Hymns of Advent

The ubiquitous "sounds of Christmas," in shops, elevators, and on radio and TV, are among the most powerful influences on us to think about Christmas, rather than Advent, from the middle of November on. One of the ways we can work on rediscovering Advent is to learn some of the rich hymnody that has been composed for the season. Most of the hymns we highlight here are found in The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., but we also draw on other sources. There are a lot of good Advent hymns and we have not attempted to include them all here, but you will find some of the best (in our opinion) and a few that may be new to you.

A Hymn for St. Nicholas' Day (pdf file)

Many thanks to Canon Joseph A. Kucharski, Precentor of the Cathedral of All Saints, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for this saint's day hymn.

A Hymn a Day for the Twelve Days of Christmas

OK, after a month of the secular "holiday season," you really are tired of the usual Christmas hymns and carols.  But what would the celebration of Christmas be without music?  So, why not make the Twelve Days of Christmas into a truly musical festival by singing and, if necessary, learning some different hymns and carols?  Here are some that we suggest.  Chances are, there are several that you will not sing in church this year, and at least one or two that you have never sung.

Sing of Mary

Mary's story begins with a song, the Magnificat, and the Church has been singing with her and about her ever since. Her own song of praise, the Magnificat, is sung (or said) daily in the evening throughout much of the Church, in elegantly simple plainsong and in grand settings accompanied by organ or orchestra. And through the years many hymns and spiritual songs have been written in praise of Mary and in prayer to Mary. In this article, we highlight the Salve Regina, as well as the hymns in The Hymnal 1982 that refer to Mary and give us a picture of her place in the Episcopal Church and, more importantly, her place in the Christian understanding of things.

A Thanksgiving Hymn

Known as "The President's Hymn," this text was composed for the first annual Day of Thanksgiving proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It was printed in Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VII. No. 362, New York, December 5, 1863.

"Seminary Hymn"

The text of this hymn (heard in the background on this page) is from The Dream of Gerontius by John Henry Newman. The tune was written in 1992 by Joseph A. Kucharski, Mus.D., on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Nashotah House.  For music and permission to use the hymn, contact Dr. Kucharski. For the full text of the hymn, click here. The hymn has also been published in The Saint Michael Hymnal, which is available here.

Ten Hymns
by Don E. Kerr

These hymns were written for the boys of the Montreal Boys Choir School at CAMMAC, Québec, between 1989 and 1991.  The intent was to provide texts that would instruct the choirboys in the Faith and in the Church Year.  Most were first set to tunes found in The Hymnal 1982.  However, a new tune for each has been composed by The Rev'd Stephen A. Crisp and the revised versions are now available online here. Several have been arranged to be sung as anthems and those arrangements are also included. The copyrighted texts and music are in PDF format.  Permission and conditions for certain uses are found in the preface. Requests for permission for other uses should be sent to Full Homely Divinity.

Merbecke's Communion Service
edited by Don E. Kerr

The music John Merbecke wrote for the 1549 Prayer Book has been revised in various ways, for various reasons, occasionally becoming barely recognizable, particularly when married to certain instrumental accompaniments. Nevertheless, it has endured and continues to be one of the most familiar and singable settings of the Eucharist in traditional language. Mr. Kerr's new edition restores the original rhythmic values of Merbecke's composition, but given in standard musical notation. He also provides an optional accompaniment, though this is a setting that is most appropriately (and, we might add, beautifully) sung unaccompanied. A separate pew edition is also provided.

A Review Article:

Saint Dunstan's Plainsong Psalter
Glendale, CO:  Lancelot Andrewes Press, 2005.
Pp. 508.  ISBN 0-9714046-8-2

A said Psalm is an oxymoron.  Imagine a congregation, at the Offertory, rising to say "Let all mortal flesh keep silence", and you have it in a nutshell.  Early poetry, and especially epic poetry, was sung—and accompanied—the psalms being no exception.  The caesurae in Beowulf, for example, are remarkably similar to those in the psalms; both surely were not silences, but were punctuated by an instrument of some sort.  This is not to suggest that we attempt  restored,  "authentic"   performances   with   period

instruments:  musicologists and historians have given us much information, but no one has first-hand knowledge of an original performance.  However, the Saint Dunstan's Plainsong Psalter provides an excellent means to render the psalms in the best traditions of the Western Church.  This is important work indeed, for the psalms are, and always have been, the Prayer of the Church. 

Whoever still uses the Office will profit from purchasing this volume.  Even those who say the Office alone should try singing the psalms: the deep meditative and spiritual value of this will soon become apparent.  One who sticks to it for a month or so will never go back to saying psalms.  And the use of a proper psalm (sung) at Mass is vital, since so many of the faithful these days are rarely exposed to the Office, and, therefore, to the Psalter.  (An article on "The Psalms at Mass" is in preparation and will soon be posted on this website.)

The book has much useful commentary and information and includes a generous selection of canticles and incidental music.  Its print is excellent, and its size, together with the thoughtful amount of white space, makes it very easy to read.  The traditional chant notation, with its movable doh orientation, is superior to "standard" notation, in that it makes performance easier in the long run:   one who is not familiar with this system but takes the trouble to learn it will, in a very short time, find that it makes psalm-singing a relatively simple matter.

I have only three quibbles with this psalter.  First, I find the editor's insistence on pronouncing every -ed to be unfortunate.  One can ignore this on the reciting tone, but these suffixes sometimes also appear in the cadences.  We do not render the psalms in 16th century English:  if we did, we would be pronouncing all of the vowels in accents akin to some of those found in the regional speech of certain parts of the British Isles, Canada, New England, and the Deep South.  I say "regard-ed", but I do not say "furnish-ed"—I do not know anyone who says furnish-ed, but perhaps I don't get out enough or know the right people.  Anyway, it does seem a bit silly, and certainly inconsistent, to insist that every -ed be pronounced without also insisting on 16th-century vowel sounds.  It is, however, easy to ignore the -ed's when they appear during the reciting tone, and fairly easy to do an impromptu re-pointing at cadences.    

Second, there is a failure to think outside the box when doing so would make a much smoother result.  The Tones were built for Latin, a highly-inflected language and therefore uncluttered with articles and sparing in its use of pronouns, prepositions and auxiliary verbs; and which has very predictable ending accent patterns which are far less complicated than those of English.  A case in point is Psalm 103: "according to our wickednesses" needs pointing that causes the last three syllables to be on the final note.*  Absolute heresy, I know, but any other arrangement does violence either to text or to music.  Situations such as this one are a reminder that well-pointed Anglican chant is in some ways better suited to English psalmody—when it is sung gently, in a chant voice, and not as if the singers were charging off to war, riding in the chariot of the perpetually "boiling swell".

Last, I wish for some flexes where there are none—and for the absence of them where some are.  This whole matter needs careful reconsideration.  I have tried in vain to see, in many psalters, some sort of system for installing flexes, but I have concluded that editors, including dear Canon Douglas, derived their methodology principally by rubbing the bumps on the tops of their heads.

These relatively minor reservations should deter no one from acquiring the book and using it—as a reference work, and for performance purposes.  Saint Dunstan's Plainsong Psalter is a serious, meritorious, and valuable publication that belongs in every cathedral, parish, and church musician's library—and in the library of everyone still faithful to the Office in English.

Don E. Kerr