Singing Salvation's Story: Choral suggestions for a service of lessons and carols

Listed on these pages are carols and hymns suitable for each of the nine Scripture lessons of the traditional English evening service. Begun by Dean Eric Milner-White in 1918 at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England, the service of lessons and carols takes place in that chapel at Vespers on Christmas Eve to this day.

The lessons trace salvation history from Genesis through the gospels. After each lesson a carol or hymn is sung, either by the congregation or by a choir. Sometimes two carols are sung after one lesson.

The service, along with many carol arrangements, can be found in Carols for Choirs I, published by Oxford University Press. For a more complete description of the service, see Reformed Worship 1 (Fall, 1986).



"Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding"
(PsH 332)

"O Come, O Come Immanuel"
(PH 9, PsH 328, RL 184, TH 194)

"On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry"
(PH 10, PsH 327, RL 187)

"Once in Royal David's City"
(PH 49, PsH 346, RL 201, TH 225)

Bidding Carol

"Ding Dong! Merrily on High" [Sprightly and moderately easy. Based on the traditional French tune. A simpler version may be found in Carols for Choirs I. SATB unaccompanied.]
Malcolm Williamson, arr. (G. Schirmer 11371)

"Ideo Gloria in Excelsis Deo" [Powerful unaccompanied setting of the traditional German tune. Uses various combinations of voices and is moderately difficult. SATB unaccompanied.]
David Kraehenbuehl, arr. (Associated 193-7)

"Torches" [A very effective march-like piece with unusual harmonies. SATB and organ. Easy.]
John Joubert (from Carols for Choirs 1, Oxford)


"Good Christian Friends, Rejoice"
(PH 28, PsH 355, RL 218, TH 270)

The hymns in this list were selected from the most recent editions of the following hymnals: The Presbyterian Hymnal (PH), Psalter Hymnal (PsH), Rejoice in the Lord (RL), and Trinity Hymnal (TH).

Genesis 3:8-15

God announces in the Garden of Eden that the seed of woman shall bruise the serpent's head.

"The Lord at First Did Adam Make" [Set to a traditional English tune in E minor, the words are in four stanzas, relating the story of Adam's fall to the story of redemption. Suitable for small choirs. SATB and organ.]
David Willcocks, arr. (Oxford XI98)

"Adam Lay Ybounden" [Progresses from sorrow for sin to thanksgiving and praise for salvation. The music supports the text extremely well. Medium difficulty. SATB unaccompanied.]
Boris Ord (from Carols for Choirs 11, Oxford)

"The Truth from Above" [A typically modern setting featuring the unique modal harmonies of the composer. The sound is hauntingly similar to plainsong. Wonderful poetry. Medium difficulty. SATB unaccompanied.]
R. Vaughan Williams (from Cowls for Choirs 11, Oxford, or Bight Traditional English Carols, Stainer and Bell Ltd.)

"Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" [A most unusual and beautiful arrangement of Elizabeth Poston's tune. Varies between unison, two-part and four-part harmonies. SATB with handbells. Medium difficulty]
Carl Schalk, arr. (Concordia 98-2664)


"Of the Father's Love Begotten"
(PH 309, PsH 342, RL 190, TH 162)

Genesis 22:15-18

God promises faithful Abraham that in his seed the nations of the earth shall be blessed.

"Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" [A very powerful, awe-inspiring anthem that is challenging but rewarding. The effect is that of ethereal and angelic sounds if the acoustics of your sanctuary are fairly live. SATB unaccompanied with some divisi parts.]
Edward C. Bairstow (Stainer and Bell Ltd. 1.5095.1)

"Zion Hears the Watchmen's Voices" [The unison "Wachet auf" tune accompanied by Bach's dance-like motif from Cantata No. 140. Very effective jubilation for God's covenantal promises. Unison voices with organ.]
J. S. Bach (from Oxford X212 or Carols for Choirs 11)

"Come, Thou Long-Awaited Savior" [Very singable and beautiful. Moderately difficult for SATB and piano.]
Felix Mendelssohn (National CH33)


"Savior of the Nations, Come"
(PH 14, PsH 336, RL 189)

"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"
(PH 1-2, PsH 329, RL 183, TH 196)

"The God of Abraham Praise"
(PH 488, PsH 621, RL 595, TH 34)

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

Christ's birth and kingdom are foretold by Isaiah.

"Unto Us a Child Is Born" [A majestic setting of the Isaiah text stated in declamatory style. ABA form. Moderately difficult, but well worth the effort. SATB with organ and optional trumpet.]
Richard Purvis (MCA Inc. UC637)

"Mary, Mary" [Fairly simple for SATB and two flutes with guitar or piano.]
Carolyn Jennings, arr. (Curtis C7943)

"Unto Us Is Born a Son" [May be sung in unison or parts with organ. Typically bright, ending in Wilkocks's descant style. Easy.]
David Willcocks, arr. (from Carols for Choirs 1, Oxford.)

"Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates" [A very rhythmic and exciting carol based on Psalm 24. Much syncopation, but quite tuneful. Very effective as rhythmic contrast. Medium difficulty for SATB and organ.]
William Mathias (Oxford 42.380)


"The People Who in Darkness Walked"
(PsH 192)

"That Boy-Child of Mary"
(PH 55, PsH 352)

"Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come"
(PH 40, PsH 337, RL 198, TH 195)

Isahiah 11:1-9

The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown.

"A Spotless Rose" [A difficult but beautiful acappella carol for baritone solo and SATB choir. Parallel writing and mixed meter are typical]
Herbert Howells (Galaxy 220)

"Light Everlasting" [Luscious harmony and contrasting dynamics make this very appealing. Use of text is very effective. SATB with optional accompaniment on the organ.]
Olaf C. Christiansen (Neil Kjos ED 5110)

"Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" [A smooth, homophonic setting of the chorale with contrasting string accompaniment. SATB, easy.]
Paul Bunjes, arr. (GENEVAN 42, Concordia 98-1388)


"Isaiah the Prophet Has Written of Old"
(PH 337, PsH 616)

"Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming"
(PH 48, PsH 351, RL 204, TH 221)

Micah 5:2-4

The prophet Micah foretells the glory of little Bethlehem.

"Sleeps Judea Fair" [This is in the style of a lullaby that incorporates a motif from the melody of "Stille Nacht." It is quiet and lyrical. Very easy for SATB and organ]
Hugh A. MacKinnon (H. W. Gray GCMR754)

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" [Scored for organ and choir, this arrangement is extremely beautiful. Moderately difficult. SATB and organ. May be sung in unison.]
H. Walford Davies (Novello 1083)

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" [A strophic setting with a charming descant on stanza four. SATB or unison with organ.]
R. Vaughan Williams (from Carols for Choirs I, Oxford)


"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
(PH 43-44, RL 193-194, TH 201-202)

"Little Bethlehem of Judah"
(PsH 204)

Luke 1:26-33, 38

The angel Gabriel salutes the virgin Mary.

"Gabriel's Message" [A wonderful setting of the Basque Carol that first appeared in The University Carol Book. The meter is 12/8, which provides a lilt to the rhythm. Easy. SATB unaccompanied.]
David Willcocks, arr. (from Carols for Choirs 11, Oxford)

"In Dulci Jubilo" [The traditional tune with organ accompaniment and challengingly rhythmic instrumental obligati. SAB choir with organ and two instruments in C (preferably oboes or violins).]
Dieterich Buxtehude, arr. (Concordia 98-1500)

"I Sing of a Maiden" [This is duet writing at its best in the character of a lullaby. Scored for two-part treble voices and organ.]
Patrick Hadley (from Carols for Choirs 11, Oxford)

"Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis" [The song of Mary is set in typically festive English style by this pupil of Herbert Howells. It is most delightful and rewarding to a good choir. Moderately difficult. SATB and organ.]
Herbert Murrill (Oxford 505)

"A New Magnificat" [A most unusual dual setting of the songs of Mary and Hannah. Two treble soloists are pitted against the SATB choir antiphonally with participation by the congregation on refrains. Very easy and effective. SATB, treble soli and organ.]
Carolyn Jennings (Augsburg 11-2098)


"Song of Mary"
(PH 600 PsH 212,478, 622, RL 182, TH 26)

Isaiah 60:1-6, 19

The prophet in exile foresees the coming of the glory of the Lord.

"Arise, Shine for Your Light Is Come" [A simple setting for SATB with congregation on the refrains.]
Davis Folkerts (CRC Publications 241-198-00)

"Arise, O God, and Shine" [A wonderfully majestic supplement to the Isaiah 60 passage. Unison writing alternates with rich four-part texture. Medium difficulty. SATB and organ.]
Walter L. Pelz (Concordia 98-1718)


"Arise, Shine, for Your Light Is Come"
(PsH 198)

"Arise, Your Light Is Come!"
"Arise, O God"
(TH 442)

Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus.

"Jesus, Name of Wondrous Love" [An appealing, moderately easy anthem with emphasis on the name of Jesus. Choral texture is slightly varied with short solos. Very easy. SATB and organ.]
Everett Titcomb (B.F. Wood 669)

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" [Powerfully supported by the organ, the anthem begins quietly, steadily building strength through thickening texture and strong dynamics. Not difficult for the average choir. SATB with organ.]
Gustav Hoist (Galaxy #5)

"Sir Christemas" [This is a carol of shouting "Nowells" with a challenging organ accompaniment. Some French interpolations, but not difficult to sing. SATB and organ.]
William Mathias (Oxford X207)

"In the Bleak Midwinter" [A wonderful, melodic setting of Christina Rossetti's poem, employing S.T. soli and SATB voices. Although the four-part writing is easy, tuning can be a problem.]
Harold Darke (Stainer & Bell Ltd. 1.5160.1)


"O Come, O Come, Immanuel"
(PH 9, PsH 328, RL 184, TH 194)

Luke 2:1-7

Luke tells of the birth of Jesus.

