A Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent
|A History of The Service of Lessons and Carols|
- Introit: The truth from above - Vaughan Williams
- Carol: Jesus Christ the apple tree - Poston
- Carol: And the glory of the Lord (from Messiah) - Handel
- Carol: Benedictus in C - Stanford
- Carol: There is a flower - Rutter
- Carol: Gabriel’s Message – Traditional
- Closing Carol: Joys Seven – Traditional, arr. Cleobury
In Western tradition, the season of Advent – the word derived from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” – is the beginning of the Church year; it follows the twenty-six weeks of Pentecost and precedes the birth of Jesus at Christmastide. Amidst the frenetic busyness of secular society at this time of year, Advent is for Christians a period of quiet reflection, as well as joyful expectation, as they prepare their hearts to receive the newborn Savior.
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The now-familiar tradition of Lessons and Carols goes back almost one hundred years, to 1918, one month after the conclusion of the Great War. Originally conceived as a Christmas Eve service in 1880 by the Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson, it was reestablished almost forty years later by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge University, as an offering to the academic community and to the City of Cambridge. First aired on the radio in 1928 (1934 internationally), broadcasts of these services have continued uninterrupted, with the exception of 1930. In 1997, The Anglican Singers adapted “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” to “A Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent,” to mark this season of joy and anticipation.
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In additional to scriptural readings, the service features carols and seasonal hymns, each in its way celebrating the redeeming power of God. Hymns tend to didacticism and exhortation. Carols, often cheerful and sprightly (one derivation of the word may be the Old French carole, “a kind of dance in a ring”), are narrative: like medieval drama or art, they tell the story of God’s purpose for creation.
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“The truth from above” is a traditional carol, arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). One of England’s preeminent 20th-century composers, Vaughan Williams was also a dedicated collector of English folk tunes, many of which made their way into Anglican and Episcopal hymnals and carol books.
An alumna of the Royal Academy of Music and a protégé of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock, composer Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987), like Vaughan Williams, had a particular interest in English folk music. The tender and expressive motet “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is a sort of folk-carol. Set to an anonymous poem that is lyrical in its own right, in Poston’s evocative arrangement the words take on additional charm and meaning.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), a German-born composer who became a naturalized British citizen, was one of his adopted country’s most beloved musical icons. Yet notwithstanding a vast body of works that were popular in his time and remain so today, the pièce de résistance of his entire repertoire continues to be Messiah, the majestic oratorio that traverses the arc of biblical history, from Genesis to Revelation. The text of “And the glory of the Lord,” part of the Christmas portion of Messiah, is taken from Isaiah 40:5.
One of the progenitors of the English musical renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th century was the Anglo-Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). He wrote a prodigious number of works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, and voice, but the music which immortalized him is that which he composed for the church – in particular his Services, canticles, and anthems. Stanford’s Benedictus in C, written for chorus and organ, is a broad and spacious morning canticle that is equally suitable for Advent. Its text, taken from Luke 1:68-79, is the prophecy of Zechariah for his newborn son John, who will grow up to call Israel to repentance and to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
John Rutter (b. 1945) is a composer whose church music is regularly performed by choirs in England and throughout North America. In addition to writing numerous arrangements and original works, Rutter is a director, editor, and producer of note; his well-known group, The Cambridge Singers, has performed and recorded extensively.
Like Herbert Howells (1892-1983), John Rutter suffered a devastating loss with the death of his son Christopher. And like Howells, he was eventually able to articulate his grief musically in a monumental composition in memory of his child. Howells’ memorial was Hymnus Paradisi; Rutter’s was “Mass of the Children,” whose American performance was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2003.
One reviewer wrote that the style of Rutter’s anthems and carols is “resolutely in the sunny side of the street” (a compliment or a sneer, one suspects the latter). But the composer’s lyrical and intricate “There is a flower,” adapted from a folk tune, is neither “resolute” nor “sunny” in the sense his critic implies. It is a motet of delicate complexity and shimmering beauty, based on the devotional text of John Audelay. Audelay, who died c. 1426, was a priest and poet writing at the end of the Middle English linguistic period and on the cusp of the Great Vowel Shift – a three-century phenomenon that modernized and standardized English phonetics, particularly the pronunciation of vowels.
“The angel Gabriel” is a carol that has made its way into many mainstream hymnals. In the 1982 Hymnal, this carol does not appear in the Advent or Christmas section, but under “Holy days and various occasions,” because the Annunciation is celebrated as a feast day each year in March. The buoyant words and music of “The angel Gabriel” are of Basque origin.
“Joys Seven” (or “The Seven Joys of Mary”), arranged by Stephen Cleobury (b. 1948), is a traditional English carol, its text arising from medieval devotional literature. These “joys” represent significant events in Mary’s life. In some versions (not Cleobury’s), they metaphorically illustrate the Annunciation, the Nativity of Jesus, the Adoration of the Magi, the Resurrection and Appearance of Christ, the Ascension of Christ into Heaven, the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the Coronation of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. Cleobury’s sprightly and jubilant setting is an antiphonal verse-and-refrain carol, concluding with an eight-part double-choir chorale.
In addition to numerous other positions of honor and esteem, Stephen Cleobury has for the past quarter of a century been director of music and choirmaster at King’s College, Cambridge. The number of his recordings is extensive, and the honors he has received attest to his artistry and his devotion to the Anglican musical tradition.
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The Anglican Singers, together with their director, Simon Jacobs, and organist, Jonathan White, extend greetings and thanks to the Parish of St. James and The City of New London, and dedicate this service to both. In this season of peace, it is their hope that all in attendance, of whatever religious persuasion or non-persuasion, will have experienced a refreshing and calming pause from the hectic pace of life outside these walls.
Anne Carr Bingham