A Musical Advent Calendar – 7.Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day

You might not immediately think of this carol as one that belongs in your Church’s carol service,  whether with the traditional tune, or in my favourite arrangement by John Gardner, which dances along with the words. The refrain seems to reflect feasting and merry-making, rather that the real Christmas story. But as I have rehearsed it and sung it with choirs over the years it’s changed for me from being the sort of carol which you might want to sing at a carol concert, to one which encapsulates the heart of the gospel.

You might be familiar with the words…

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play
To call my true love to my dance.

What on earth does that mean? What is the dance?

 

The dance is, I think, a picture of what the Revelation calls the marriage supper of the lamb – you can read about it in Revelation chapter 19:

 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out “Hallelujah! 
For the Lord our God 
the Almighty reigns.
 Let us rejoice and exult
 and give him the glory, 
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
 and his Bride has made herself ready;
 it was granted her to clothe herself
 with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

And again in Rev 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

You’ll remember perhaps another parable in Matthew where we are called to be ready for Jesus to return, as a Bridegroom for her husband. I’ve already written about that when we listened together to Bach’s cantata Wachet Auf on Day 2. It’s a recurring Advent theme.

 

So it’s clear that each of us, as part of the Church as a whole, is called to be the bride of Christ, and one day we will be united with Jesus at his second coming. That’s the dance that we are being called to – the dance of Jesus’ second advent when we will be with him for ever and those wonderful promises of Revelation 21 will be fulfilled.

But back to our song. The original song Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day has eleven verses, which tell the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.  We’ll only hear the first four in this arrangement, but each concludes with the refrain.

Sing Oh! My love, oh! My love, my love, my love. This have I done for my true love.

Who is singing?  Well what immediately springs to mind for me is that beautiful passage in the Song of Songs chapter 2 which over the centuries has been interpreted as being the song of Jesus calling his bride the Church.

 My beloved speaks and says to me:
 “Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one, 
and come away.

What moves me so much each time I sing this, is the wonderful news contained in this simple (and seemingly rather unspiritual) refrain, that everything in Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection and ascension was done for the glory of God and for his true love – and that’s us.   This is truly the heart of the gospel – God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Now we can know that truth in part (and how we need to keep reminding ourselves of it) and one day when He comes again we will see him face to face.

A Musical Advent Calendar – 6.No Small Wonder

Our carol for today first appeared in the Jubilate Hymns publication, Carols for Today, in 1986. It has since been picked up by a number of publications, and finally achieved the ultimate accolade of featuring at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on Christmas Eve, 2000.

Paul Wigmore, who wrote the words, is sadly no longer with us, but has written about the origins of the carol, which started with him waking up one morning with the words “Small Wonder” going around in his head – an earworm that could not be tamed. He described the carol that resulted as follows.

I wrote the three short verses about the wonders of the Christmas story. The crowd of singing angels! The strange star seen by the three wise men! The shepherd being told by the angels where the baby, Jesus, could be found! However, all through these three short verses there is a ‘but’. All these wonders were small wonders when you consider the astonishing fact that God himself was coming to Earth as a human being! Over all these lesser wonders came that one truly enormous wonder; no small wonder indeed.

With a beautiful setting and some jazz-inspired harmonies by composer Paul Edwards, this carol deserves to be much better known.

1 Small wonder the star.
small wonder the light,
the angels in chorus,
the shepherds in fright;
but stable and manger for God –
no small wonder!

2 Small wonder the kings,
small wonder they bore
the gold and the incense,
the myrrh, to adore;
but God gives his life on a cross –
no small wonder!

3 Small wonder the love,
small wonder the grace,
the power, the glory,
the light of his face;
but all to redeem my poor heart –
no small wonder!

Paul Wigmore (born 1925)
© Paul Wigmore/Jubilate Hymns

A Musical Advent Calendar – 5.E’en so, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come

One of my favourite carols of recent years is E’en so, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come, which I first heard as part of the Advent Carol Service from St John’s College Cambridge, broadcast each year on BBC Radio 3.

It’s a simple enough carol, with four verses, written by Paul Manz, but very moving, with wonderful words by his wife Ruth.

But the story behind the carol perhaps explains why the piece carries such an impact. One of the Manz’s children, their 3 year old son, John, came down with a childhood illness that threatened to end his life. At one point he was so ill that Paul and Ruth Manz took turns at their son’s bedside – Ruth by day, Paul by night.

During their vigil Ruth brought her husband some words she’d written based on a text in Revelation including verses from Revelation 22, which speaks of the longing of the Advent, and the coming of the Christ.

