Music for Advent

Looking for some musical ideas for Advent? Iain and Margaret McLarty offer some suggestions for congregations, choirs, bands and all-age songs.

We all know the feeling that Christmas has arrived too early. This year shoppers in Copenhagen were surprised to see decorations going up on September 5th! Luckily for them it turned out to be just for one day while a local department store filmed its Christmas advert. There’s often a danger that the same happens in our worship. With all the pressures of practicing for the carol service, preparing the nativity play and decorating the church we often find that we've started Christmas much earlier than we intended.

The ever increasing consumerisation and stress of the time leading up to Christmas make it all the more important that churches offer a space where people can have some stillness and charge their batteries before the climax of Christmas Day arrives, and music can play a big part in this. There’s more than enough time to sing carols during the twelve days of Christmas, and they pretty much choose themselves, so instead have a think about how to make Advent that bit more special musically this year.

The following article gives some ideas for congregations, choirs and bands. These categories are only as exclusive as your creativity though and you will find that a song on any of these lists can be made to fit your own resources. In particular many on the band list could work with congregations. It is by no means an exhaustive list but more a way to spark off some ideas and any of the resources suggested will also offer further good ideas. Learning new songs can help make a season like this special but they should be balanced out with other hymns which the congregation knows well. The indices in your hymnbook will be able to give good suggestions to connect with the season, themes and readings and we have provided links to further resources for music planning at the bottom.

Congregational

In the Church Hymnary Fourth Edition (CH4) the following hymns are suggested for Advent while the biblical index (page xxix) can offer specific suggestions to complement your readings.

Advent section: 273-293, 472, 474, 475, 477
Topical index suggestions (page xxiii): 19, 20, 39, 61, 62, 87, 88, 473, 772

If you are looking for something new then a few gems you might have missed are:

280 Alleluia, hurry the Lord is near
289 Lift up your heads, eternal gates
291 When out of poverty is born

With a season as short as advent then there are various ways of providing continuity and distinguishing it from what comes before and after.

  • Use the same song each week: “O come, O come Emmanuel” is well known and has the advantage of working in many different styles, from traditional organ accompaniment or unaccompanied plainchant, through to contemporary versions such as those by Casting Crowns and Enya. A new song which could be picked up quickly is “My soul in stillness waits” by Marty Haugen which is based on the O antiphons (listen here). A choir or soloist could sing the verses for the first week or two to help the congregation learn it.

  • Build up a song over the season: This can work particularly well when sung as the candles are lit on an Advent ring and a new verse is added each week. CH4 offers a couple of possibilities here depending on what themes you are working with (#282 and #284). There are further suggestions below for those using the themes of hope-peace-joy-love while “Advent candles tell their story” is alternative for those exploring patriarchs-prophets-john-mary.

  • Start with a musical “call to worship”: This offers possibilities in all sorts of styles including “Come, come Emmanuel” (also in More Voices), “Hear O Israel” and “Prepare ye”. Similarly something like “Freedom is coming” could be used as a sending song and help set the tone as you leave each week. This repetition can be a great opportunity to learn a new song and really get it secure in your congregation’s repertoire.

There are many different thematic approaches to the four weeks of Advent but the following lists offer some ideas for two of the most common. This is followed by a list of short songs.

*All Age* Songs with this mark are particularly good for children.

The main sources referred to in this section are:

  • Church Hymnary Fourth Edition (CH4)

  • Wild Goose Resource Group (WGRG): Have written and collected a wealth of songs for Advent and the collections “Innkeepers and Light Sleepers” and “Heaven shall not wait” are particularly useful.

  • Fischy Music (Fischy): There is not much new children’s music around but Fischy Music’s songs engage all ages (it’s sometimes hard to tell who enjoys them the most, children or adults!).

  • More Voices (MV): An excellent resource for ‘post CH4’ congregational music.

Hope-Peace-Joy-Love
This first group of songs could be used throughout Advent or for one week. In some of them the words ‘hope’, ‘peace’, ‘love’ and ‘joy’ are interchangeable, allowing you to either add a verse each week or change the word and sing the song repetitively. You could learn the sign language (hopepeacejoylove) or ask for children to come up with an action for each word to add another layer of meaning to your singing. These songs are simple and catchy and if you have a Sunday School, children could learn a song in the upcoming weeks to teach to the rest of the congregation.

