Music for the Second Sunday of Advent — December 6, 2020

The Advent prose – plainsong

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The hymn that we know as The Advent Prose dates from the 17th century, but its roots are much older. The antiphon Rorate coeli (“Drop down, ye heavens”) are the opening words of Isaiah 45:8 and have been sung in the Divine Office during Advent since about the 4th century. It may be most familiar to us as the Introit for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. In the 17th century it was arranged into the hymn familiar to us by combining the traditional text with other scripture passages used in the liturgy during Advent. It was popularized in English by the English Hymnal of 1906, the forerunner of our New English Hymnal, where it is found at 501. The text gives exquisite poetical expression to the longings of patriarchs and prophets, and symbolically of the Church, for the coming of the Messiah.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above,
and let the skies pour down righteousness.

Be not wroth very sore, O Lord,
neither remember iniquity forever:
thy holy cities are a wilderness,
Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation:
our holy and our beautiful house,
where our fathers praised thee. [Antiphon]

We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing,
and we all do fade as a leaf:
and our iniquities, like the wind,
have taken us away:
thou hast hid thy face from us:
and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. [Antiphon]

Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen:
that ye may know me and believe me:
I, even I, am the Lord,
and beside me there is no Saviour:
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. [Antiphon]

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,
my salvation shall not tarry:
I have blotted out as a thick cloud
thy transgressions: Fear not, for I will save thee:
For I am the Lord thy God,
the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer. [Antiphon]


And the glory of the Lord (Messiah) – G. F. Handel (1685-1759)

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With words of scripture chosen by librettist Charles Jennens, an entire performance of Messiah takes about three hours to perform. Amazingly, Handel only took just over three weeks to compose it. And the glory of the Lord is the fourth movement, and the first time in the work that the choir sings. It opens with a short orchestral introduction. For the first performance, the small orchestra included strings, two trumpets, timpani, organ and harpsichord continuo. Handel added more instruments (oboes and bassoons) for later performances.

The first entry is by altos singing the melody of the orchestral introduction. It is a joyous movement which is reflected in the bright key of A major, the allegro tempo and the lilting rhythms. The text, from this Sunday’s first lesson (Isaiah 40:5), describes the coming of the Lord, the promised Messiah:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all flesh shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.


Gerald Harder