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Adventide: 6 ancient choral works for modern-day choirs

Advent marks the beginning of a new church year. It is meant to be a season of silence, preparation, and joyful hope: a marked contrast with the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

Image: Mérode Altarpiece, ca. 1425–32

In popular culture, Christmas carols start to stream from stores and radio stations before Advent even begins. In fact, the whole month of December is marked by the celebrations that used to be reserved for Christmas Day.

The International Chant Academy is currently in Lessons and Carols mode, with Dr. Horst Buchholz’ live lecture with Q & A on the subject just a couple weeks away. As was mentioned in our last blog post, a Festival of Lessons and Carols is an opportunity for people from all backgrounds and walks of life to gather together with one common purpose: to sing! During Advent, what better purpose can musicians have than to sing the music of Adventide, and to draw the listeners more deeply into its true spirit?

There is a veritable wealth of repertoire that is suited to this season. This blog post is dedicated to a few musical gems of the ancient past which are suitable especially for Adventide. Each of these works have sheet music freely available on the internet.

Let’s reclaim Advent.

1. Conditor alme siderum (7th century)

Image: Graduale Cisterciense - 1240 ca

Conditor alme siderum (sometimes titled Creator alme siderum) is a hymn which is traditionally sung for Vespers during the First Sunday of Advent. There are a great number of English adaptations, known as Creator of the Stars of Night. This setting in English on Corpus Christi Watershed includes the often neglected fifth verse. A recording of the hymn sung in Latin can be heard here.

2. O virtus Sapientia - Hildegard von Bingen, 12th c.

Image: Riesencodex, R 466rb

The famous O Antiphons are sung with the Magnificat at Vespers, assigned one per day, December 17 - 23.

Dec. 17 ~ O Sapientia (Wisdom)

Dec. 18 ~ O Adonai (Lord of might)

Dec. 19 ~ O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)

Dec. 20 ~ O Clavis David (Key of David)

Dec. 21 ~ O Oriens (Morning Star)

Dec. 22 ~ O Rex gentium (King of nations)

Dec. 23 ~ O Emmanuel (God is with us)

Each of the verses of the popular Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is modeled on one of the O antiphons. The O antiphons, in turn, come from the writings of the Prophet Isaiah, expressing the Israelite people's longing for the coming of the Christ.

O virtus Sapientia, while not technically an O Antiphon, is nevertheless devoted to the subject of the first of them. It is one of the shortest of the compositions by Hildegard of Bingen (a German abbess and mystic), making it relatively accessible to a modern day schola.

O Wisdom’s energy!

Whirling, you encircle

and everything embrace

in the single way of life.

Three wings you have:

one soars above into the heights,

one from the earth exudes,

and all about now flies the third.

Praise be to you, as is your due, O Wisdom.

This recording by a Benedictine schola clocks in at just two minutes in length. A transcription of the chant in modern notation is available (along with the rest of Hildegard's scores) on the website for the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies. If you like, you may alternate soloists or small groups on the verses, and add a drone or two. And men, take note: there's no rule that Hildegard chants should only be sung by women!

3. Gabriel's Message - Basque carol from 13th-14th c.

This manuscript (BL Arundel 248) has the music and Latin text for Angelus ad virginem, followed by the text in English.

Gabriel's Message is an old Basque carol which is based on Angelus ad virginem, a popular medieval and renaissance song which adapts the words of Mary from her prayer, the Magnificat. The melody of Angelus ad virginem was reworked many times, and is slightly different in each of the six manuscripts where it can be found today. In the early 19th century, a translation into English was written, and Gabriel's Message was born.

Sheet music for the original harmony by Edgar Pettman is on CPDL, and a recording by the Genesis Sixteen here. If your choir finds harmonizations to be a bit too challenging, try teaching them parts on just the refrain, "Most highly favored lady! Gloria."

4. Beata viscera Mariae virginis - anonymous (15th century)

Image: new polyphonic setting of Beata viscera revealed by digital photographic techniques in Worcester Cathedral, Add. MS 68, fragment X, fol. 2r

This version of Beata viscera was transcribed in a book called the Worcester Fragments. The source's unusual name is due to its history. The 25 pieces which we now have of the (incomplete) Worcester Fragments were set as a collection in the late 13th century, and subsequently recycled as book bindings! This conductus is a 15th century work which was added, as a sort of footnote, to one of the original book leaves. The image above is the result of photography with ultraviolet light, which was then further enhanced. (You can read more about the fascinating and very recent discovery of this piece here on page 4.)

