Advent and Christmas music 2004

At the time of writing this, I have not yet definitely decided upon the exact musical content of this year’s Christmas Eve Carol Service. I can say with some certainty however that it will include Of the Father’s Heart Begotten. My earliest memory of this hymn is singing it at the age of ten at my first Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at Southwell Minster. Ever since, more than any other hymn or carol, it has been impossible for me to imagine Christmas without it and it is always the “first name on the team sheet” when I am planning a carol service.

The words, a translation by R F Davie of a fourth century text by Prudentius, not only tell the story of the incarnation but also seem to place it in its full metaphysical, historical and cosmological context. Traditionally sung at the beginning of a carol service, it invites us to marvel at the mystery and splendour of the incarnation before we zoom in to the detail of the Christmas story and are swept away by the pathos of the nativity. Its sentiments are echoed later in the service in the lesson from the beginning of St John’s gospel “In the beginning was the Word, etc.” Together, they suggest that Christ was always there and make the important link, often ignored, between creation and incarnation; basically, that Christ is the manifestation and confirmation of everything that is beautiful, true and magical in the world.

Musically, the hymn is rather simple. In the commonly-used arrangement by David Willcocks, it begins with a brief four-note intonation rather than the more familiar playover (where first or last line of a hymn is played as an introduction). The effect of this is to alert us to the fact that something quite extraordinary is about to happen. Then the melody crashes in. If correctly paced, its simple triple time felt as one-in-the-bar (please excuse the technical language) can produce the impossible effect of an epic lilt. The hymn’s metre is slightly irregular; it comes to a sort of half-close at the end of the fourth line and is then quickly re-invigorated by a long melisma (several notes to one syllable) before abruptly ending with the refrain “Evermore and evermore”.

It is the eternal continuity implied in that refrain which is one of the most appealing things about Christmas. To annually celebrate (and indeed, experience) the incarnation is one of the greatest privileges that Christians have. What makes it better yet is that it is something shared by many non-Christians as well! It is impossible however to appreciate Christmas fully without keeping a good Advent, focussing on the void in the world which Christ fills. This is very vividly expressed in the Advent Carol Service where one is fed an austere diet of simple and plain music before gorging on Howells and Messiaen a few weeks later.

Plainsong is a staple of the Advent diet and is a wonderfully clear way of connecting with Advent past. When singing hymns such as Creator of the Starry Night and O Come, O Come Emmanuel, one is keenly aware that these same words and same notes have been sung every year for hundreds of years. This year we will once more be singing (or might have already sung by the time you read this) the Advent Prose, a translation of the Latin hymn Rorate Coeli. The words are from Isaiah and very poetically express the spirit of Advent: a world’s hunger and longing for the coming of the Messiah.

Philip Collin
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd December 2004