Don't worry-I'm not trying to convince anyone to halt all their Christmas music and demand they only listen to "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted" for four weeks of Advent. But I just thought I'd point out the beautiful parts of Advent music which can easily be overlooked, and if all you hear of Advent music is at Mass on Sundays it really can be music that reflects the mysteries of Advent and brings us a little closer to our Advent goals of penance, preparation, prayer, and maybe a simplifying of our faith.
Advent is one of the nicest times in liturgical music. (Now, everyone try and not glaze over at those two words "liturgical music". I know to most those words are as interesting and fun-sounding as "elective surgery" or "tax preparation" but I promise you Advent is one of the most interesting times of the year for music.) Good Advent music should be subtle, unassuming, profound, yet approachable. Good Advent hymns are an interesting mixture of a usually simple, often minor, melody that rises and falls, while the lyrics should reflect the mysterious nature of Advent as a time of both waiting, reflection and praising. Most Advent hymns have a beautiful history as well as gorgeous melodies and impressive lyrics. Also; Advent is one of the few times in the year where it seems the modern decimation of traditional and very good music hasn't completely cleared out the generic hymnal.
One of my favourite hymns is "Gabriels's Message" or "The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came" and its a perfect example of how a beautiful melody can be both minor in tone yet still contain the praising element of the "Glorias" of the chorus. It really encapsulates the idea of Advent as a time of solemn reflection in preparation for the Messiah and praising God in that anticipation. Its the paradox of Advent's spiritual reality. The carol itself is Basque in tradition and dates from the 13th Century and wasn't translated into English until the 19th century. The lyrics are of course a poetic version of the Magnificat, and it makes a perfect hymn to be used in the third and fourth weeks of Advent.
As Advent music is used but once a year I find that hearing these timeless songs again conjure up memories of past Advents. The return to the familiar should also help direct us to a more concentrated focus on the time of year, its meaning, and our spiritual focus. Hearing "Wake, Awake for night is Flying" always seems to make me think of past winters, past Christmases, past times of renewal. "Wake, Awake For Night is Dying", as its known in most Catholic hymnals, is set to a Bach chorale and to hear it performed by a choir is exciting, but even if only the melody is used it makes for a beautiful addition to the liturgy.
The biblical themes of Christ's coming as a bridegroom is used in both "Wake, Awake for night is Dying" and also in "Awake, Awake Fling Off the Night". The spiritual themes of Advent such as light, darkness, and waiting are also seen in the hymns as well. "Awake, Awake" is based upon a latin chant melody which brings a simplicity to the music which is also a refreshing reminder of our need for simple faith during Advent.
Then the great classic hymns, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "O Come Divine Messiah", truly some of the most beautiful songs in liturgical music, and should be heard in the last two Sundays of Advent. Unfortunately there has been some brutal renditions of both, but please don't let that put you off! The thoughtful performance of both hymns showcase stunning melodies. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is based on the O Antiphons that are part of the last days of Advent beginning on December 17, and are part of the Divine Office that speak of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. "O Come Divine Messiah" is based on a French hymn which uses both words of praise and a major key to emphasis the joy of the coming King of Kings, and is lovely in its perfect description of our joyful anticipation for Christmas Day.
I'm by no means an expert, but just wanted to share a few thoughts about the Advent music you may be hearing at Mass, or may have overlooked in the past. Of course, the problem with liturgical music is that it is heavily dependent upon human beings and can thus be completely mangled, botched, and downright abused. The best Advent music is that which is approached reverently but with a simplicity that directs worshippers to a deeper reflection on the mystery of Advent. The music and use of instruments should be used sparingly, it would be nice if all parishes could bust out the chant for these weeks as it gives such an austere feeling to the liturgy that is most fitting for Advent, but since most don't have that kind of talent and resources it's much more fitting to the season to par down instruments and arrangements in order to contrast with a more full and glorious Christmas liturgy.
I've only mentioned a couple of the truly great hymns, let me know your favourites, and if you're in the mood for a whole album dedicated to great sacred Advent music I really recommend the new Advent at Ephesus by Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Its beautifully done, and the song choices are all really helpful in cultivating the right mood towards a prayerful Advent. Even my toddlers seem to like it!
So theres my rant about some church-y Advent music. I hope we all have a faith focused Advent, and please go visit all the lovely contributors to the Little Holy Days Link-Up, they'll have great stuff!