Happy New Year!
In the Christian liturgical tradition, the first Sunday of the season of Advent is the beginning of the New Year. In 2020, that day fell earlier this week, on November 29th.
So, once again, Happy New Year! Oh, and Advent is definitely not Christmas.*
As Frank Wade, one of my priests and benefactors, wrote in a long ago Advent sermon, the season begins with a call for repentance and with the prophet Isaiah, who gives us “the enduring image of the lion and the lamb.” Frank asks us to think about ourselves and the part that is “down behind the civilized surface.” He notes that in that part of our soul, we each have a lion and a lamb. When we are being called to repent, Frank suggests that we are “being called to enter into our own interior wild to face the lion and to call out the lamb. To challenge all that would hurt or destroy. To risk that which is vulnerable.” That’s what Advent is about, not Christmas trees and Santa Claus.**
But this is not a sermon, it is a post about music!
One of the reasons that Advent may get short shrift is that Christmas has the better music, or at least the better known music. But there are some lovely Advent songs which deserve greater exposure. Probably the best known is the haunting tune O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, heard here first in an English traditional setting by a choir of young boy choristers.
There are a host of versions and takes on this tune. Here are a few you may enjoy, beginning with Veni, Veni Emmauel by The Gesualdo Six.
We’ll follow with two “less traditional” versions, the first by the Nashville acapella group Forte Femme (where about halfway through they fall down the “Christmas rabbit hole”), and the second a more New Age/Celtic version from the Celtic Angels.
But there are more songs of the Advent season, and I especially enjoy those heard on Advent 4 when the focus really does shift toward the nativity. The talented group VOCES8 sings the traditional German Advent/Christmas carol, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Lo’, How a Rose E’er Blooming) as only they can. Soprano Eleonore Cockerham’s ethereal solo is beautiful. This would be my favorite of the season…
…except for the fact that I was singing a duet of the ancient Advent carol There is No Rose of Such Virtue on the Fourth Sunday of Advent in 1992 at the exact time that Claire and Andrew were entering the world. Again, there are many different versions of this carol, including one by Sting, but I prefer the traditional Chanticleer rendition.
Finally, I want to highlight a video by Ensemble Altera, a group which includes the tenor — who happens to be my son — Andrew Bearden Brown. This video was recorded just last month in Providence, Rhode Island, and is the first in a series of seasonal videos by the group. While the songs blend over into the Christmas season, conductor Christopher Lowery has labeled this episode The Promise and writes that this is “music that explores the individual’s relationship to the season of Advent, reflecting on the mystery of the coming nativity, the foretelling of the season’s promise, the role of the Virgin Mary, and contemplating our own finitude in this vast story.” The singing is lovely throughout, and the program includes some of my favorite songs of the season such as In the Bleak Midwinter.
No matter our faith tradition, we all grapple with the lion and lamb, those parts within us that are so difficult to face. I hope you find music of the season — whether it be Advent, Wintertide, or something else — to help you in that interior work.
More to come…
*And I’m sorry, but Emmylou Harris’s version of Christmas Times A-Coming is definitely not an Advent song.
**More about the Rev. Dr. Frank Wade, the source of this little sermon.