Moving Melodies: How Advent Music Prepares Us for Christmas

The Church possesses a treasure house of preparatory hymns and carols

(photo: Shutterstock)

When many Catholics think of Advent music, what comes to mind is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and maybe The King of Glory.

However, the Church possesses a treasure house of hymns and carols that wonderfully focus the faithful’s attention on preparing for the celebration of Christmas.


The Advent of Advent

Until very recently, Christmas lasted not just one or 12 days. Instead, it stretched over a 40-day period called Christmastide, ending at Candlemas, Feb. 2. To correspond with this, in France, there was something called “St. Martin’s Lent.” It began on Nov. 11, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, and the purpose was so the penitential season of Advent could itself stretch to 40 days.

While Advent was never as strict as Lent, until the end of the 19th century, it used to be a much more penitential time. In addition to almsgiving, it even featured fasting and abstinence from meat during the entire period. Additionally, until 1965, Dec. 23 and 24 were days of fasting and abstinence. Until 1969, the Church had “ember days,” when the faithful had to fast and abstain on certain set days of the year, including between the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent. (The Church’s Eastern rites still abstain from meat during this period.)

All of this had a singular purpose: to prepare the soul by setting its focus on the Lord’s second coming.


Sing a Song

Advent music stood in service to this. There were English hymns such as Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; French hymns such as O Come, Divine Messiah; the Basque classic Gabriel’s Message (covered by Sting on the first A Very Special Christmas album); the Italian Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle (written by St. Alphonsus Ligouri); and the German Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.

Some of these we would know today once we heard them. And others, like O Come, Divine Messiah, are still unfamiliar to most but are gaining in popularity as people become more exposed to them at Mass and elsewhere.

This latter song started off as a French Christmas carol called Laissez Paître Vos Bestes (“Let Graze Your Beasts”), which famous Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier used as the Offertory setting for the beautiful and occasionally haunting midnight Mass he composed in 1694.

Around 1722, the famous librettist Abbé Simon-Joseph Pellegrin desired to give greater familiarity to various biblical texts and to renew interest in older French carols. This is how he came to take the melody for Laissez and composed the lyrics for Venez Divin Messie, which we know as O Come, Divine Messiah.

However, the most recognized Advent music would have come from the Propers at Mass. Because the Mass’ scriptural cycle was just one year (as opposed to the current three), people would have heard sung the same Introits, Collects, Offertories, Secrets (the quiet prayers said by a bishop or priest during the liturgy), Communion and Post-Communion antiphons year in and year out. Thus, Advent liturgical music would have been as familiar to them as O Holy Night is to us now.

Nonetheless, even in ancient times, there were recognized and popular hymns. According to the nuns at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, (who recorded their own Advent music album, “The earliest recorded Advent hymns are attributed to St. Ambrose and St. Gregory the Great” (given their cloistered status and desire for humble lack of notoriety, they have asked to remain anonymous).

Indeed, the Ambrose-penned song Creator of the Stars of Night has been sung for 17 centuries at vespers. As the sisters told the Register, “Both the melody and the words have remained largely unchanged for all this time.”

Another Ambrosian hymn is Veni Redemptor Gentium, which the sisters say is sung in English after Mass as Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth. The Church Music Association of America’s Richard Chonak says it is “probably the oldest Advent hymn still in common use.”

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence also dates from Ambrose’s time. However, it comes from the ancient Jacobite liturgy stilled used by the Syriac Churches and occasionally by the Orthodox and Melkite rites.

The sisters also note the hymn Rorate Coeli, often sung as Drop Down Dew, dates at least to the fifth century and that On Jordan’s Bank and Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding are both based on Vox Clara Ecce Intonat, the Advent Lauds hymn that goes back at least as far as the sixth century.


Those Oldies but Goodies

Still, the most recognized song sung during the season is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, which has an interesting history. According to the late Mary Berry, “The English words are based on a free Latin paraphrase of the great O Antiphons, which are sung with the Magnificat at vespers on the days leading up to Christmas Eve. These antiphons themselves came into existence at least as early as the eighth century.” For a long time, the hymn was thought to be at least 400 years old. However, it did not make any appearance in a hymnal until 1854. Its provenance was based on the claim of Thomas Helmore, an Anglican musician, who asserted he found the melody in an old French missal. No proof of this was found, though. It was thought he “coyly [hid] his identity [as author] behind the pretense that it was an ancient tune gleaned from a Continental source.”

However, in 1966, while conducting research in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, Berry found a 15th-century Franciscan processional hymnal. It contained “a number of troped verses for the funeral responsory Libera me in the form of a litany. … The melody of these tropes was none other than the tune of O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Berry concluded, “Perhaps it is a measure of Helmore’s genius that he detected in this melody an appropriate Advent sound as well, one which conveys an unmistakable sense of solemn expectancy, not only for the Nativity of Christ, but also for his Second Coming as judge and as savior. Helmore was shrewd enough, also, to have been aware that an indubitable link exists between the theology of Advent and a procession marking the passage from death to eternal life.”

Once upon a time parishes celebrated the pre-dawn Rorate Mass (so named for the first words of the entrance antiphon), which was lit only by candles and ended with the rising of the sun. It is still a custom in Eastern Europe.

Additionally, every day from Dec. 17 to 24 saw the singing at vespers of the O Antiphons. Describing the coming of Christ, these are still recited and sung today.


Keeping Christmas in Christmas

The Ephesus sisters note that prior to relatively recent times, “Advent used to be given far more importance than is attached to it today.”

And one never would have heard Christmas music prior to Dec. 25. “Christmas music was not permitted to be sung nor heard until, well, Christmas,” say the sisters. “While Advent shrunk in size from eight to six to the four weeks we know now, Christmas retained its nearly-six-week status and a first-class octave. So the celebratory nature, as well as the longevity of the season, accounted for more hymns being composed in its honor.”

There was also the fact that in America, as a historically Protestant country, Advent was not acknowledged as a season. Thus the buildup to the Nativity was for many Americans — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — “Christmas.”

Thankfully, the Church has a storehouse full of moving sacred music for the Advent season. As hymn writer Kathleen Pluth has written, “The Advent proper texts of the Mass sing of the expectation of the Lord’s coming and his help, the request for God’s presence, even more than the hymns do. Many people ask to sing Christmas songs during Advent at Mass. This is not recommended, because Advent has a special contemplative character of patient waiting. The Church should be a contemplative people, watching and waiting for the Lord’s return, and Advent allows us a period of time every year to practice this contemplative posture.”

Register correspondent Brian O’Neel writes from Quarryville, Pennsylvania.



For an extensive list of Advent songs, click here