May you find peace (I Wonder… WHY?*All Age*
He came down (Cameroon, CH4 359) *All Age*
Malembe (DRC, The Truth That Sets Us Free*All Age*
Give me hope/peace/love/joy in my heart (“Give me oil in my lamp”) *All Age*
Hope shines as the solitary star (MV 220) *All Age*

Some songs that have more specific themes:

Hope
God of the Bible (MV 28)
Now is the time, the time of God's favour
All my hope on God is founded (CH4 192)
Singing we gladly worship the Lord together (CH4 257) [hope] *All Age*

Peace
Peace be with you (Benin, Sing With The World) *All Age*
Put peace into each others hands (CH4 659)
Make me a channel of your peace (CH4 528)
Come now O, Prince of Peace (CH4 275)

Joy
God has made laughter (CH4 764) *All Age*
My soul cries out (MV 120)
E-N-J-O-Y (Bring it all to me) *All Age*
Joyful, joyful we adore thee

Love
Jump for joy (MV 48) *All Age*
Kamana ‘o ‘i ‘o (Hawaii, One Is The Body or MV 103)
I will sing a song of love (I will not sing alone)
Love divine, all loves excelling (CH4 519)

The Patriarchs - The Prophets - John the Baptist - The Virgin Mary

The Patriarchs
The God of Abraham praise (CH4 162)
Freedom is coming (South Africa)
One Day (Common Ground)
We your children (Bring it all to me) *All Age*

The Prophets
Jerusalem, Jerusalem (Enemy of Apathy)
God send your prophets here

John the Baptist
Prepare the way of the Lord (Enemy of Apathy)
We’re on this road (We’re on this road) *All Age*
We praise the holy one

The Virgin Mary
God beyond our dreams (God Beyond All Names or Singing the Faith 486)
Justice in the womb (Innkeepers and Light Sleepers)
There is a line of women (One is the body)
Mothering God (CH4 117)

Short songs
Short songs can be used in almost any part of a service, from prelude and procession to the lighting of advent candles, prayer, intercession, or the sermon. They are effective both for choirs and as congregational song. The Taizé community in France have a huge collection of short chants. Sheet music as well as audio clips are available through their website. The Wild Goose Resource Group have three collections of shorter songs for worship: “We walk his way” (WWHW); “There is one among us” (TIOAU); and “Come all you people” (CAYP).

Come light, light of God (CH4 784)
Come, come Emmanuel (MV 11)
Maranatha (MV 19)
Confitemini Domino (Taizé, MV 16)
In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful (Taizé, CH4 772)
Wait for the Lord (Taizé, CH4 276)
Veni Immanuel (CAYP or Heaven shall not wait)
Kindle a flame to lighten the dark (Heaven shall not wait)
Come, O Lord, and set us free (WWHW)
Magnificat (WWHW)

Singing songs from the world church can be a blessing at any time of year and a gift to our worship, but arguably even more so around Christmas. We are reminded that, contrary to certain carols we sing, Christ was not born in middle England and to English speaking parents for only the ‘western world’. There are suggestions throughout this section from the world church, but here are a handful that are simple and easy to learn in the original language.

Maranatha (Sent by the Lord) from the Philippines
Give us light (Love & Anger) from India
Mayenziwe (CH4 805) from South Africa

Choir

There are so many choral resources for the whole Christmas season that trying to narrow it down quickly becomes a question of personal preference. However, in terms of general resources the most comprehensive collection of Advent music is probably Advent for Choirs (OUP) while the Carols for Choirs (OUP) and Noël! (Novello) series both contain good Advent material and are easily available from most music shops. If you are looking for ideas for a specific week or for pieces contained in other books then the Royal School of Church Music produce a quarterly resource called Sunday by Sunday which gives suggestions of choral pieces for each week in the liturgical calendar along with notes on difficulty and voices required.

One thing often lacking from these resources are pieces by Scottish composers. The last few decades have seen many fine choral works written by those born or based in Scotland and the following is a short selection of pieces which would be suitable for Advent. Apart from those by John Bell and Andrew Carvel where links have been provided they should be available from most music shops. They are for different levels of choir and listed alphabetically by composer.

John Bell: God comes tomorrow sheet music and audio samples
Rory Boyle: Lux Mundi sheet music sample
Andrew Carvel: A Spotless Rose sheet music and audio
Kenneth Leighton: Magnificat (Magdalen Service) publisher info and audio sample
James Macmillan: O Radiant Dawn publisher info listen on spotify
Stuart Macrae: Adam lay y-bounden publisher info and audio sample
Peter Maxwell Davies: Advent Calendar publisher info
Paul Mealor: O Sanctissima publisher info listen on spotify
Thea Musgrave: Adam lay y-bounden composer info sheet music sample

A more general idea to consider which could give a different feel for these four weeks is to use chants. One option would be to use simple repetitive chants such as those used in the Taizé Community. There are a number of these in CH4 but if you would like a larger selection then Taizé resources are sold in the UK through Decani Music. There are also similar songs in many Wild Goose Resource Group publications and some of these are given above in the congregational section.

