Note for note, no season beats Advent for hymns in my estimation. Advent hymns are some of the finest in Christian hymnody – rich in typology, deep in the Gospel, with textured melancholy melodies conveying the quiet, somber joy of this season of expectation and hope.
These are my personal Advent favorites.
1. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – The grandaddy of Advent hymns. The text is 12th century Latin; it actually sings better in Latin than English. The tune is 15th century French. For a great rendition of this hymn, check out Mannheim Steamroller’s A Fresh Aire Christmas. The text is a paraphrase of the great "O" Antiphons that precede the chanting of the Magnificat in Vespers from December 17 to 23. Each Antiphon prays to Christ under a different Old Testament typological name: Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, Desire of Nations, Emmanuel. Watch where you take your breath or the "Rejoice" refrain won’t make sense: Rejoice! Rejoice! (breathe) Emmanuel (no breath here!) will come to you, O Israel.
2. Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding – It doesn’t get much more intensely Advent than this one. The prophetic Voice calling in the wilderness. Christ is near! The apostolic call to holiness. "Cast away the works of darkness, all you children of the Day!" The text is Latin from somewhere between the 5th and 10th centuries. (Why is it that all the great hymns are Latin in origin? Think Adeste Fidelis!) LSB uses Merton as the tune, which I don’t care for. I vastly prefer the tune in LW – Freuen Wir Uns All in Ein (Don’t you just love those tune names?). It’s tough to learn but worth it once you have it. I have members who demand this one.
3. Savior of the Nations, Come - Great text from Ambrose of Milan (340-397). Luther loved this one and wrote his own paraphrase translation. The tune is rock solid and plays well on guitar (don’t tell the liturgical types I told you!). Take it in E minor and save yourself the agony. Or use a capo. The text follows the contours of the Christ hymn of Philippians 2 with Christ’s descent and ascent. Every verse is a devotional gem. Sing all seven and then get up on your feet for that doxology.
4. Once He Came in Blessing - I love this hymn with its sweet melody (Gottes Sohn Ist Kommen) and its punchy poetry. I’m always humming this one in Advent. LSB did a nice job getting rid of that horrid "those who then are loyal, find a welcome royal." You have to watch some of the Catherine Winkworth translations. She was a great lady and prolific hymn translator, but a pietist par excellence. That’s why we have hymnal committees.
5. Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending - Sung to the tune Helmsley, this powerhouse could bring on the eschaton. We close the church year with it and open the new year with a repeat performance. LW had it set to Picardy ("Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence") which has a nice Advent ring to it, but I vastly prefer the majesterial Helmsley tune. The Concordia-St. Louis Seminary Chorus as a great rendition of this. The text is by Charles Wesley, brother of John, proving that Methodists aren’t all bad. The opening line is tweaked in our version. Wesley had "once for favored sinners slain," we have "once for ev’ry sinner slain," thereby avoiding an accidental slip into the Calvinist ditch, though "favored sinners" can be understood rightly in view of God’s universal favor in Christ. But you can’t be too careful when it comes to TULIP’s "L" (let the reader understand). "All" means "all" and "world" means "world" under the gratia universalis. This hymn needs trumpets, a tympani, and one kickin’ organ.
6. The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns – This is a terrific little hymn with a tune out of the early American shape note tradition. The text faces east, toward the rising sun, and the dawning Day of Christ’s appearing. The hymnwriter, John Brownlie, was a translator of Greek hymns, and wrote this hymn with a kind of eastern flavor. The hymn nicely captures Christ’s reign with that wonderful cry at the end, "Come, quickly, King of kings."
7. The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came – The 4th Sunday in Advent puts the spotlight on the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos (Bearer of God). The hymn recounts the Annunciation (celebrated March 25 – that’s 9 months kiddies, do the math). Each stanza ends with the honorific "most highly favored lady," reminding us that Mary does have a place in our piety as the Mother of our Lord, protestantizing influences nothwithstanding. Just don’t start praying to her now and in the hour of your death. The text and tune are 18th century Basque and give a pleasant relief from all those angular German and English hymns. A little obscure, for those who don’t listen to classical Christmas albums, but definitely a keeper worthy of learning.
8. Comfort, Comfort Ye My People – I grew up disliking this hymn, only to realize that our organists were playing it waaaay too slow (along with the liturgy). Count it on the half-note and this one soars with the eagles (I’m not referring to that great guitar band of the 70′s). Our choir does it with a little tambourine interlude by John Ferguson that almost makes you want to dance, but we’re Lutherans and that’s not about to happen this side of the parousia. The text is Isaiah 40:1-8 and the prophetic Voice calling out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord." Or is it "In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord?" With John the Baptizer, it’s both/and, so in the end it doesn’t really matter. The point is "prepare," which is a major motif in Advent.
That’s my Advent playlist. For a great alternative rendering of some of these Advent tunes, check out Anne Dudley’s Ancient and Modern.