One of the greatest challenges of celebrating Advent is the fact that Christmas music seems to be everywhere beginning the day after Thanksgiving. It’s on the radio, in the department stores, in television commercials, you name it.
As a musician, I’m often asked for Advent music recommendations, so this year, I’ve taken advantage of modern technology and curated an Advent playlist through Spotify which is by no means exhaustive, since it’s impossible to include everything. Instead, this is a sampling which I hope will inspire your own exploration of the music of this beautiful season of waiting in joyful hope. Below the playlist are “liner notes” for anyone curious about why a particular piece was included, which may be especially interesting with regard to pieces chosen for their relevance to a particular feast day.
May this music create a space within your heart where Jesus may find a home on Christmas day.
- Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel)
The Westminster Choir
Christmas with the Westminster Choir
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is, without doubt, the hymn most strongly associated with the season of Advent, and so it provides the bookends for this playlist: two very different versions of the same hymn serving as a kind of prelude and coda. Here, it is sung in a simple, straightforward arrangement, reflecting the fact that this season calls us to simplify our lives so as to prepare a place within our hearts where Christ may come to dwell at Christmas.
- Messiah: Part 1, Comfort ye, my people
George Frederic Handel, The Sixteen
It’s only right to include the comforting message of Isaiah and the comforting beauty of Handel’s Messiah at the beginning of an Advent playlist. A perennial classic, this famous oratorio took the composer a mere 24 days to complete. Year after year, choirs throughout the world perform this work for thousands of listeners, helping them to wonder anew at the gift of mercy that God extends to us in Jesus.
- Maria Walks Amid the Thorn
Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles
Advent at Ephesus
This anonymous hymn originated in Germany around the sixteenth century. It tells of two roses blooming on a barren branch as a pregnant Virgin Mary passes by, calling to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Is 11:1).
- The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns
Wintermas Moon: Yuletide Improvisations for Solo Harp
The sparseness of a solo harp captures the solemn mystery of this popular hymn, which speaks not of Christ’s coming in history at Bethlehem, but of his coming in majesty, his return in glory: “Not as of old, a little child, to suffer and to die, but crowned with glory like the sun that lights the morning sky.”
- Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
While this text is often paired with a different tune in various hymnals, the combination of this pleading text with the Welsh tune Hyfrydol (often sung with “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus” or “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”) lends a hopeful, quiet confidence to the arrangement. The heart that pleads for the coming of Jesus will never be disappointed.
- Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding
Chicago Metro Presbytery Music
Proclaim the Bridegroom Near
This anonymous text dates to back to the fifth century, and was translated and metricized in the nineteenth century by Englishman Edward Caswall. Paired here with a haunting melody and performed only with banjo and cello, this unique arrangement recalls the sound of the Appalachian musical tradition.
- Come Thou Fount
Good to Me—single
Catholic singer-songwriter Audrey Assad is known for her contemporary arrangements of classic hymns, here combining nuanced background vocals and ambient music with a straightforward piano accompaniment and vocal melody. The result is a sound that breathes life into familiar words and melodies, allowing listeners to encounter them anew.
- Come My Way, My Truth, My Light
University of Notre Dame Folk Choir
Tune My Heart: Songs of Healing and Compassion
This text by George Herbert was made famous by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his suite Five Mystical Songs, composed for solo baritone. Here, it has been reimagined by Steve Warner with a new melody for choir that retains the lyricism of the original setting.
- Gabriel’s Message
arr. David Wilcox, dir. John Rutter
The Cambridge Singers Christmas Album
A traditional carol from the Basque region, this Advent hymn first appeared in English near the turn of the twentieth century. The text narrates the events of the Annunciation, highlighting the honor Christians pay to Mary as the “most highly favored lady” who did the will of God without hesitation.
- Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 (J.S. Bach)
Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer
Johann Sebastian Bach composed nearly a dozen cantatas (large-scale scriptural choral works) specifically for Christmas. This arrangement of an instrumental movement from BWV 140 features an ornamented countermelody in the mandolin. The cello sings the chorale melody and the double bass provides harmonic support. This is often sung throughout Advent as “Wake, O Wake, and Sleep No Longer” or “Sleepers, Wake!”
