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What Sweeter Music?

18 Dec

The Timeless Music about Christ’s Birth

While music about the birth of Jesus is played almost exclusively in December the world over, I’d like to make what some will see as a radical suggestion — that Christians use it in worship year-round.

After all (as everyone from the Catholic and Jewish Encyclopedias to countless Protestant Commentaries all agree) we have no idea when He was born — and it almost certainly was not December 25.

The date was never revealed to us, but that hasn’t stopped speculation throughout the last 2000 years. It seems to have been in Egypt after 200 A.D. when the very first feast of the Nativity was held, and Bishop Clement of Alexandria noted that the church there “curiously” selected the date of May 20, apparently out of thin air.

In modern times, because so much of the earthly ministry of Christ (our Passover) was linked to God’s Holy Days, some theologians have suggested He may have been born on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, and therefore circumcised on the 8th and Last Great Day of the Feast. But we simply do not know.

Celebrating the FACT of His birth seems far more important than the exact anniversary of it. So might we agree to use the Nativity story for worship 365 days a year, employing all of the glorious music written about it? Literally, a “timeless” suggestion.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for what are, in my opinion, among the great Nativity carols/arias/performances/recordings that I have come to love. This article begins with four of them, but I may well add more. It will be true for all of them that good quality headphones are almost mandatory, in order to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the performances. (I’ve given the complete lyrics for each below, in case you want to follow along.)


ONE   “Mary Did You Know” (Pentatonix)

This first selection was originally a gospel song that many have come to love. Of the 15+ recordings of it I have heard, this performance is by far and away the most pure, inspirational, tender, and beautiful. It is performed with precision laced with abundant feeling by the a cappella specialists Pentatonix. The amazing musical climax they provide — beginning with Jesus being “the Lord of all Creation” and ending with (most emphatically) the revelation He made that He was “the Great I AM” — reflects and summarizes the most astonishing of all the aspects of the earthly-yet-eternal life of the Christ.

“Mary Did You Know” by Pentatonix


TWO   “What Sweeter Music,” (John Rutter)

This gem is a modern setting of the 17th-century poem “A Christmas Carol” by Robert Herrick. And you may find, as Adrianne and I do, this to be one of the sweetest and most beautiful carols ever. Composer John Rutter is renowned for his short pieces about the birth of Christ, and he may have reached his pinnacle with this one. He is conducting his own Cambridge Singers here, in what is almost certainly the most moving, jewel-like performance of it on record.

“What Sweeter Music” by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers


THREE   “Sweet Is the Song the Virgin Sang” (Ralph Vaughan Williams)

This sweet lullaby comes from a larger work, a cantata telling the entire story of the Nativity called Hodie (This Day), written by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. I strongly commend the entire hour-long masterpiece to you, but here I’m giving you one short section only — the endearingly sweet lullaby of Mary as she “ponders in her heart” the mystery of her being the mother of the Savior of the world. Sir David Willcocks conducts the Choristers of Westminster Abbey and the London Symphony Orchestra in this classic 1965 recording. The soloist is the incomparable Dame Janet Baker.

“Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sang” by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Dame Janet Baker, Choristers of Westminster Abbey


Alfred Deller

Alfred Deller


FOUR   “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” (Alfred Deller)

2016 marks the 350th anniversary of the writing of this traditional chorale by German composer Johann Ebeling. I freely admit to having a sentimental attachment to this recording, performed by countertenor Alfred Deller. As far back in ancient history as my college days, I fell in love with Deller’s beautiful singing, his lyrical phrasings, the gentle counterpoint of the accompaniment as played by lutenist/guitarist Desmond Dupré, as well as the carol’s endearing message and the music’s graceful lilt. Some may be taken aback by hearing a man sing with such a high-pitched voice, but the countertenor (sometimes called male alto) has a long and distinguished history in Western music. (Mark Deller, Alfred’s son, is also one of England’s foremost countertenors.) If you think about it, our popular music also includes men with equally high ranges — but none, I would suggest, as simply beautiful as Deller’s.

“All My Heart This Night Rejoices” by Alfred Deller


Lyrics
 
ONE   Mary Did You Know” (Pentatonix)

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.

Mary, did you know?

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak the praises of the Lamb.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM !

(lyrics by Mark Lowry)


 
TWO   “What Sweeter Music” (John Rutter)

What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!

Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honor to this day,
That sees December turned to May.

Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly-shorn,
Thus, on the sudden? Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
‘Tis He is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and luster, public mirth,
To heaven and the under-earth.

We see him come, and know him ours,
Who, with his sunshine and his showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome him. The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.

Which we will give him; and bequeath
This holly and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour, who’s our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.

What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?

(“A Christmas Carol” by Robert Herrick)


 
THREE   “Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sang” (Vaughan Williams)

But Mary kept all these things,
and pondered them in her heart.

Sweet was the song the Virgin sang,
When she to Bethlem Juda came
And was delivered of a Son,
That blessed Jesus hath to name:
“Lulla, lulla, lulla-bye,
      Sweet Babe,” sang she,
      And rocked him sweetly
          on her knee.

“Sweet Babe,” sang she, “my son,
And eke a Saviour born,
Who hath vouchsafèd from on high
To visit us that were forlorn:
“Lalula, lalula, lalula-bye,
      Sweet Babe,” sang she,
      And rocked him sweetly
          on her knee.

(anonymous Medieval lyrics)


 
FOUR   “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” (Alfred Deller)

All my heart this night rejoices,
      As I hear,
      Far and near,
Sweetest angel voices.
“Christ is born,” their choirs are singing,
      Till the air
      Everywhere
Now with joy is ringing.

Hark! a voice from yonder manger,
      Soft and sweet,
      Doth entreat,
“Flee from woe and danger.
Brethren come, from all doth grieve you
      You are freed,
      All you need
I will surely give you.”

Come then, let us hasten yonder;
      Here let all,
      Great and small,
Kneel in awe and wonder.
Love Him who with love is yearning;
      Hail the Star
      That from far
Bright with hope is burning!

Thee, dear Lord, with heed I’ll cherish,
      Live to Thee,
      And with Thee
Dying, shall not perish;
But shall dwell with Thee for ever,
      Far on high
      In the joy
That can alter never.

(original German lyrics by Paul Gerhardt, 1607-1676)


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Posted by on December 18, 2015 in Worship

 

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