Another option would be to use plainchant. Advent for Choirs gives both English and Latin versions of the Advent Prose and the O Antiphons, the former commonly used each Sunday in Advent by many Anglican churches. James Macmillan has also written an excellent set of Advent Antiphons which can be sung by a flexible combination of choir, soloists or congregations (audio sample). Another option would be to use use the traditional chants for each day still in use in many Roman Catholic congregations. There are a wealth of resources out there for those who read neumes and Musica Sacra is a particularly good source but for settings in modern staff notation try the editions by Peter Johnson and Bruce Ford. In particular the introits are worth trying and are very simple once your choir get used to them.

Band

The internet has given contemporary songwriters a great platform for sharing their music. However, that can work both ways and there is so much out there that it can sometimes be difficult to find songs with a specific theme, particularly for a season like Advent which has perhaps been slightly neglected. Here are some ideas for songs which could be led by a band although often they would be suitable for congregational participation too. Most of the links will let you hear a recording of the song and see the lyrics as well as providing downloads of chord charts or sheet music but otherwise use your favourite search engine to find out more. It is also worth exploring all the websites that are linked to as the songs suggested here are just a sample of what could be used.

Graham Kendrick’s Rumours of Angels is perhaps one of the only worship albums to have focused specifically on Advent and although it’s now twenty years old it has many great songs to explore. However, in 2007 he released a new Christmas album and a couple of the songs from that would also be appropriate including the title track Dreaming of a Holy Night.

Brian Doerksen and Brenton Brown are two of the leading names in the Vineyard music scene and both have a number of well known songs with themes that would resonate during Advent including Everlasting GodHosannaHope of the Nations and All who are thirsty (also found in More Voices #4).

Similarly there are not many specific seasonal songs from Worship Central but How Long? (lead sheet), God is Coming (lead sheet), and River Flow (lead sheet) could all tie in well.

In the weeks where the focus is on the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets then Robin Mark’s Days of Elijah and the Getty/Townend Hear O Israel could work well. Or for something different try one of two songs inspired by Isaiah 40, Prepare ye the way by Peter Johnston (minister at Ferryhill Parish Church) or Prepare ye from the 70s musical Godspell.

The liturgical background of many worship leaders probably makes it unsurprising that there are a limited number of songs about Mary but those that there are are well worth using. A particularly powerful song is Breath of heaven by Amy Grant (alternative sheet music). Sam Hargreaves has written two songs, Angel came to Mary and My soul glorifies the Lord. The latter is a simple round and uses the words of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the same text that inspired David Mowbray (With Mary let my soul rejoice) and the Getty/Townend team (Magnificat).

For those focusing on the themes of hope, peace, joy and love then there are a number of Getty/Townend songs which would work well such as There is a hopeStill, my soul, be stillPromise of the ages and Pour over me. And also have a look at another Sam Hargeaves song, You bring peace. Finally, on the theme of peace is a beautiful setting of May the Lord bless you (sheet music) by Scottish folk singer Yvonne Lyon.

Resources

Here are a few other resources which could help you with integrating music into your Advent worship.

Starters for Sunday has suggestions for hymns to match the weekly material.

The Royal School of Church Music produce a quarterly resource called Sunday by Sunday giving ideas for songs, choral pieces and organ music relating to the lectionary from a wide range of hymn books.

Christian Aid have a liturgy for candle lighting with musical suggestions.

The World Council of Churches have advent material connected to the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, including songs from Asia and from a workshop in Cuba.

Natalie Sims from Australia, aka ‘Lectionary Singer’, posts musical ideas relating to the lectionary on her blog each week.

David MacGregor, another Australian, suggests a broad range of contemporary songs relating to the lectionary at Together to Celebrate.

Free choral music can be downloaded from the Advent section of the Choral Public Domain Library.

A range of music for children can be found on the Church of England’s Worship Workshop site, including lyrics, backing tracks and sheet music.

Iain and Margaret McLarty are twins and grew up together in St Paul’s Parish Church, Glasgow. They then went off in different directions but have now been reunited on the Church of Scotland’s Music Group.

Iain is a conductor and church musician whose work has covered a broad range of styles - from cathedral organ scholar to contemporary worship music. He is active in worship development and regularly leads music at national conferences. A particular interest he has is music and liturgy in an ecumenical context.

Margaret is based in Glasgow and currently working in Castlemilk Parish Church as a Community Arts Worker and for Fischy Music. She also works in the areas of creative worship, community music and general musical joy. She is an ex-­musician for the Iona Community. She would like to build a snowman.