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Season of Special Music

November, 2019

First Advent Sunday is only a few weeks away, so we can start thinking of music on that theme to listen to and sing in our homes. In our hymnal, the first eleven songs are Advent songs. Two of them are special to me. The first of these is, fittingly, song number 1: Hosanna, Son of David. This song has a captivating melody and lots of repeats. Even little children seem to learn it quickly and sing it festively. It helps that the words are easy and repeat often. In the words and soaring melody, it is easy to imagine the crowd in Jerusalem clamoring for Jesus as He rode a donkey through the city. When this song is sung at church on First Advent Sunday, there is a jubilant feeling: the new church year is starting! The Christmas season begins and we are reminded of the hope of heaven we have through Jesus’ work.

The other Advent song that holds many memories and much feeling for me is number 11, A Candle We Are Lighting Now. I grew up in Finland where we followed the church year even at school. On the Friday morning preceding the First Advent, we sang the first verse of this song. The next Friday we would sing two verses, and so we continued all the way until Christmas, when school let out and our holiday started. The song’s hopeful, bright melody reflects the message of the words very well.

There is an abundance of classical music that has also been inspired by the season of Advent and Christmas. Many composers wrote variations of and compositions based on well-known Advent and Christmas hymns and debuted them in their churches. The first song in the Christmas section of our hymnal is number 12, Savior of the Nations, Come. This melody is from the Middle Ages, and its special quality is due to the Dorian mode in which it is written. It is not quite major, not quite minor, so it has a special sense of longing in it.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) has written numerous pieces on this theme, mostly organ chorales and church cantatas. Search for them wherever you listen to music using the German name of the hymn: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. My very favorite is an organ piece which is BWV 659 in Bach’s work catalogue. This piece poignantly depicts the period of waiting and then joy at the arrival of our Savior.

Another nice Christmas song is number 24, Silent Night. It was written by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr. He brought the lyrics to Franz Gruber, who was the organist in the neighboring village. Gruber set the words to the tune we know. The song was sung by the congregation on Christmas morning accompanied by a guitar, since a flood had destroyed the church organ.

This song is such an essential part of Christmas that is has been published in over 550 hymnals all over the world. In fact it was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011! It amazes me how a musical picture of the miraculous events in Bethlehem on that holy night can so powerfully pull people together to quieten in worship. This song exudes the peace and joy of Christmas quite perfectly.

Many in Christianity have requested a recording of instrumental Christmas music. This month we are releasing an album of piano music recorded by Saana Johnson in Phoenix, Ariz. One of the melodies on it is a version of Silent Night composed by German composer Max Reger. May the spirit of Christmas spread in your home as you listen to this beautiful music. 

Liisa Keranen

Sources: Hymnary.org, Wikipedia

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