Blessed be the womb of the Virgin Mary,

who, heavy with the fruit of the Eternal's seed,

in the cup of life pledges for us,

and for our sins, a draught of sweetness.

This 3-part conductus may be sung by all women, all men, or a mixture, depending in part upon the chosen key. It bears mentioning that pieces such as this were customarily notated on very large pages, around which the entire ensemble would sing. The custom greatly enhanced the experience of singing as a single organization. Today, each singer usually has their own copy of the music, making it challenging to recreate this dynamic. The success of singing such a piece will hinge upon the schola's underlying sense of common rhythm, which is reminiscent of a mother rocking her little child.

Sheet music for the piece is available on CPDL, and there is a stunning recording by Anonymous 4. The recording begins with the Gregorian chant, followed by the motet at 0:45.

5. Ave Maria - Jacques Arcadelt (1507 – 1568)

Image: the original, three part chanson to which the text of the Ave Maria was later added

Ave Maria ("Hail Mary") is based on the Latin text for the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee," and those of her cousin Elizabeth, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." (Luke 1:28 & 42).

The second half of the prayer (beginning with "Sancta Maria, Mater Dei..."" / "Holy Mary, Mother of God...") was not added til at least the fifteenth century. (Michael Alan Anderson, a professor at Eastman School of Music, sheds light on the evolution of the second half of the prayer in this article.)

Enter Jacques Arcadelt, a prolific composer of sacred and secular choral works from the 16th century, and his secular chanson, "Nous voyons que les hommes." It was not til 1842 that Pierre-Louis Dietsch adjusted the work to the Ave Maria text and added a bass line. Sheet music for the original, 3-part secular chanson is found here, and translation for its lyrics here (shared with fair warning that the text is rather bawdy!).

Sheet music for this Ave Maria is on CPDL , and an exquisite recording here.

6. Ye Clouds of Heaven Open Wide - from 17th c. German carol

Image: first print of the melody "O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf" in 1666

This rousing hymn was first set in German, and is attributed to Friedrich Spree (1591-1635). O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf is quite popular in Germany during Advent to this day. The most famous setting of the hymn is a motet by Brahms.

Several English translations have been published, many of them still under copyright. You are likely to find the hymn in a Catholic or Lutheran hymnal, however, either under the title "Ye (You) Clouds of Heaven" or the tune name: O HEILAND REISS DIE HIMMEL AUF.

Here is the translation from

O Savior, open heaven wide;

And once again, this Advent-tide,

Unbar the portals, Lord, we pray,

That hold you back from us today.

Awake, O earth, break forth in Spring!

To crown this great awakening,

Bloom once again, O Flow'r divine

And brightest Son of Jesse's line.

Then praise and homage we will bring

To you, our Savior, God and King;

And we will bless you and adore

For ever and for ever more.

And one honorable mention...

Veni, Jesu, Amor Mi - Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)

Above: pages from Laudis Corona: the new Sunday school hymn book, published in 1880

Cherubini was born just consequent to the close of the Early Music period (which ends officially in 1750), yet it would almost be a crime to omit his motet, Veni, Jesu, Amor Mi in a blog post devoted to old, accessible Adventide choral arrangements. The text, translated simply as "Come Jesus, my love," is perfectly suited to the season, and the Latin is simple enough that any choir, regardless of language barriers, can sing and understand the words.

The work can be found for purchase in 2 and 3-part arrangements. Included here is a free PDF of the more common 4-part version. A gorgeous recording can be heard here.


Be sure to register:

Saturday, September 30, 2023

10:00 Central Time (GMT - 5)

A Festival of Lessons and Carols: How to Plan Your Own

​A live, online lecture with Q and A by Dr. Horst Buchholz


The mission of the International Chant Academy is to keep the beauty and meaningfulness of Gregorian Chant and Early Sacred Music alive and relevant. We foster understanding of these art forms, and teach the musical and vocal skills necessary to excellent performance.

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