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Songs for the Season

DECEMBER

When Luther began to prepare songs for congregational singing, he composed some and translated others. One of the first hymns the reformer chose goes all the way back to the fourth-century Ambrose, often called the father of Latin hymnody.

For Ambrose of Milan (340-397), the route from lawyer to bishop was a short one. Having become adept at mediation in his work as a lawyer, Ambrose made himself available to keep the peace as the people gathered to elect a successor to Bishop Auxentius. As the story goes, in the midst of the excitement someone yelled out, "Ambrose is bishop!" and the crowd latched on to the idea. Ambrose, although only a catechumen (one in preparation for baptism), accepted the post. He was hastily baptized and a week later, in 371, was consecrated Bishop of Milan at the age of thirty-one.

"Savior of the Nations, Come" is one of twelve hymns attributed to Ambrose. Luther translated it into German in 1524, and it was later translated into many other languages as well. The English translation given here was prepared by Calvin Seerveld for the 1987 Psalter Hymnal.

The text in a very direct fashion, proclaims the Advent message: God became human in the person of Jesus Christ to save humanity from sin. Few Advent hymns catch the sweep of this text, which (in st. 2-4) moves all the way from Advent through Lent, Easter, and the Ascension. Stanza 6 would make an excellent prayer response during Advent—or Eastertide. The final stanza would be an appropriate doxology throughout Advent.

NUN KOMM DER HEIDEN HEILAND has always been associated with this text. This tune is short and chant-like in its simplicity, with identical first and last lines. So "Savior of the Nations Come" can be sung very simply and meditatively, but also with great strength, particularly on the final stanza.

To introduce "Savior of the Nations," consider both organ and choral settings. Composers from J. S. Bach to Paul Manz have provided wonderful organ settings for this hymn (Joan Ringerwole's Bibliography of Organ Music, CRC Publications, 1994, lists thirty). Bach's setting, included here, could be sung by choir on one of the stanzas, and again by organ (and brass!) on the final doxology stanza.

For choral settings, consider Stephen J. Wolff's SAB setting with congregational participation (G.I.A. G-2685) as well as Donald Busarow's delightful SAB setting with flute (recorder) descants (Concordia 11-9942).

As you move toward Christmas, it may be effective to build the intensity of the accompaniment for this hymn by adding instruments on successive Sundays. As with many hymns, "Savior of the Nations, Come" provides us with a sung prayer that will surely enhance not only our worship, but our own devotional life as well.

JANUARY

The season of Epiphany brings to mind such themes as growth, Christ's ministry, and our responsibility to spread God's message. Appropriately, the liturgical color for Epiphany is green, the "growing" color.

"Bring Forth the Kingdom" is based on Matthew 5:13-16, a section of the Sermon on the Mount, which is often thought of as launching Christ's ministry. Marty Haugen has composed a delightful song that invites us to see ourselves as salt, light, and seeds, all visual images from the Sermon on the Mount that will communicate well to children and adults. We are reminded that we each have a responsibility in the ministry of Christ. Haugen uses four action verbs in the refrain to convey these responsibilities: we are called to bring, pray, work, and hope. The refrain provides us with a good summary of what God calls us to do. All of these qualities make the text especially appropriate for a response to the law or at the close of a service. This hymn can take on special meaning when used in a service with the theme of missions.

The structure of "Bring Forth the Kingdom" invites a responsorial arrangement, with one or more groups singing the stanzas and the whole congregation on the refrain. Even within the stanzas, the structure encourages antiphonal singing, with two groups singing every other phrase. The stanza groups could be two parts of a children's choir, a children's choir and an adult choir, soloist and choir, or choir and congregation. By separating one group from the other, you can create an effective antiphonal effect. The repetition of key words and phrases makes this hymn especially accessible.

This song needs a tempo that keeps it moving. Feature the clear, light voices of children. Piano, guitar, flute, and recorder would all be very appropriate accompaniment instruments. The song was originally published in Gather (G. I. A. Publications, 1988); the accompaniment edition contains a three-part setting on the refrain. The Orff patterns given here are found in the Leader's Edition of Songs for LiFE (CRC Publications, 1995).

FEBRUARY

No greater hymn has been written about the power of music to touch our soul than "When in Our Music God Is Glorified." Written by Fred Pratt Green in 1971, the song has found its way into most mainline hymnals and been sung in many congregations. Few hymns have gained such popularity during the lifetime of the composer.

Fred Pratt Green was born in 1903. After a long and fruitful life as a Methodist minister, he launched a retirement career as a hymn writer. Green retired to Norwich, England, looking forward to having time to indulge his hobby of painting. Instead, through an invitation to serve on a hymnal committee for the Methodist church, Green, an acknowledged poet, was encouraged to try his hand at hymn writing. Thus began his second career at the age of sixty-five.

Now in his nineties, Green has written over three hundred hymns, and is widely regarded as the most significant English Methodist hymn writer since Charles Wesley.

"When in Our Music God Is Glorified" was written in response to a request for a hymn set to the tune ENGELBERG that would be suitable for a music festival, ENGELBERG was originally composed by Charles Stanford to be sung to "For All the Saints." However Stanford's work was eclipsed by Vaughan Williams's tune SINE NOMINE for that text. The combination of Green's text and Stanford's tune is a powerful one that makes the hymn especially appropriate for festivals and dedication services.

A word about tempo and dynamics: Both the tune and the text call for a stately tempo. The breadth of the text would be lost with the use of a fast tempo. The text seems to suggest a louder dynamic level for the first and last stanzas. The middle three stanzas, and especially the fourth stanza, could provide a welcome move to a quieter setting. The use of instruments should follow this scheme, using brass for the louder stanzas and woodwinds or reeds for the inner stanzas. Remember, however, that each verse builds within itself to reach its climax in the last two measures: "Alleluia!"

An organ setting for this hymn is available in the collection Hymn Prisms, by Sue Mitchell Wallace (Hope 270). There are also several choral settings available, including an SATB setting by Austin Lovelace (Art Master), an SATB setting by jan Bender (Concordia), and an SATB setting by Harriet Ziegenhals (Hope).

For congregational singing, consider varied treatment with various instruments, all culminating in the fifth stanza that calls all of us to rejoice with instruments and voices. Stanford himself composed a wonderful hymn anthem on his tune ENGELBERG, which G.I.A. has published with Green's text. With little adjustment, that anthem can be sung mainly by congregation rather than only by choir. Buy it for your organist and choir, or consider the following plan using sections of that hymn anthem provided here:

Stanza 1: Congregation in unison to hymnal accompaniment. If the congregation is secure, play all the notes except the melody (as Stanford composed it); then the organ is truly accompanying rather than duplicating the congregational part. Use full and rich organ.

Stanza 2: Low voices in unison, subdued accompaniment

Stanza 3: High voices in unison; Stanford's accompaniment is not given here; use the hymnal accompaniment.

Stanza 4: Choral setting, beginning softly, and building to prepare for the climactic final stanza; the organist simply plays the melody in octaves until "Then let us sing"; at that point, move to the hymnal accompaniment.

Stanza 5: All, with the hymnal accompaniment, using the final ending.