The Music of Doomsday

This week we bring to a close the Christian year, Advent being the beginning of the new cycle. The Sunday before Advent is celebrated in modern lectionaries as “Christ the King,” which is a fitting commemoration to the end of a cycle; but the older observance, still known in parts of the Anglican Communion as “Stir-up Sunday” for the first words of its proper collect, retains an urgency and necessity otherwise lacking. On this very last Sunday we face the very last things: judgement, separation, and annihilation. We will hear our Lord’s words about the sheep and the goats and our failures to care for the least of his brethren. As he said elsewhere, “Fear God who is able to destroy both body and soul.”

Without these bold and terrifying eschatological prophecies, which so clearly show us the power of the law and the problem of sin, the glory of the solution in the Gospel is diluted, and the Advent journey towards new life has no clear starting point. Shying away from these difficult parts of Scripture does no one any good.

This Sunday we will take advantage of the wealth of vivid music that fits with this imagery. Our offertory anthem will be Benjamin Britten‘s “A Hymn of St. Columba.” I love this work for its menacing accompaniment, vindictive rhythm, and sense of desolation. I think it captures the atmosphere that St. Columba lived in, traveling amongst the 6th-century Hebrides in the dark winters of the North Atlantic. It reminds me of standing on a seawall at night in the rain, feeling the impact of waves through your feet on the stone, and knowing that one more step over the edge would end you.

The most famous and enduring of medieval plainsong sequences, the Dies Irae,” taken from the Requiem service, will also make an appearance as one of our hymns this Sunday, in a shortened version taken from our 1940 Hymnal. The opening of the chant has served as material for innumerable other compositions, including Berlioz‘s often-heard “Symphonie fantastique;” another of my favorite uses is in Petr Eben‘s “Landscape with Horses” for organ and percussion, which I recorded a few years ago. (We will hear from Eben’s Sunday Music in the closing voluntary.)

Our service will not all be doom and gloom, though! As we approach the sacrament of communion, the mood changes as we focus on the gifts of grace offered to us and our response to them. Our young trebles will be featured in Giles Brightwell‘s setting of the “Tantum ergo,” and we will end with the great Thanksgiving hymn “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” with its wonderful last verse that sends us on a springboard to Advent: “Even so, Lord, quickly come to thy final harvest-home; gather thou thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin.” Come and worship with us!

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