University of St. Michael’s College’s Schola Cantorum founder, Michael O’Connor (second row left) teamed up with John Edwards (front row with lute), the Musicians in Ordinary and others for an Advent program spanning nearly 1,000 years of Christian music from the Middle Ages into the 17th century. Photo by Sheila Eaton

Ancient music sets stage for the Christmas season

By 
  • December 13, 2016

There’s no better way to get ready for Christmas than to open your ears to a little Advent music — not the jingles in the mall but music that slows time down just enough to allow for some peace and reflection.

Part-time musician and full-time math teacher Jolie Chrisman can’t imagine approaching Christmas without music. At the end of an Advent concert on Dec. 9 by the Musicians in Ordinary and friends at St. Basil’s Church on the campus of the University of St. Michael’s College, Chrisman said she was “definitely” feeling more ready for Christmas.

James Sherlock, another of the more than 600 people who filled St. Basil’s, called the Star of the Sea concert “a great introduction to the Christmas season.”

Sherlock described the ancient music featured in the concert as “quite moving” — not only for the “lovely sounding choir” but also lyrics which are full of anticipation.

For most musicians it’s a delight to fill a room with sound and feel the audience react. If you need a reason to be where all the sound is being made, Christmas and Advent concerts are the best reason there could be, St. Michael’s College senior lecturer Michael O’Connor tells The Catholic Register.

That’s because live music is a perfect marriage between body and spirit. You can’t really celebrate the Incarnation with a disembodied experience of recorded music, said O’Connor.

“It can often be a real revelation just to see a bunch of people looking at each other, moving in time, breathing together, the eye contact flickering, to see the sweat glistening on the brow, to realize how physical music making is,” said O’Connor, founder of St. Michael’s Schola Cantorum and a professor in the Christianity and Culture program.

“This is the extraordinary thing about music. It’s very flesh and blood and yet at the same time it can be very spiritual. That’s Christmas.”

O’Connor’s Schola Cantorum teamed up with Tafelmusik violinist Christopher Varrette, the Musicians in Ordinary and the Pneuma Ensemble to present an Advent program spanning nearly 1,000 years of Christian music from the early Middle Ages to the 17th century.

“Advent is a period of waiting, but joyful, hopeful waiting,” O’Connor said. “Not just for the coming of the baby Jesus, but for the coming of the adult Jesus — the second coming…. That taps into the Christian sense of time.”

It’s the serenity of the season and the human instinct for the holy that makes the sacred music of the Mediaeval and Renaissance periods so timeless, said Musicians in Ordinary lutenist John Edwards.

“We still experience joy and serenity and things like this in the same way that somebody in 1500 did, or in fact 1500 B.C. We still feel things in the same way,” Edwards said. “We still experience the holy in the same way as somebody 500 or 1,000 years ago.”

But people have to be willing to give themselves over to the experience. One of the most disappointing things Edwards sees at concerts is people in their seats with their phones lifted above their heads, videographing the concert.

“You know what? Your friends aren’t interested in viewing the concert on your iPhone,” Edwards said. “Just come and experience, you know?”

One of the oldest pieces on the program is known as the “Advent Prose,” or Rorate Coeli in Latin. The chant dates from as early as the 600s.

“On a dark evening, when the temperature has been dropping for a few weeks, it really takes you into a new experience of being yourself, being in the world and your sense of where time is moving,” said O’Connor.

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