An Advent playlist: Bach, Handel, ancient hymns and Charlie BrownWritten by Subby Szterszky
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For as long as Christians have celebrated Advent, music has been a key element of the season. The power of music to create mood and move the emotions is integral for setting our hearts to welcome the birth of our Saviour. Even in the wider culture, the sounds of Advent form a big part of the spirit of the holidays.
Many of us have our own soundtracks for Advent. We build our playlists of traditional favourites, seasonal pop tunes, holiday hip hop or Christmas jazz to enhance the festive atmosphere. We sing carols with our friends and family, perhaps take in a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
The best of our Advent music, however, is that which draws us deeper into the mystery of the Word made flesh, of God with us. It’s music that instills wonder and anticipation at the coming Messiah, both at Bethlehem and at the end of time.
In that spirit, here are a few selections that make worthy additions to any Christmas or Advent playlist, along with recommended listening and viewing options for each.
Handel’s Messiah: The drama of redemption
Handel’s Messiah is arguably the best-known piece of music associated with Advent, at least in Western countries. People who otherwise have no interest in classical music will flock to a concert performance of Messiah during the Christmas season, or else they’ll watch one on TV or stream it from their favourite music platform.
It may be surprising, then, that Handel didn’t write the work for Christmas, but for Easter. Messiah premiered in Dublin in the spring of 1742, making its way to London a year later. And although Handel wrote the music, the production was the brainchild of Charles Jennens, a wealthy arts patron who had provided the text for a number of Handel’s works.
A devout Christian, Jennens pitched the idea to Handel of setting the greatest of all stories to music. Jennens drew his text exclusively from Scripture, but Messiah isn’t just a random string of Bible verses. It follows a narrative structure that traces the drama of redemption from the Old Testament to the New, from messianic prophecies to Jesus’ birth, passion, resurrection and eternal reign.
For those with ears to hear, Messiah is more than simply great music or a slice of holiday ambiance. It’s a widescreen adaptation of God’s epic narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. And nowhere else is one likely to encounter memorable, dramatic settings of Haggai and Malachi and other rarely visited corners of Scripture.
Bach’s Magnificat: An intimate song of praise
If Handel’s Messiah is the gold standard for Advent music drawn from the classical repertoire, then Bach’s Magnificat is not far behind. Unlike Handel’s broad, sweeping masterwork, Bach’s piece is based on a single passage of Scripture: Mary’s song of praise in Luke’s Gospel, anticipating the birth of her Son and beginning with the words, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46-55).
Luke devotes a large portion of his nativity account to the perspective of the two women, Elizabeth and Mary, as they share their unique experience of a miraculous pregnancy. In fact, Mary’s song evokes a third woman, Hannah, who shared a similar experience a millennium earlier. Hannah’s prayer at the birth of her son, Samuel, has clear parallels with Mary’s song, and was likely a model for it (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
At a time when women’s voices and perspectives were rare to non-existent in literary and historical sources, this was a remarkable strategy on Luke’s part. It gave his account the unmistakable air of authenticity – grounded, intimate, suffused with a hushed aura of expectation, capped off with Mary’s humble yet exuberant song of praise.
Bach’s musical setting, by turns powerful and gentle, makes an ideal companion to the biblical text. It’s sung in Latin (hence the title, Magnificat) but this shouldn’t discourage anyone. The work is about 25 minutes long, dividing the phrases of Mary’s song into 12 musical sections, and a google search will yield parallel translations that make the text easy to follow. Bach offers an intimate snapshot of joy at the birth of Jesus that forms a perfect complement to Handel’s epic drama of redemption.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: Ancient liturgy
Within the canon of popular Christmas songs, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is something of an outlier. It’s one of the oldest hymns still sung at Christmastime, dating from about the 8th or 9th century. Both the original Latin text, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, and the music most often associated with it, derive from ancient plainchant, and the hymn was part of the Advent liturgy of the medieval church.
Compared with other Christmas music, this liturgical hymn has a darker tone. There are no merry or festive sentiments on display here, only a yearning for the coming of Immanuel, God with us, who would deliver his people from sin and hell and bring us safely to our heavenly home. Like most early Advent music, it anticipates Christ’s second coming as much as it does his first.
Over the centuries, the hymn has been translated into many languages, its ancient tune given a variety of arrangements, vocal and instrumental, traditional and exotic. But in almost every form, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel transports the listener into the past, connecting us with brothers and sisters in Christ from long ago, who, like us, rejoiced at the birth of their Saviour and longed for his return.
A Charlie Brown Christmas: Jazz and the Gospel
For generations of kids and their parents, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been must-see viewing during the Advent season. Many of the program’s elements – the laid-back jazz soundtrack; the gang bopping to that bouncy tune; Charlie Brown and Linus trudging through the snow; the sad little tree with the drooping red ornament; the kids mouthing “oohs” to Hark the Herald Angels Sing – have all entered the cultural lexicon of popular Christmas imagery.
The heart of the story is Charlie Brown’s alienation from the commercial glitz of Christmas. At last, he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Cue Linus, who recites the passage from Luke’s Gospel about the angels announcing the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” he assures his friend.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is not the Messiah or the Magnificat. It’s an old-fashioned kids’ holiday special that probably wouldn’t get made in today’s cultural climate. But no matter. In its unassuming way, it offers its own evocative blend of Advent-themed Scripture and memorable music, courtesy of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz trio. It has gently reminded generations of children and adults what Christmas is all about, and will no doubt continue to do so for many more to come.
Recommended listening and viewing
The links to the following selections contain both video and audio from YouTube, but most of them are also available as audio only from popular streaming platforms, or through the artists’ websites.
G.F. Handel: Messiah – Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra, Tenebrae Choir
G.F. Handel: Messiah – Václav Luks, Collegium and Collegium Vocale 1704
G.F. Handel: Messiah – Christopher Hogwood, Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of Westminster Abbey
J.S. Bach: Magnificat – Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations, La Capella Reial de Catalunya
J.S. Bach: Magnificat – Emmanuelle Haïm, hr-Sinfonieorchester, Chœur du Concert D’Astrée
J.S. Bach: Magnificat – Jos van Veldhoven, Netherlands Bach Society
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – Joshua Aaron (messianic worship, English and Hebrew)
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – The Piano Guys (instrumental, cello and piano)
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel – Mediaeval Baebes (traditional Latin)
A Charlie Brown Christmas – Vince Guaraldi Trio (soundtrack)
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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