Advent IV–Rorate caeli

A final Advent post from Jason Wood

This will be my last post in this series, as Advent draws to a close and Christmas Eve approaches. It’s been fun to share some of my favorite music for this season, and I appreciate the chance to do so. The Rorate caeli returns for the fourth Sunday of Advent as the Introit, this time with a new plainchant in mode 1.


In this series when I have shared hymns, I’ve usually included the tune name as well. Traditionally hymn texts are independent of tune names, the idea being that any set of words can be sung to any compatible tune that has a matching meter. This division has always been fairly explicit in English hymnals, where the melody appears at the top of the page (with no words), and the words are printed underneath. In my experience at least, this layout is still quite common in England, although rare in America. For those of us who are used to seeing the words and music printed together, it can make it very tricky when singing to get the underlay right if you are not familiar with both words and tune. The venerable English Hymnal, compiled by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1906, contains numerous suggestions of alternative tunes for many of its hymns. I am only aware of one instance in the LDS hymnal where the same text is set to different tunes, and the traditional separation of tune and text has largely been lost in this tradition. The tune names are hidden in an index in the back, rather than being displayed with the hymn as is typical in other hymnals. Tune and text pairings vary by country and tradition, so using the tune name can help with disambiguation sometimes. If you’re talking about “For all the saints,” it is probably assumed that you mean Sine Nomine. However, it’s not always so clear cut. The hymn “I heard the voice of Jesus say” (sadly omitted from the LDS hymnal) is commonly sung to either Tallis’ Third tune (featured prominently in the “Master and Commander” soundtrack), or else Kingsfold, familiar to LDS readers as the tune of the esoteric hymn “If you could hie to Kolob.” Incidentally, this tune, collected by Vaughan Williams, is the same as the Irish folk song “Star of the County Down,” so if you want to hear a really different (and much faster) version of it, search for that on Youtube. Likewise, “How firm a foundation” is sung to a number of different tunes, commonly including St. Denio, which is also used for “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise.” So knowing some tune names can occasionally be helpful, although it is unlikely to impact your daily life unless you are an organist. At the very least though, you will be able to impress your organist friends by learning a few tune names. While you are at it, ask them to tell you a story about ciphers at inopportune moments.


The first hymn for today is another Advent favorite, “Hark a thrilling voice is sounding” (Merton). Here it is getting the Songs of Praise treatment:

The second hymn for today is the Basque carol “Gabriel’s Message.” The text is here.


The focus for Advent IV shifts from John the Baptist to Mary as Christmas draws closer. The Gospel lesson is the Annunciation, and the Offertory is the Ave Maria. With so many settings of Ave Maria over the centuries to choose from, it was hard to narrow them down, but I picked three of my favorites, from three different time periods. First, a setting by Flemish high Renaissance master Josquin, one of the most famous musicians of his day (late 15th/early 16th c.). Fans of Showtime’s “The Tudors” may recognize this as the background music from the season 3 episode where they are celebrating Christmas in the cathedral.

Next up is my personal favorite, a sixteenth century setting from Robert Parsons. If I was stranded on a desert isle with only one Ave Maria to listen to, this would be it. It was somewhat unusual for composers in Protestant England to set a Catholic text like this. This is a gorgeous five voice setting with a fine amen that is still sung regularly in churches today. Listen as the trebles, representing the angel, move up a whole tone on each of the their successive entries. Here’s the choir of St. John’s Cambridge singing it:

Finally, lest I be accused of only liking old music, here is a fine setting of the Angelus/Ave Maria by 20th century German composer Franz Biebl, written in the 1960s. Chanticleer gives it a fine rendition here:

This year is the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, and in keeping with the week’s theme, here is his “Hymn to the Virgin.” This piece was written when the composer was 16 years old, and sets an anonymous medieval text. The full choir sings the English sections, with a solo quartet singing the Latin parts.

England lost one of its greatest choral composers last month with the passing of John Tavener. It seems appropriate to commemorate his fine work here by sharing his setting of William Blake’s poem “The Lamb.” This is one of his most well known works, and in my experience is one that even people who dislike modern choral music generally enjoy.

This week’s organ postlude is “Carillon de Westminster” by French organ master Louis Vierne, a popular piece at this time of year. He uses as its theme the “Westminster quarters” melody commonly used by clock bells. It starts off slow and contemplative, but it is French, so it builds up to a suitably dramatic climax. Here is Finnish organist Petri Koivusalo performing the piece.

One final comment, although this music is lovely to listen to on Youtube or recordings, there’s really no substitute for experiencing it live. If you’re interested in finding a choir that sings this type of music regularly, look for a church with a strong music program, or ask some local singers. There are sure to be some church musicians in almost any large singing group. If you’re in the US, feel free to ask in the comments and I may be able to make suggestions or refer you to someone who can.

If you’re near Salt Lake City for Christmas, there’s no finer place to be on Christmas Eve than the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the Catholic cathedral with the Anglican music in the Mormon city. Their carols service starts at 4pm. Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be the one there an hour early, sitting in the front row.

I wish you all a blessed and happy Christmastide, and all the best in the new year. I will leave you with this beautiful modal lullaby in celebration of the Nativity.


  1. Amazing beauty and bounty of culture, devotion, and inspiration contained in this post and the others in the series. A very sincere thank you for the effort you put into this.

  2. Yes, many thanks.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, guys.

  4. Jason A. Kerr says:

    I, too, am truly grateful for the musical riches, which have blessed my Advent greatly.

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