- Soon and Very Soon
Legends of Gospel
A staple in the gospel tradition of liturgical music, this hymn looks not to Jesus’ historical coming, but to his eschatological coming, when God will be all in all. Each element of this arrangement—the choral singing, the solo improvisations, the instrumental parts—combine to form a joyful acclamation of Christ’s kingship.
- The Strathclyde Motets: O Radiant Dawn
James MacMillan, Vocal Group Concert Clemens
There is No Rose: Christmas in the 21st Century
This is a setting of the fifth O Antiphon, “O Oriens,” by renowned Scottish composer James MacMillan, utilizing an English translation of the Latin text. MacMillan highlights individual words like “light” with surprising harmonic shifts and unexpected chords.
- Alleluja! Sancte Nicolae (Mass of St. Nicholas)
Plays of Saint Nicholas
Throughout this playlist are pieces that coincide with the saints and feasts celebrated throughout Advent. Thus, this text is the verse that would have been sung before the Gospel for the feast of St. Nicholas, which takes place on December 6. The text speaks of the saint as “sweet hope of the poor” and “strength of the many who are powerless.” It also serves as a reminder that the season of Advent is a time for us to participate in works of charity and mercy by sharing our gifts with the poor.
- In medio ecclesiae
Gregorian Chants from Austria: From Christmas to Epiphany
This chant is the Entrance Antiphon or Introit for the feast of St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (December 7): “In the midst of the Church he opened his mouth, and the Lord filled him with his spirit, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. He clothed him with a robe of glory. He has stored up joy and exultation for him.”
- III. Radix
J.J. Wright, Notre Dame Children’s Choir, Fifth House Ensemble
Another O Antiphon, “O Radix Jesse,” this arrangement fuses together the text of the antiphon with the lyrics and melody of the well-known hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” with jazz-inspired musical gestures to create a unique musical experience. The string instruments give this setting a warm quality well-suited to the texts.
- Christmas Lullaby
Jason Robert Brown, Andrea Burns
Songs for a New World
Perhaps an odd addition to this list, given its origins in the world of musical theatre, this piece nevertheless taps into the expectation of Advent as the singer expresses her desire to “be like mother Mary.” The text recalls that all Christians are called to allow Christ to take root in their hearts so that they, too, can be like Mary and bring him to the world.
- Gaudens Gaudebo
Ludovico Casali, Regensburger Domspatzen
100 Masterpieces of Sacred Choral Music
This piece is a setting of the Introit (Entrance Antiphon) for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the patronal feast of the United States of America celebrated on December 8. The text comes from the prophet Isaiah: “I will rejoice heartily in the LORD, my being exults in my God; For he has clothed me with garments of salvation, and wrapped me in a robe of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is 61:10).
- Magnificat in B-flat
Charles Villiers Stanford, Truro Cathedral Choir
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis
The Magnificat is the hymn of the Virgin Mary, in which she praises God for the blessings he has bestowed upon her in choosing her to be the Mother of his Son Jesus. Prayed every day throughout the world during Vespers, this hymn is a joyful proclamation of God’s gracious mercy in casting down the proud and the mighty, and lifting up the poor and the oppressed.
- Ave Maria
Franz Biebl, Chanticleer
Our Heart’s Joy: A Chanticleer Christmas
One of the most famous and beautiful settings of the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), this extraordinary setting incorporates the versicles of the Angelus in the three solo sections interspersed between the first and second halves of the Hail Mary prayer. The solo verses translate as: “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Spirit. Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”
- La Guadalupana
Un Canto a la Guadalupana Mañanitas
Another hymn for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the verses of this hymn narrate the events of Mary’s apparition to St. Juan Diego (whose feast is celebrated on December 9—the anniversary of Mary’s first apparition to him), of his attempt to have a shrine built in her name and the bishop’s opposition, and finally of the miracle of the roses and the apparition of her image on his tilma.
