Fine Arts Column: Merry Crisis: a study playlist for Advent (and finals)


Some nights, I stare blankly at the screen of my laptop at a loss for what artistic ruminations I could possibly contribute to this illustrious publication that are worth the attention and time of the general public.

Such considerations are only heightened by the swift approach of finals, the death knell of our collective sanity. However, I remain resolute in my attempts at turning in my columns (mostly) on time, completing my coursework and not descending into utter psychosis.

For those of you (i.e. most all of my readers) who are currently experiencing similar strain, allow me to provide some suggestions for your listening pleasure as you catch up on those journals, pore over your lecture notes and dream of home. Lord knows I will need them myself. Without further ado, it’s episode two of the Fine Arts Columnist’s Study Playlist, Advent Edition.

“Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” by Thomas Olivers (music) and Charles Wesley (text). Nothing says December like a delightful trumpet fanfare, an organ and a dramatic descant, so look for the 2000 recording by the Cambridge Singers for the full effect. Few well-known Advent and Christmas hymns make particular mention of Christ’s crucifixion, let alone His present resurrected state. Charles Wesley may have been a Methodist, but he wrote a darn good text for this one.

“O Magnum Mysterium” by Tomás Luis de Victoria. In one of the defining examples of Spanish polyphony, Victoria sets to music this responsory from the Christmas office of Matins. The words commemorate the great mystery (“magnum mysterium”) of the animals witnessing the new-born Lord. Once again, the Cambridge Singers are a good recording to go for. Yes, they’re just that good.

“Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 645) by J. S. Bach. Like many chorale-based works by Bach, “Wachet auf” exists in multiple forms, but the BWV 645 rendition is a sort of top 40 hit for organists everywhere. “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying,” as the title of one English translation reads, fits the theme of Advent well as it heralds the coming Savior, and Bach’s setting is a true classic. Olivier Latry gives a tasteful performance.

“Christmas Time is Here” (instrumental) by the Vince Guaraldi. I forever underappreciate jazz, but few have made it as accessible and ubiquitous in the American consciousness as Vince Guaraldi did with the animated Charlie Brown TV specials. The entire Charlie Brown Christmas album is essential Christmas listening. It’s poignant and cozy and everything a dying student needs to survive these cold, dark days. It is a glimmer of hope to hold onto.

“Fantasia on Christmas Carols” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It may not be Christmas yet, but the piece’s somber opening proclamation and exposition of salvation history have always seemed to me appropriate for Advent. Let it serve as an inspiration of what to look forward to. Few composers loomed larger in 20th-century England than Vaughan Williams, and the “Fantasia” is a deft 11-minute tapestry of various carols complete with soloist and orchestra. As we look forward to the coming of Our Lord at Christmas, may the joy that pervades this piece fill our hearts and move us to ever greater devotion to him.