 

In a report from Minnesota Public Radio, Ruth Manz comments: “I think we’d reached the point where we felt that time was certainly running out so we committed it to the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus quickly come,'”  Paul Manz sketched out the carol at his son’s bedside and, as they report, “miraculously through prayer by a lot of people John survived.”

So in many ways this beautiful piece is a testimony to the faith of a young couple (their son is now in his sixties) and the power of a prayer for the Lord Jesus to come into their situation. 

Peace be to you and grace from him
Who freed us from our sins,
Who loved us all and shed his blood
That we might saved be.

Sing holy, holy to our Lord,
The Lord, Almighty God,
Who was and is and is to come;
Sing holy, holy, Lord!

Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein,
Rejoice on earth, ye saints below,
For Christ is coming, is coming soon,
For Christ is coming soon!

E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come,
And night shall be no more;
They need no light nor lamp nor sun,
For Christ will be their All!

 

A Music Advent Calendar – 4. Of the Father’s Heart Begotten

Of the Father’s Heart Begotten has always been a favourite carol of ours.  I remember hiring the music from OUP for the first Christmas orchestra I ever organised for St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Cambridge, while a student.  We later had the hymn at our wedding.

The hymn is based on the Latin poem Corde natus by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius, and there are various translations available, the most popular from J M Neale and Henry Baker and is most common sung to a metrical version of the plainchant Divinum mysterium.

The hymn talks of the Lord Jesus, born of the love of the Father’s heart, Alpha and Omega, the Word by whom all things were created, the promised Saviour foretold by the prophets, born in frailty to die to save us. The final verse, particularly in this arrangement below with a soaring descant by Sir David Willcocks, lifts our hearts to praise with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”

At the Cantus Firmus Trust Advent Service, Coming Soon to a World Near You, as this post is published (Sunday 4th December 2016) we will be singing these words from Jubilate Hymns. If you are reading this on Sunday morning it’s not too late to join is and sing this wonderful hymn with us.

1 God of God, the uncreated,
love before the world began;
he the source and he the ending,
Son of God and son of Man,
Lord of all the things that have been,
master of the eternal plan,
evermore and evermore!

2 He is here, whom generations
sought throughout the ages long;
promised by the ancient prophets
justice for a world of wrong,
God’s salvation for the faithful;
him we praise in endless song
evermore and evermore!

3 Happy is that day for ever
when, by God the Spirit’s grace,
lowly Mary, virgin mother,
bore the saviour of our race.
Man and child, the world’s redeemer
now displays his sacred face
evermore and evermore!

4 Praise him, heaven of the heavens,
praise him, angels in the height;
priests and prophets, bow before him,
saints who longed to see this sight.
Let no human voice be silent,
in his glory hearts unite
evermore and evermore!

Corde natus ex parentis Jubilate Hymns version after Prudentius (348 – c.410), J M Neale (1818 – 1866), and H W Baker (1821-1877)
© Jubilate Hymns Ltd

A Musical Advent Calendar – 3. My Lord Has Come

Day 3 brings one of my favourite carols of recent years, My Lord Has Come by Will Todd, who is probably best known for his work Mass in Blue, but manages to write convincingly in a whole range of musical styles

Will Todd has written about it as follows:

In summer 2010 Oxford University Press was searching for material for a new Carols for Choirs book to celebrate 50 years since ‘Carols for Choirs 1’ was first published (bringing enduring favourites to the choral world, including Sir David Willcocks’ memorable descant to O Come, All Ye Faithful and his beautiful arrangement of Away in a Manger). I was delighted that my carol My Lord Has Come was chosen by current editors Bob Chilcott and David Blackwell to be included in the new edition. Such an exciting moment, as I have wonderful memories of singing music from the earlier Carols for Choirs books in my formative years.

I love the marriage of music and words as we are led to see that as for common shepherds and princely sages there is only one place – the humble stable – where we can meet Jesus. In a reversal of roles if you like, we find there that it is Jesus himself who holds, cherishes and cradles us, if we will let him lead us there.

Shepherds, called by angels,
called by love and angels:
No place for them but a stable.
My Lord has come.

Sages, searching for stars,
searching for love in heaven;
No place for them but a stable.
My Lord has come.

His love will hold me,
his love will cherish me,
love will cradle me.

Lead me, lead me to see him,
sages and shepherds and angels;
No place for me but a stable.
My Lord has come.

This performance is from Northwestern University in Chicago, where my friend Alisa Kasmir sang when an undergraduate. They are obviously still carrying on the great choral tradition.