"In Slumber, Peaceful Slumber" [Although the parts are written in a rather high register, typical of Moravian anthems, this lullaby is worth the effort, for it suits the Scripture well. Medium difficulty. SATB and organ.]
Christian Gregor (Boosey & Hawkes 5701)

"Before the Marvel of this Night" [Not only is this a wonderful text, hut the melodic support is outstanding! Very easy. SATB with optional instruments.]
Carl Schalk (Augsburg 11-2005)


"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"
(PH 58-59, PsH 215, RL 199-200, TH 222-223)

Luke 2:8-20

The Shepherds go to the Manger.

"Come Leave Your Sheep" [This is done in Rutter's typical lyrical style with variation between unison writing and four-part harmony. Moderately easy. SATB and organ or piano.]
John Rutter {from Twelve Christmas Carols, Oxford, or Carols for Choirs 11, Oxford)

"Glory to God in the Highest" [A lively and excitingly rhythmic setting of the angels' song. Texture varies from easy, homophonic writing to linear melismatic passages. Medium difficulty. SATB and organ.]
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (Presser 332-14507)

"The Godly Stranger" [A hauntingly lovely setting of a poem by Nai-da Knatvold. Very simple but appropriate. SATB unaccompanied.]
G. Winston Cassler (Augsburg 11-1144)

"Lullay My Liking" [A lovely lullaby as solos alternate with a refrain in mixed meter. Easy. SATB unaccompanied.]
Gustav Hoist (G. Schirmer)

"Good Christian Friends, Rejoice" [A lilting 6/8 setting of the fourteenth-century "In dulci jubilo," including a descant. Easy. SATB, organ and optional handbells.]
Walter Pelz, arr. (Augsburg 11-2140)

"How Far Is It to Bethlehem?" [A unique setting with occasional dissonances which may be difficult to tune. The charm of it is its modern harmony and the oboe accompaniment. Moderately difficult. SATB with tenor and soprano solos, oboe and harp.]
Stephen Paulus, arr. (Augsburg 11-0598)


"Glory to God"
(PsH 214)

"Silent Night"
(PH 60, PsH 344, RL 216, TH 210)

"See, Amid the Winter's Snow"
(PH 51,RL 219,TH 199)

Matthew 2:1-11

The wise men are led by the star to Jesus.

"There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob" [A magnificent motet closing with the Nicolai chorale, "Hoio Brightly Beams the Morning Star." The combination of the prophecy of the Numbers 24 passage with the homage of the wise men is astounding. Moderately difficult. SATB and organ.]
Felix Mendelssohn (Schmitt, Hall and McCreary, 1903)

"Three Kings" [The visit of the Magi is dramatically depicted in rich harmonies and dramatic use of dynamics. Difficult. SSATBB unaccompanied.]
Healey Willan (Oxford 43214)

"The Blessed Son of God" [A lovely declaration of God's love and mercy to all people, rounded out with "Kyrie eleison." The harmonies are warm and creative. SATB unaccompanied.]
R. Vaughan Williams (from Carols for Choirs 1, Oxford)


"As with Gladness Men of Old"
(PH 63, PsH 358, RL 228, TH 226)

"We Three Kings of Orient Are"
(PH 66, RL 225)

"Songs of Thankfulness and Praise"
(PH 361,RL 231)

John 1:1-14

John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation.

"At the Name of Jesus" [A seven-stanza setting of Caroline Noel's hymn to the tune KING'S WESTON. It is a powerful summary of Christ's ministry with a choral call to submit to his lordship. Much of the scoring is for unison with descant. However, the four-part stanzas are quiet, unaccompanied reflections. Moderately difficult due to extremely high descants, but can be modified to suit most any choir. SATB with organ.]
R. Vaughan Williams (Oxford 40.100)

"Sing We Now of Christmas" [A joyful setting of the familiar French carol which ends very climactically in eight parts. Difficult. SSAAT-TBB unaccompanied.]
Fred Prentice (Gentry JG-469)

"Splendor Is Coming" [The power and glory of the incarnate God is dramatically presented by organ and SATB choir. Medium difficulty.]
Walter L. Pelz (AMSI247)


"O Word of God Incarnate"
(PH 327, PsH 279, RL 387, TH 140)



"O Come, All Ye Faithful"
(PH 41-42, PsH 340, RL 195, TH 208)


Merle R. Mustert is an associate professor of music (emeritus) at Calvin College and director of music at La Grave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 21 © September 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.