Advent Sunday: the Advent Carol Service

Dear readers,

Please accept my apologies for not keeping up with the blog in the final stretch of the season after Pentecost. I return to writing in this space with renewed Advent vigor!

It's no secret that I love Advent. I would wager most church musicians do. It's full of extraordinary hymnody, seasonal carols (Advent carols, I mean; Christmas comes later), and profound themes.

Here at St. Peter's we continue our pattern of having a great Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent. This year's service is this Sunday at 5:00 p.m.

The service will begin with the Advent Prose set by British composer Judith Weir (b. 1954). The Choir will sing this from the narthex, as we do the Introits on Sunday mornings. The Choir will then emerge into the church during the processional hymn to the words:

Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.

It's worth mentioning that Judith Weir was commissioned by Stephen Cleobury (b. 1948) to write for the famous Christmas service at King's College in 1985. We sing one of Stephen Cleobury's splendid carol arrangements "The Cherry Tree Carol" after the Third Lesson. I became mildly obsessed with this piece earlier this summer, and I have written about it here.

It's also worth mentioning that Judith Weir has been commissioned by Stephen Cleobury again for this year's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's (please note: a true Christmas service, not an Advent service like ours). The composers Cleobury commissioned in 1983 and 1984 have since died, so Judith Weir is the earliest commissioned composer in his tenure still living. Cleobury will retire in September of 2019, making this year his last Festival at King's.

We'll sing many great carols, anthems, and motets at this service.

The Invitatory Anthem is by our good friend Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980): "O Oriens," which sets the words of one of the great "O" Antiphons of Advent.
It's the only work of Dunphy we sang before commissioning her to write "If thou wilt be perfect" for our anniversary service on October 14 of this year.

The Sopranos of the Choir will sing a splendid "Bible Song" by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924): his "A Song of Peace," which incorporates phrases from the familiar Advent hymn "O come, O come, Emmanuel." So do keep an ear out for those!

The Motet "E'en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come" was written by American composer Paul Manz (1919–2009), but it is now famous the world over, especially this time of year.

"Come, thou long-expected Jesus" is often sung as a hymn at a service of this type, but the choir will sing it to music composed by Indianapolis resident Steven Rickards (b. 1959). I got to know Dr. Rickards well during my tenure at Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, but one of our altos grew up in this fine choir, and knows Dr. Rickards much better than I do! He has written an evocative setting of these words, full of poignancy and longing. Dr. Rickards dedicated this piece to the memory of his grandmother.

With "Come, thou long-expected" being sung by the Choir, the Congregation will have a go at "Savior of the Nations, come!" as a hymn this year. It's a sturdy Lutheran chorale that serves as the basis for myriad organ chorale preludes.

The topsy-turvy "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day" by John Gardner (1917–2011) is a mental  workout for the choir.

"This is the record of John" by Tudor composer Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) is a staple of Episcopal/Anglican choirs in Advent. We'll sing this work accompanied by the Mander Chamber Organ.

"On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry" is the hymn that follows the Sixth Lesson. I can't hear this hymn now without wanting to hear Dan Fortune's terrific descant on the last stanza that ascends to a high B-flat!

For the start of the final section of the service "The Christ-Bearer," we hear a quieter carol written by a composer strongly associated with St. Louis, Ronald Arnatt (1930–2018). His carol "The angel Gabriel from heaven came" is so simple yet devastatingly effective. It's is one of the 1,000 or so pieces filed in our Choir Library, and I have to say that I have genuinely enjoyed getting to know it this year. Ronald Arnatt died earlier this summer, so we will sing this piece with special intention for his memory.

Before the service ends, it's traditional to include the Magnificat (the Song of Mary). From the order of service we are using, there is a nod to the tradition of Choral Evensong at this Advent service, which uses the Magnificat; and the corresponding Epiphany service, which uses the Nunc dimittis. (We will sing A Service of Lessons and Carols for Epiphany on Sunday, January 13 at 5:00 p.m.)

Before the Magnificat, we will sing the carol "A spotless Rose" by Herbert Howells (1892–1983). We will follow it immediately with Howells's Magnificat setting for King's College, Cambridge: the "Collegium Regale."

I'm so excited about bringing this service to fruition on Sunday evening. And I didn't even mention the Byrd "Vigilate" which we will sing first in the 10:30 a.m. Holy Eucharist on Sunday. (Yes, please note that the full choir is showing up to church then too! If they can do it, surely the congregation can as well, right?) 

The organ prelude to this year's Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent will begin at about 4:35 p.m.