And So It Begins

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and also the first day of a new ecclesiastical year. Miss Mussel is not a cradle Anglican and is still learning the ropes, so the rhythm of the church year and the rituals that attend its various festivals are objects of endless fascination. Most of all though, it’s the music.

Sacred music was pretty well glossed over in Miss Mussel’s music history classes, as it was expected that only the church music students would find it to be useful. Imagine her surprise to find a treasure trove of infinite delight awaiting. Because the purpose of the music (in theory at least) is to bring attention to someone other than the performers, there is an very different dynamic to what exists in the concert hall. Symphonies and operas are meant to be art for art’s sake. Sacred music must first be fit for purpose and if it happens to beautiful, all the better.

Each part of the liturgy has a function and the music that draws attention to it is made only to do that. There are hymns, introits, anthems, psalm settings, mass settings and the little bits of musical wallpaper organists create while they’re waiting for the last of the communion queue to disperse.

The top choirs and organists are as skilled as any other type of superstar musician but their talent is subordinated by the idea of Soli Deo Gloria. Also, no one buys tickets for their weekly concert and it’s considered to be in poor taste for critics to turn up on the clock, so they operate outside of the normal publicity paradigm.

The good news is that the Anglo-Catholic church has historically been very wealthy, which means they were able to offer excellent salaries in order to attract the very best composers and musicians. Just because the music was meant to be for the glory of God didn’t mean that mediocrity was the order of the day. After all, if your mass setting is more beautiful than someone else’s then you must be cornering more of the market on glory and by extension, prestige. We are all human and even in art, the politics of power are never far away.

For Miss Mussel, the appeal of Advent is the tension between celebrating the birth of a child and looking forward to the end of the world. The Four Horsemen, fire & brimstone showers and dragons are just a bit of a rough patch before the main event – Christ’s return.

The hymns that appear in the Advent section of the English Hymnal don’t mention babies, shepherds, virgins, myrrh or any of the other symbols we associate with Christmas.

The best of the Advent hymns is Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending written by Charles Wesley in 1758. The tune, Helmsley was almost certainly a pop song drafted into service. It jumps around a bit, as tunes from this period do, and as such is rather fun to sing.

Here’s the Yorkminster Cathedral congregation giving it a go – all 900 or so of them. [monster nave alert] Needless to say, Advent in York is a spectacle to behold.

Here’s Lichfield Cathedral with the full version. The best bit (DESCANT!!) is at 3:40

Lest Miss Mussel lead those who aren’t church people astray with her best-of-breed examples, this version is what would be more commonly encountered outside big-city churches and cathedrals. The bare normalcy is very endearing.

The OM Aural Advent Calendar is back again this year starting on 1st December. Musical surprises of all sorts await.

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