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Musical Musings: Advent

An Advent Quartet

by Gary D. Penkala

Advent wreath While there is considerable emphasis now being placed on singing the Propers as the processional music at Mass (Entrance, Offertory, Communion), there are still a number of excellent hymns which should also be included in the parish repertoire. This "quartet" of Advent hymns comprises some of the finest hymn writing in Christendom. Like the four candles in the Advent wreath, these hymns can easily be a part of every Advent — they have class and profundity that will only benefit from repetition year after year.

  1. Wake, O Wake and Sleep No Longer
    Text:  Wachet auf! ruft uns die Stimme
    Author/Source:  Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608)
    Translator:  Christopher Idle (b.1938)
    Tune name:  Wachet auf []
    Composer/Source:  Philipp Nicolai; adapted by J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

    Wachet auf! has to be one of the most noble and solemn chorales ... of any season. This Philipp Nicolai melody from the 16th century was used by J.S. Bach in his masterful Cantata No.140, written in 1731 for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, and based on the Gospel reading. Simon Crouch notes that

    The gospel for the day concerns the parable of the wise virgins, portraying the second coming of Christ as if he were a bridegroom come to claim his bride, the soul. Cantata No.140 is based around Nicolai's beautiful chorale melody Wachet auf and develops the analogy of Christ and the bridegroom to portray the passionate love between Christ and the soul.

    Philipp Nicolai also wrote the text for this chorale. It was penned during the devastating epidemic in Westphalia in 1597 when 1300 of his parishioners died. Themes of the wise virgins [see Matthew 25:1-13], the watchman [see Isaiah 52:8] and the heavenly song of triumph [see Revelation 19:6-9] are woven into Nicolai's three stanzas:

    1. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme! / Wake, awake, a voice is sounding!
    2. Zion hört die Wächter singen / Zion hears the watchman singing
    3. Gloria sei dir gesungen / Glory all to thee are singing

    There are many different versions of Catherine Winkworth's translation, some made by the translator herself. Some found in Catholic hymnals are:

    Sleepers, Wake! a Voice Astounds Us [Hymnal of the Hours, The Collegeville Hymnal]
    Wake, Awake, for Night Is Dying [Catholic Book of Worship II]
    Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying [ICEL Resource Collection, Adoremus Hymnal]
    Wake, Awake, the Night Is Dying [People's Mass Book]
    Wake, O Wake and Sleep No Longer [Worship-3rd Edition, Saint Michael Hymnal]
    Wake, O Wake, with Tidings Thrilling [The Catholic Hymn Book]

    The allusion to Christ's second coming in the metaphor of the Bridegroom makes this an ideal hymn for the First Sunday of Advent.

  2. Comfort, Comfort, O My People
    Text:  Tröstet, tröstet, meine Lieben
    Author/Source:  Johann Olearius (1611-1684)
    Translator:  Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
    Tune names:  Geneva 42, Bourgeois, Freu dich sehr []
    Composer/Source:  Louis Bourgeois in the Genevan Psalter, 1551; adapted by Claude Goudimel

    Text author, Johann Olearius, was court chaplain at Halle and Weissenfels, and was also on the philosophy faculty at Wittenburg. He compiled one of the most important 17th century German hymnals, Geistliche Singe-Kunst, containing over 1200 hymns (302 were his own). Although quite appropriate for Advent (based on Isaiah 40:1-8), the hymn was originally written for Saint John the Baptist's feast day (June 24).

    The melody, which boasts several names, has roots in a setting of Psalm 42 ("As the hart longeth...") found in the Genevan Psalter of 1551. It was composed or adapted by Louis Bourgeois, a choirmaster at the churches of St. Pierre and St. Gervais in Geneva. It was translated into German and became Wie nach einer Wasserquelle, set to Psalm 42 in the German Psalter of 1573. Bach used the melody (sometimes in triple time, sometimes in common time) in several cantatas (Nos.13, 19, 25, 30, 39, 70, 194).

    Claude Goudimel (1505-1572) set this tune for choir in 1565, and his lilting arrangement is the most common harmonization found for the tune even today.

    The scriptural citation of Isaiah and the reference to Saint John the Baptist make this hymn very appropriate for the Second Sunday of Advent.

 Back to Advent Index

What about numbers 3 and 4?

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