While my recommended recording is from Tenebrae, for something different, Gareth Malone has only yesterday released his album A Great British Christmas which has a recording of this song with Yolanda Brown adding an improvised Saxophone track.  You can find it online, including on Spotify here:

 

A Musical Advent Calendar – 2. Sleepers Wake!

While not strictly written for season of Advent (it’s actually for the week before), Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) BWV140 is always closely associated with Christmas.

It’s a relatively late addition to his incredible set of over 200 (surviving) church cantatas, written as part of his project to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” As a man of deep Christian faith, Bach felt strongly his calling from God as a musician, and so as soon as he arrived in Leipzig in 1723, where he was to spend the rest of his life, he started on a bout of furious cantata composing. For three years he came up with a new work for the church service every Sunday, as well as several Passions and a variety of other music. It was an unprecedented creative burst which left a lasting legacy.

For this cantata Bach turned to a hymn from the theologian Philipp Nicolai. The epistle for the day – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – is about preparation for the Last Judgment, but the service focusses on the Gospel reading from Matthew 25:1-13, and the parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids, with Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that they should be ready and waiting for his coming again in glory.

The parable concerns a wedding and ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, who take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom – a picture of Jesus himself. The foolish ones take their lamps, but no oil – a mistake the wise ones don’t make.  The bridegroom keeps them waiting; they all grow tired and fall asleep.  Around midnight there is a shout: “Look, the bridegroom comes.” The foolish bridesmaids’ lamps have burned out and they have no oil to fill them. So while the foolish girls set off to buy more oil, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom himself. Only the five wise ones remain to join the feast, and for the rest the door to the Kingdom of Heaven remains shut.

Bach’s librettist expanded Nicolai’s three-verse hymn by adding recitative and aria texts. After the opening chorus, where we are invited to wake up, prepare, and search for the bridegroom’s return, Bach leads us in a dance with two of the most beautiful love duets in music – not between couples united in earthly love, but rather with Jesus as the bridegroom (bass) and the faithful Soul as the bride (soprano).  These beautiful movements, really trios for two soloists and instrumental obbligato, draw from the Song of Solomon, considered in Lutheran and Puritan tradition as an allegorical love song between Christ and the Church. The final chorale combines praise of God with a vision of the joy that awaits the faithful in the heavenly Jerusalem – complete with twelve pearly gates!

Truly in this cantata Bach provides us with some of his most wonderful music -and from what we know the cantata is one of the few that continued to be popular immediately after his death. It’s inspired by the Joy of Christmas, where we celebrate God with us, Jesus, Emmanuel, and the hope of his return in Glory, when his invitation to His true love to join the dance is finally fulfilled. With Bach, as it can with us, the dance starts now.

This performance is from eminent Bach interpreter Ton Koopman, and you can follow text and translation here. Worship with Bach’s congregation this Christmas (but in the warmth of your own home and without the lengthy sermon in German that would have followed this!)

Bach later took one of the movements and arranged it for organ, as he did with 5 other cantata movements to form the 6 Schubler Chorale Preludes.

 

A Musical Advent Calendar – 1. Lo He Comes

While there is more and more Christmas music available on CD and the radio and online, in some evangelical churches the traditional carols seem to be increasingly absent, which is a shame, perhaps because they don’t lend themselves to being played by a worship band.

There is so much wonderful truth – and some rather good backstories – in Advent and Christmas music, so for the next 24 days I thought I would draw attention to some of my favourites.

Where better to start than with Charles Wesley’s great Advent hymn, Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending.

According to the admirable notes from the New Oxford Book of Carols (NOBC), this hymn was written in the early days of Methodism, and based on a hymn by the Moravian John Cennick, whose original starts with the unlikely lines “Lo! he cometh; countless trumpets / Blow before his bloody sign.”

The tune first appeared in a publication by the Revd Martin Madan whose own story is about as colourful as John Cennick’s verse.[1]

But to return to the hymn, surely this is one of the greatest celebrations and anticipations of Jesus’ return, praying with Paul: “O come quickly!” – while not pulling any punches over how Jesus will be received by those who have rejected him.

Words and tune are a perfect match and always sum up Advent for me.

[1] According to the NOBC, Martin Madan was a dissipated man who underwent a sudden conversion after hearing Wesley preach (he had gone to mock his mannerisms), and eventually became a warden of a hospital for women suffering from fatal venereal infections. As a result of seeing these women driven onto the streets by poverty and the shortage of marriageable men, he wrote a treatise “…which advocated Polygamy as the lesser evil.  Forced to resign from the hospital in the resulting furore, Madan spent the rest of his life quietly in Kew, translating literary and theological works from the Latin.” As you would.