Best Advent hymns and music

The greatest pieces of Advent music to sing during the festive season, as chosen by Andrew Nethsingha, choral conductor and director of music at St John's College, Cambridge

Ten of the best pieces of Advent music

The Advent period starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve and marks the lead up to Christmas. The tradition of celebrating Advent is believed to have been started by the Bishop Perpetuus in the Fifth Century, when he directed people should fast three times a week from St. Martin’s Day on 11 November until Christmas. The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge’s director of music Andrew Nethsingha is the perfect person to ask for his favourite Advent works, as his choir is renowned for its annual Advent service, broadcast on BBC Radio 3. 

Advertisement

The word Advent comes from the  the Latin adventus meaning ‘coming; arrival’.

Best Advent songs

John Joubert: There is no rose

Arguably the most perfect Advent carol of the 20th-century. Exquisitely crafted, with charming simplicity.

Herbert Howells: A spotless rose

An iconic early Advent work, written some 25 years before his most famous canticle settings. One of the gems of the season!

We named ‘A Spotless Rose‘ one of the best Christmas carols ever

James Burton: Tomorrow shall be my dancing day

When St John’s College, Cambridge commissioned this piece for Advent, I asked the composer for ‘something fun, wacky, quirky, catchy, fast…’ and he certainly ticked those boxes! This is a favourite with our choir, using a well-known text which describes much of Jesus’s life.

* St John’s College, Cambridge Advent commission

Orlando Gibbons: This is the record of John

John the Baptist plays an important role in the Advent season. This elegant 17th-century verse anthem is a model of compelling storytelling.

* Will be featured in the St John’s College, Cambridge 2020 Advent broadcast on BBC Radio 3

Cecilia McDowall: A Prayer to St John the Baptist

An attractive new Advent work combining two texts from the 8th and 20th centuries, over a rippling organ accompaniment depicting the water of baptism.

* St John’s College, Cambridge Advent commission
* Will be featured in the St John’s College, Cambridge 2020 Advent broadcast on BBC Radio 3

Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree

A traditional American text set to music of sublime simplicity, by a composer who loved folk-song.

Jonathan Harvey: The Annunciation

A profound, spiritual work: one of Harvey’s final compositions, in which he returned to the Edwin Muir poem he had first set over 40 years earlier.

* St John’s College, Cambridge Advent commission

Giles Swayne: Adam lay ybounden

A virtuosic, compelling and highly original setting for double choir and cello. A whole world seems to be contained in just five minutes!

* St John’s College, Cambridge Advent commission

Roxanna Panufnik: The Call

An evocative setting of George Herbert’s famous poem, scored for choir and harp.

* St John’s College, Cambridge Advent commission

Otto Goldschmidt: A tender shoot

Another perfect miniature, composed by the founder of the Bach Choir in London. It was included on the first St John’s LP back in 1958.

Advertisement

O come, O come, Emmanuel

The carol O come, O come, Emmanuel’ is particularly poignant to the Advent period as it owes its origins to monastic life in 8th and 9th centuries when monks used to chant Great Advent Antiphons in the lead up to, and in anticipation, of Christmas Eve.