ROBERT C. MANN, D.M.A.
Resource Library Director
Church Music Institute
Summer is over when classes resume in public schools and universities, high school and university football teams have played their first game of the new season, political parties have completed their national conventions, and Labor Day has come and gone. For church choir directors who were fortunate to enjoy a hiatus in rehearsals for the summer, the time has come to activate them once again. When this rehearsal schedule resumes for the fall season, Advent and Christmas are fast approaching, and alarm bells go off for those of us who haven’t yet planned music for the seasons.
THE GOOD NEWS
I share good news for church musicians who want to use a larger choral work for Advent or Christmas but haven’t yet selected a composition or ordered the music. MorningStar Music Publishers has a valuable selection of large scale, multi-movement choral compositions for Advent/Christmas that exhibit varied levels of accessibility for church choirs.
I have chosen a group of compositions by distinguished and familiar composers. All compositions have keyboard accompaniment, but optional instrumental accompaniment including full orchestra is often available. Please refer to the website www.morningstarmusic.com to see descriptions, excerpts, and sound bites for each of the compositions discussed.
1. Services of Lessons and Carols
Sing the Songs of Bethlehem, A Service of Lessons and Carols by K. Lee Scott (MSM-70-010) is composed for SATB Choir and Organ with optional arrangement for instruments. The liturgy is based on the well-known Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, England, and scripture readings and prayers are included. Scott’s choral settings use carols (mostly familiar), hymns, and anthems that are accessible for a small group of singers. Texts are a blend of Advent/Christmas, but they could be used successfully in either season. Congregation and children’s voices provide options.
A similar work is Come Ye Faithful A Service of Carols by Hal H. Hopson (MSM-70-008) for SATB Choir, Congregation, Children’s Choir or small treble ensemble, Flute, and Organ. Choir parts could be sung by a quartet, and a variety of instruments offer optional accompaniment. Familiar and unfamiliar carols are drawn from different cultures. Performance notes identify the level of difficulty as “moderate,” but varied performance options available could make the work easily reached by a variety of musical resources. All readings and scriptures follow the King’s College service but are tastefully paraphrased and abbreviated.
A composition not based on the King’s College service but similar in format is Kneeling in Bethlehem A Festival of Readings and Carols for Advent and Christmas by Michael Burkhardt with poetry by Ann Weems (MSM-70-012). This composition can be used in its entirety or individual musical selections may be performed during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. The work is composed for SATB Chorus and Organ with optional performance arrangements for congregation, soloists, children, and an assortment of instruments including full orchestra. All carols and hymns come from a diversity of traditions and can be sung by choirs of moderate skills. A surprise in the collection is early American composer William Billings’ anthem, Methinks I See an Heavenly Host, excellently arranged by Mr. Burkhardt in an adaptation that makes the composition accessible for choirs who might be afraid to attempt it.
Holy Light A Candlelight Service of Carols by Robert A. Hobby with readings by Susan Palo Cherwien (MSM-70-013) is a collection of familiar carols that may be used with or without the readings. The structure of the work offers flexibility for directors and choirs. The music alone could furnish pre-service music on Christmas Eve or in a concert setting. If the work is used as a service, its concept is that of a journey from prophecy through the birth of Christ, beginning in a darkened space that gradually becomes brighter. Although composed for SATB Choir and Organ, there is much unison singing throughout and the four-part singing is quite simple. The organ accompaniment is imaginable and well crafted (with registration suggestions), and there are three optional instrumental combinations offered by the composer.
A more challenging work is Michael Burkhardt’s Savior of the Nations, Come An Advent/Christmas Hymn Festival with readings from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Composed for SATB Choir (one movement is divisi) and Organ, the hymns and carols are a blend of Advent and Christmas. Four of the movements are carols of unquestioned familiarity, while the other movements have theologically strong texts that are set to less familiar tunes for most congregations. This doesn’t diminish their effectiveness, however. The organ part is more challenging in several movements than in previous works but worth the effort. As usual, there are performance options for congregation and children, brass quintet, and percussion instruments. The work concludes with an exuberant setting of Joy to the World.
2. Multi-movement compositions
For more challenging options, I want to mention three compositions. Gloria by K. Lee Scott (MSM-70-020) is a three-movement setting of the Latin text Gloria in excelsis Deo scored for SATB divisi, SATB soloists, Brass Quintet, Timpani, and Organ. This rather short work (about 12 minutes) is of the BIG and demanding variety and would make an impressive addition to a special service during the Christmas season (Christmas Eve). The instrumental accompaniment is rhythmic and agitated in the outer movements, calm and peaceful in the central movement. Contrapuntal writing and thick chords can be found in the wide-ranging vocal parts. This piece is new to the MorningStar catalogue and provides a nice supplement to the Christmas repertoire.
The concluding two compositions I’ll mention may be limiting to many groups by their musical demands, and both compositions are old-timers that may be known to those accustomed to doing difficult works. ECS Publishing (distributed through MorningStar) has given us excellent versions of these compositions.
The first is Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Ralph Vaughan Williams (ECS 1. 5026) for SATB Choir, Baritone Soloist, and Orchestra. (A keyboard reduction is included in the score.) The duration of this work is about 8 minutes and the carols used are traditional English with the Sussex Carol (On Christmas Night) being the most familiar to American congregations. The choral writing is typical of other Vaughan Williams anthems, very lyrical and, in this case, of moderate difficulty.
The final composition is large indeed, lasting about and hour and a half if done in its entirety. The composition is The Nativity according to Saint Luke by Randall Thompson (ECS 622A). Composed for SATB Choir, multiple soloists, and Orchestra (piano accompaniment included for rehearsal), the composition is a musical drama in seven scenes with most of the text taken from the first two chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel. Soloists and chorus represent characters in the narrative with staged directions given by the composer. The composition could be performed without any staging, however, and movements of the work could be used separately. This is a classic work with choral writing typical of the style of Thompson’s well-known Alleluia.
I hope I have identified at least one composition that stirs your curiosity and arouses the possibility of including it in your plan for worship in the Advent and Christmas seasons. All compositions identified are recommended for their musical and textual qualities, and liturgical significance for meaningful worship in your church.