- Mañanitas Guadalupanas
Mariachi Chapala de Armando López
Also known “Virgencita Ranchera” (“Laboring Virgin”), this traditional mariachi song is sung on the feast of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, celebrated on December 12. The hymn speaks of the work that Mary does in helping gather all people to God through her Son, and of the love that all of Mexico has in return for their Queen, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
- Virgen India
Rodolfo Gemio Fernandez, Massimiliano Italiani, Silvio Scarpolini
Sembrar para Cosechar (Como la Cigarra)
This hymn in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe refers to the fact that she appeared to St. Juan Diego as one of the indigenous people. She spoke his language. She was dressed in clothing that incorporated symbolism familiar to people of that time. She identifies herself with her beloved children and longs to be close to them as their mother.
- Sankta Lucia
Malmö Academic Choir and Alla Fagra
On December 13, which was once observed as the Winter Solstice, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Lucy, whose name means “light.” Many beautiful traditions surround this feast, and this hymn sings of the fact that St. Lucy brings the light of Christ with her, and that the days will soon get longer once again.
- Dark Night of the Soul
Ola Gjeilo, Phoenix Chorale
This sweeping piece has the character of a film score or a tone poem, taking its title and lyrics from St. John of the Cross’ seminal poem. The Church celebrates the feast of St. John of the Cross on December 14, a poignant reminder that darkness can be present, even in this season of light. Indeed, the holiday season as a whole can often be a time fraught with turmoil, especially for those experiencing their own dark night. The angular, driving sections of this piece give voice to that turmoil, while the contrasting quieter sections provide a musical reminder that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
- O Thou the Central Orb
Charles Wood, The Sixteen
A New Heaven
This piece for choir and organ hails from the great tradition of English anthems, incorporating majestic and soaring melodies, coupled with a text that sings of God as the source of light, praying for that light to come into the world and make all things new.
- E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come
Paul Manz, The Shorter Chorale
A Savior from on High
The text for this moving piece comes from chapter 22 of the book of Revelation, which speaks of Christ’s coming at the end of time. The powerful music was written during a time of great turmoil in the composer’s life, and captures well the feeling of longing and pleading that characterizes the Advent season.
- 7 Advent Antiphons: No. 1, O Sapientia
Howard Skempton, Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Advent at Merton
The following seven selections are musical settings of the O Antiphons, sung by the Church during Vespers beginning on December 17. Each of these settings is by a different composer, so each has its own unique sonority, and yet they all evoke a sense of mystery and wonder as we approach the coming of Jesus.
- 7 Advent Antiphons: No. 2, O Adonai
John Tavener, Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Advent at Merton
- 7 Advent Antiphons: No. 3, O Radix Jesse
Rihards Dubra, Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Advent at Merton
- 7 Advent Antiphons: No. 4, O Clavis David
Gabriel Jackson, Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Advent at Merton
- 7 Advent Antiphons: No. 5, O Oriens
Cecilia McDowall, Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Advent at Merton
- 7 Advent Antiphons: No. 6, O Rex Gentium
Matthew Martin, Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Advent at Merton
- 7 Advent Antiphons: No. 7, O Emmanuel
Ēriks Ešenvalds, Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Advent at Merton
- O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Songs for Christmas
Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has released several albums of music for the Advent and Christmas seasons, creating arrangements that incorporate layers of vocals and instruments. Here, recorders are paired with banjo and acoustic and electric guitar as well as percussion to create a thoughtful new take on this perennial Advent favorite. The proliferation of so many versions of this and other hymns of the Advent and Christmas seasons serve as a reminder that every generation is called to welcome the Gospel, to welcome Christ.
Don’t miss the McGrath Institute for Church Life guide to the O Antiphons.
Editorial Note: Throughout the month of December, Church Life Journal will explore the Catholic imagination as an eschatological imagination. By eschatological imagination, we mean the imagination that highlights Christ’s coming in to the world: in his second coming at the end of time; as he is manifest in the scriptures; made known through his Mother (both then and now); and in Jesus’s nativity, which we anticipate during this season of Advent. We seek to reflect, in other words, on the myriad implications of Christ’s Incarnation for this life and the one that is to come. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the eschatological imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think and pray along with us.
Featured Image: Lorenzo Monaco, Antiphonary (Cod. Cor. 1, folio 102), 1396; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.