Ten Essential Advent Hymns

Although the season of Advent in Christianity is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, the signs of Christmas are already everywhere, especially in Christian homes.

I suspect most of us — even the most hardcore Catholics among us — have already put up our trees and decked our halls, even though the Christmas season does not officially begin until Dec. 25. Most of us enjoy the festive season too much to tone it down — and I would not advocate that we do.

To the chagrin of her poor children, the matriarch of a family I knew growing up insisted on putting their Christmas tree up on Christmas Eve every year. The children were always jealous of our Christmas tree throughout the season and wished theirs could be up too. But no matter how much they begged to have a Christmas tree, their mother never wavered. They had to wait until Christmas Eve every year. On the other hand, my family put our tree up the day after Thanksgiving and took it down shortly after Christmas — and we liked it that way.

There are many other wonderful holiday traditions Christians follow as well. For every day of Advent, children open the little doors on Advent calendars and find treats — usually small pieces of chocolate. We light a candle in the Advent wreath at dinnertime and say an Advent prayer. We gather our lists and check them twice as we shop for our loved ones. Advent is a wonderful time of anticipation of giving, receiving, and feasting.

It is also a time to listen to some of the most beautiful music we will hear all year. Personally, I listen to a mix of Christmas and Advent music before Christmas, but I’m not ready to hear hardcore Christmas carols like “Joy to the World” just yet. While we’re waiting for Christmas, there are plenty of magnificent Advent hymns to enjoy instead.

Here are ten of my favorites:

1. Creator of the Stars of Night

“Creator of the Stars at Night” is an ancient, anonymous hymn that dates back to between the 7th and 9th centuries, according to various sources. Originally in Latin, “Conditor Alme Siderumwas” was used in the Roman Breviary at Vespers during Advent.

 It was translated into English by the Anglican priest, scholar and hymn-writer: John Mason Neale (1818-1866). Though he remained committed to the Church of England throughout his life, Neale’s adaption of latin works into the Anglican canon attracted opposition and personal attacts from fellow churchmen, especially after Cardinal Newman’s conversion to Catholicism.

This is a nice rendition of the hymn by the Harvard University Choir:

2. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a translation of the Latin hymn “Veni, Veni Emmanuel,” is probably the most prominent Advent hymn.

The words and the music for the hymn developed separately over time, with the Latin text first documented in Germany in 1710, and the tune originating in 15th-century France.

While “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is often linked with the 12th century, the earliest surviving evidence of the hymn’s text is in the seventh edition of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, which was published in Cologne in 1710. That hymnal was a major force in the history of German church music: first assembled by Jesuit hymnographer Johannes Heringsdorf in 1610 and receiving numerous revised editions through 1868, it achieved enormous impact due to its use in Jesuit schools.

The Ely Cathedral Girl Choristers did a fine job singing the popular hymn.

3. On Jordan’s Bank

“On Jordan’s Bank” was written in Latin by Charles Coffin (1676-1749) as “Jordanis Oras Praevia.” It was eventually translated to English by John Chandler (1806-1876).

This one is typically sung at church on the second Sunday of Advent and pertains to John the Baptist.
“John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 3:1-6).

Here it is performed by the Canto Deo Choir, sung in unison by the women for the first verse, then the men for the second verse, and in full glorious harmony for the third verse (they make you wait for it).

4. People Look East

“People Look East” is a fairly modern hymn compared to the others on this list. The lyrics were written by London poet/writer Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) in the 1920s to a French traditional tune.

Originally titled “Carol of Advent”, it appeared in the Oxford Book of Carols, 1928 as a “Modern text written for adapted to traditional tunes”.  In this case, the tune was “Besançon”, a French melody from the Franche-Comté region of France.  The traditional hymn sung in England at the time was a Christmas carol “Shepherds, Shake off Your Drowsy Sleep” or “Chantons, bargiés, Noué, Noué”  Farjeon is best known for her text to the Irish tune “Bunessan”, “Morning Has Broken” as well as various children’s poems.

This is a peppy little carol that is usually sung at a fairly quick tempo. It’s sung here by Alfred Deller and the Deller Consort.

5. Comfort, Comfort, O My People

“Comfort, Comfort, O My People,” by Johannes Olearius (1611-1684), is based on Isaiah 40:1-8 for use on St. John the Baptist Day, June 24, but the hymn is now a staple during Advent.

Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) provided this translation from German to English in her Chorale Book for England (1863).

Johannes Olearius was born in Halle, Germany, educated at the University of Wittenberg, and rose to positions of power and authority in the church of his day.  He published Geistliche Singe-Kunst (1671), an influential hymnbook which contained twelve hundred hymns, one-fourth of them by Olearius.

This tune, perhaps adapted from a French folk song by Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510- c. 1561), was first printed in the Genevan Psalter of 1551 as a setting for a version of Psalm 42 by Theodore de Beze.

