Music for Advent 1

I’ve asked my friend Jason to do some guest posts for Advent this year. I’ll probably chime in with Germanic and (Neo-)Romantic emendations to his  Anglican purist selections from time to time. Enjoy!!

Advent I – Rorate caeli

I am both honored and humbled to have been asked to do some guest posts on some of my favorite advent music this year, considering I have nowhere near the breadth of knowledge of choral music that Kristine does, and I also lack her gift for writing. [Ed. Note: he’s lying.]  A little background about me: I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and work studying the biology of aging. However, for the past 15 years, choral music has been my main non work-related artistic outlet. I think I have somewhat of an unusual choral background for a Mormon. I didn’t sing in high school, and I never went to BYU or sang with BYU singers. I can generally appreciate what the MoTab is trying to do, but I feel they are about an order of magnitude too large to make really good music. The only Wilberg I’ve been exposed to was the book of five finger duet miniatures I learned as a kid taking piano lessons. When I was in college, I sort of lucked into a spot at my university’s non-denominational church choir. I was talked into auditioning by some friends, and for some reason was offered a position. It seemed like a pretty good gig, since they were going to pay me to sing every week, and were offering a free tour of Africa the following summer. Sadly the tour fell through, but I stuck with the choir all the way through grad school, and I was exposed to a whole wonderful world of choral music I never even knew existed previously. When I graduated, I moved over to a local Episcopal parish with a vibrant music program, and have been singing with them for the past 13 years. For about four years I sang with them every Sunday morning, attending my LDS ward in the afternoon. For the last several years, I’ve pared my participation down to a monthly Evensong service in addition to special events such as Christmas and Holy Week. About six or seven years ago, I gave up any hope of trying to improve the music in the LDS church, and have been very happy singing at a place where I am not in constant conflict with the leadership and culture. I guess like many aesthetically minded Mormons, I’ve always had a bit of holy envy of more liturgical traditions.

Growing up in Utah Valley, I don’t think I ever had any conception of what Advent was when I was young. There was just the “Christmas season.” However, when I was 8, we moved to Switzerland for two years and my parents enrolled us in the local school system. Europe doesn’t really have the same concept of separation of church and state as we do in the states, so school included not only all sorts of wonderful German Christmas themed activities and songs, but also official religion classes. The choices were Catholic or Protestant, so I just hung out in the schoolyard and played marbles with the Turkish kid in my class. But it was while living in Basel that I was exposed to Advent. In school we learned this poem:

Advent, Advent, ein Kerzlein brennt

Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier,

Dann steht das Christkind vor der Tur.

(Advent, Advent, a candle burns, first one, then two, then three, then four,

Then stands the Christ child at the door)

All of my friends had Advent wreaths in their homes, and since I thought fire and candles were the best thing in the world, we soon adopted this tradition as well. Many years of singing in church choirs has now given me a better appreciation of the liturgical aspects of the season of Advent (although the wreath is still a highlight).

The themes of Advent are recognition of the need for a Messiah, and anticipation of and preparation for the coming of Christ (both the nativity and the second coming). The gradual lighting of the candles, one more on each of the four Sundays of Advent, symbolizes the coming of light into a world of darkness. Advent is one of the two penitential seasons of the Church, the other being Lent. Candles and liturgical vestments are purple. Alleluias are frequently omitted from the liturgy. From a singer’s perspective though, these are great seasons, because it means lots of unaccompanied music!

Probably the liturgical text most associated with Advent is Rorate caeli (Drop down dew, ye heavens from above). This appears in the Liber Usualis as the versicle/response at Vespers throughout the season, as well as at the Introit on Advent IV. The full text can be found here:

Sorry for the lengthy preamble, now to the music. We’ll start with the Rorate caeli desuper plain chant, in mode I, and save some other settings for later in the series.

Another favorite Advent text is “I look from afar” (Aspiciens a longe), aka the Advent Responsory. The text comes from the response after the first reading in the night office of the first Sunday of Advent. I think this one is especially popular due to its inclusion in the Carols for Choirs 2 book. Instead of the canonical Willcocks/Palestrina version though, I love this setting that was written by Rob Lehman, who for a long time was the organist and choirmaster at Christ Church New Haven.

I look from afar:

And lo, I see the power of God coming,

and a cloud covering the whole earth.

Go ye out to meet him and say:

Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?

High and low, rich and poor, one with another,

Go ye out to meet him and say:

Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep:

Tell us, art thou he that should come?

Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come

To reign over thy people Israel.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

Choral settings are taken not only from chants, but also from the lessons (scripture readings) appointed for each Sunday. For Advent I, the Gospel lesson in the lectionary is Matthew 24:36-44. Here is a fantastic setting by William Byrd, arguably England’s most famous sacred music composer of the Renaissance, of the text of this lesson, “Vigilate.” This is a wonderful 5 voice motet published in 1589, and in my opinion one of Byrd’s finest. He sets a portion of the equivalent passage from Mark:


Vigilate, nescitis enim quando dominus domus veniat, sero, an media nocte, an gallicantu, an mane.

Vigilate ergo, ne cum venerit repente, inveniat vos dormientes.

Quod autem dico vobis, omnibus dico: vigilate.

Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch. (Mark 13:35-37).

Make sure to listen for the exquisite word painting on “an gallicantu” (the cock crowing, at 1:23) as well as “dormientes” (sleeping, around 3:00).

And finally, a hymn for Advent. This one is an old chant, and the appointed hymn for Advent I. Creator alme siderum, plain chant in mode 4 (Creator of the stars of night). If you like side scrolling plainsong neumes, this is the youtube video for you:

The text can be found here:

And an organ postlude:

Thanks for allowing me to share some of my favorite Advent music.


  1. Awesome! We few high-church Mormons are always glad for a breadcrumb here and there!

  2. I also spent two years in Switzerland as a young child (’85-’87), attended the local village school, and skipped the church classes. If I remember correctly, the church class was at the end of the day–I was the only one able to go home early. I was lucky enough to sing in the village children’s choir (along with all my classmates) at the local church. Some great Christmas music.

    I don’t remember the advent wreaths very well, but I do remember live candles on our fresh Christmas tree and the wandering Swiss Santa. Not nearly as commercial as Christmas tends to be in the U.S.

  3. Tim we were there around the same time (I was 84-86). The wandering Santa was awesome, I remember that seemed like the coolest thing in the world. My parents were too freaked out to do live candles the first year, but we had them the second year as I remember. Many fond childhood memories from those years. The schools were really well rounded there.

  4. Switzerland and my mission country, Germany, have honestly been the only places I’ve ever been “homesick” for. A fantastic place to spend part of a childhood in.

  5. Amazing. Anglican-Mormon fusions FTW.

  6. Love it.

  7. What up w/ blatant anti-german/austrian crap in BCC sideblog? Left as power hungry not caring about equality/fairness showing through. For shame. I feel like I don’t have to treat Mormons equally either if they are this celebratory about their own racism.

  8. melodynew says:

    Thank you. God bless you.

  9. This was beyond my comprehension, yet it brought peace. Which is also beyond my comprehension. Thanks.

  10. This post shames me. I had to work very hard to get my singing voice back up to snuff after experiencing some trauma. After all that hard work (sometimes up to 3 hrs a day practicing vocal exercises) I’ve let my instrument go to ground. The last time I sang in front of others I was pitchy and just a shell of what I used to be able to do. I tried to sing along and unrelated to the beauty of the music I found my voice constricted. I have mistreated my old friend.

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