Strictly speaking, one does not attend a church service for the sake of the music; but the reality has been rich with counterexamples for centuries (even including the Sabbath synagogue services I had to attend in preparation for my own bar mitzvah). Where Schola Adventus, the resident choir at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King led by Director of Music Paul Ellison, is concerned, the services are almost the only opportunities one has to listen to this a cappella ensemble. When one then also accounts for the fact that last night’s Advent Liturgy at that church was preceded by what amounted to a half-hour recital by organist George Anton Emblom, it becomes almost impossible to dismiss the musical value of the occasion. Nevertheless, a service is not a concert; and anyone entering the church on such an occasion should accept being in the role of the congregation, rather than that of a paying ticket-holder. Still, a few observations about the musical values found at the Church of the Advent seem in order.
Emblom’s organ selections set the tone for both the spirit and the diversity of the music that would follow. Much of the music was organized around the Advent hymn “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (now come, saviour of the heathens). Emblom played five chorale preludes based on this hymn, the last at the conclusion of the service. Three of these were by Johann Sebastian Bach: BWV 599, the first in the Orgelbüchlein collection; and BWV 659 and BWV 661, two of the so-called “Leipzig” chorale settings. There was also a more extended chorale prelude by Johann Pachelbel; and Jeanne Demessieux’ chorale prelude on “Rorate Caeli” (drop down dew, ye heavens), the first of her Opus 8 collection of twelve, included the “Nun komm” theme.
Emblom also played George Oldroyd’s “liturgical improvisation” on the Gregorian chant “Conditor alme siderum” (creator of the stars of night). However, the meditative mood for the service was best set by his final introductory selection, the “Desseins éternels” (eternal designs) from Olivier Messiaen’s nine-movement cycle, La Nativité du Seigneur (the Nativity of the Lord). Messiaen called these movements “meditations;” and they were intended to inspire thoughts by the congregation on the different elements of the Nativity story. “Desseins éternels” is a slowly unfolding progression of chords that departs significantly from any of the progressions encountered in the earlier selections; but, as is the case with many Messiaen compositions, his unique approach had a stabilizing quality that prepared the mind for the liturgy that would ensue in the six lessons of the service.
That service followed the seasonal structure of couplings of lessons and carols. All carols were sung by Schola Adventus, joined by the congregation only for “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” (O come, O come Emmanuel). Ellison’s selections complemented the sixteenth century of Jacob Handl and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina with the twentieth century of Philip Ledger, Herbert Howells, and Benjamin Britten, along with a recent setting of “There Is No Rose” by Philip Stopford. This last made for a striking contrast to Britten’s arrangement of the same text, which he included in his Opus 28 A Ceremony of Carols. However, the Britten selection for last night was one of his earliest choral compositions, “A Hymn to the Virgin,” written in 1930 and revised in 1934. This was written for a chorus singing a thirteenth-century text primarily in English, with “echoes” of Latin words sung by a quartet of soloists. Since Schola Adventus had only eight singers last night, the choral sections were sung one-to-a-part.
All this made for a thoroughly suitable commencement to the weeks of Advent, but one could be forgiven for showing up for the music.