This great choir piece is sung by the Lexington County Choral Society of Lexington, South Carolina.

6. Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

The beautiful German hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” first appeared in print in 1599 as “Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen” (“A Rose Has Sprung Up”) and has since been published with a varying number of verses and in several different translations. It is most commonly sung to a melody that was harmonized by the German composer Michael Praetorius in 1609.

The hymn was originally written with two verses, which express the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, foretelling the birth of Jesus. It emphasises the royal genealogy of Jesus and Christian messianic prophecies. The first verse describes a rose sprouting from the stem of the Tree of Jesse, a symbolic device that depicts the descent of Jesus from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The image was especially popular in medieval times and it features in many works of religious art from the period. It has its origin in the Book of Isaiah:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots— Isaiah 11:1.

The second verse of the hymns, written in the first person, then explains to the listener the meaning of this symbolism: that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the rose that has sprung up to bring forth a child, who is represented as a small flower (“das Blümlein”). The text affirms that Mary is a “pure maiden” (“die reine Magd”), emphasising the doctrine of the Virgin birth of Jesus.

Other verses have been added since the 19th century.

I also enjoyed this funky arrangement of the hymn, as sung by Bonnie McMaken, Johannah Swank, and Marissa Cunningham:

7. Savior of the Nations, Come

Written by Saint Ambrose in the 4th century, “Savior of the Nations Come” is said to be the oldest Advent hymn still being sung. Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan and is one of the four original doctors of the Church.

St Augustine (Ambrose’s most outstanding convert) testified in his Confessions to the power that the music in Ambrose’s church had in winning him to the Christian faith: “I remember the tears I shed at the psalmody of thy Church, in the beginning of my recovered faith.” Augustine may be referring to one of Ambrose’s signature gifts to Church music: antiphonal singing, where a passage is sung in alternating choirs (the way the Liturgy of the Hours is chanted in monasteries to this day).

In Savior of the Nations, Come (Veni, Redemptor Gentium), Ambrose tackled one of the biggest problems faced by the Church of his day. Arianism was a widespread heresy that denied the divinity of Christ. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that we pray at Mass was written precisely to correct this serious error about Jesus. Taking a different approach in the very midst of the controversy, Ambrose wrote a hymn. As you read the lyrics (based on a translation by the musically gifted Martin Luther), see how Ambrose leads his people, and leads us today, to profess our faith in Jesus as true God and true Man.

This acoustic version of the hymn is powerful and pleasing.

8. The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns

Practically everyone knows “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns,” but no one knows who wrote it. It was translated from Greek to English by John Brownlie in 1907, so he gets the credit. The tune is St. Stephen’s from 1789. The lyrics are some of the most beautiful in Christendom:

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light triumphant breaks;
When beauty gilds the eastern hills,
And life to joy awakes.

Not as of old, a little child
To bear, and fight, and die,
But crowned with glory like the sun,
That lights the morning sky.

9. Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Another beautiful ancient hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is based on the Latin poem “Corde Natus” by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius, from his Liber Cathemerinon.

The ancient poem was translated and paired with a medieval plainchant melody Divinum mysterium. Divinum mysterium was a “Sanctus trope” – an ancient plainchant melody which over the years had been musically embellished. An early version of this chant appears in manuscript form as early as the 10th century, although without the melodic additions, and “trope” versions with various melodic differences appear in Italian, German, Gallacian, Bohemian and Spanish manuscripts dating from the 13th to 16th centuries.

Divinum mysterium first appears in print in 1582 in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones, a collection of seventy-four sacred and secular church and school songs of medieval Europe compiled by Jaakko Suomalainen and published by Theodoric Petri. In this collection, Divinum mysterium was classified as “De Eucharistia” reflecting its original use for the Mass.

The text of the Divinum mysterium was replaced by the words of Prudentius’s poem when it was published by Thomas Helmore in 1851. In making this fusion, the original meter of the chant was disturbed, changing the original triple meter rhythm into a duple meter and therefore altering stresses and note lengths. A later version by Charles Winfred Douglas corrected this using an “equalist” method of transcription, although the hymn is now found in both versions as well as a more dance-like interpretation of the original melody.

Here’s the Concordia Theological Seminary Kantorei singing “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” in Kramer Chapel on the campus of CTS, Ft. Wayne, Indiana. From the Album: “With Angels and Archangels.”

10. O Come Divine Messiah

“O Come Divine Messiah” is a French carol by M. l’abbé Pellegrin (1663-1745). Pellegrin’s collections of French carols were published in 1708 and 1711.

O come, Divine Messiah,
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior, haste! Come, come to earth.
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.
O come, Divine Messiah,
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

If you’ve never heard the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, you’re in for a treat.

If you have a favorite that didn’t make my list, please mention it in the comments.



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