The angel Gabriel from heaven came is a powerful text that illustrates the story of Mary’s journey from the Annunciation to the Incarnation perfectly. This, coupled with the rousing tune, Gabriel’s Message, makes for an accessible and uplifting experience that is perfect for this Sunday. The text is actually a paraphrase by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) of a Basque carol. Baring-Gould was an Anglican priest and a prolific hymn writer and editor. Of all his works, however, The angel Gabriel is the most enduringly popular.
One of my favorite things is to show contrast between two different arrangements of a piece during the same service or concert. This week, the choir will sing Gabriel’s Message, by Craig Philips (b. 1961). Since we will have sung this hymn as a congregation, it should be easy for everyone to appreciate the liberties and modifications Philips has made in his arrangement. Starting with a whimsical organ introduction introducing material that will be reused throughout the piece, Philips begins to interpret the mysterious, other-worldly nature of the angel and the message. There is a sense of urgency in this piece that propels it to the end. Finally, giving way to unbridled joy, the ending is loud and radiant in its expression of the final verse. The sopranos soar above the rest of the choir in a sublime descant, and the organ builds in volume until a final, unexpected punctuating chord ends the piece. Verse four is printed below.
“Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born
in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say
'Most highly favored lady.'
Craig Philips is an American composer who has become quite renowned in the world of church music, especially Anglican/Episcopal church music. Personally, I find his music to stretch from very approachable and straightforward to heady and complex. Of course, even amid significant complexity, his music conveys its message with the poetry of a mature and sensitive artist. Below, I have reprinted selected portions of Philip’s extensive biography from his website, craigphilipscomposer.com.
“Craig Phillips (b. 1961) is a distinguished and popular American composer and organist. His choral and organ music is heard Sunday by Sunday in churches and cathedrals across the United States, and many of his works have been performed in concert throughout North America, Europe and Asia. He was named the American Guild of Organists Distinguished Composer for 2012 — the seventeenth recipient of this special award. Dr. Phillips joins an illustrious list that include past honorees Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, Daniel Pinkham, Stephen Paulus, David Hurd and others.
Dr. Phillips holds the degrees Doctor of Musical Arts, Master of Music, and the Performers Certificate from the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York, where he studied with the great pedagogue Russell Saunders. His Bachelor of Music Degree is from Oklahoma Baptist University, and his early musical studies were at the Blair School of Music in Nashville.
Dr. Phillips has served as Director of Music at All Saints’ Church, Beverly Hills since 2009. He previously served for 20 years as the churches’ Associate Director of Music and Composer-in-Residence. He is a member of the American Guild of Organists, the Association of Anglican Musicians, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and serves on the board of the Ann Stookey Fund for New Music and the Clarence Mader Foundation. He resides in West Hollywood, California.”
Finally, I wish to say a word about the organ prelude this week, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 660), by J. S. Bach (1685-1750). This is one of three individual organ settings of this famous German chorale found in Bach’s collection, 18 Large Chorale Preludes. In the title, Bach indicates that this piece is a trio (three distinct lines) with two bass lines in addition to the ornamented melody. This is unusual, and it therefore creates a sound seldom heard in Bach’s organ works. This feature of the composition has led some to speculate that it may actually have started out as a cantata movement featuring two bass instruments. Regardless, there is a sense of urgency and of forward motion in this prelude that fits the Fourth Sunday of Advent quite well. As another “compare and contrast” moment, we will sing the hymn the prelude is based on as our final hymn this Sunday, Savior of the nations, come. We have finally come to the last week of Advent, and our last hymn expresses our desire clearly and perfectly.