Opening phrases of "Conditor alme siderum" - a seventh-century Latin hymn used during the Christian liturgical season of Advent. (English: “Creator of the stars”)

Composer’s Notebook: taking Lessons and Carols online

Mark Gresham | 30 NOV 2020

On Sunday, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta did what it always does this time of year: it began the Christian Advent season with an Advent Lessons and Carols service. It is similar in form to the more widely-known Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is traditionally celebrated on or near Christmas Eve. Each has different lessons (readings) and music; the substantial difference is that the purpose of the Advent service is “not to celebrate Christmas, but to expect it.”

What Matthew Brown did not expect, when he became music director of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church early this year, was that he would be helping create entirely virtual worship services for remote viewing, instead of a gathered in church in-person congregation, under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic – in particular, a service so traditionally devoted to the extensive use of choral and congregational singing as the Lessons and Carols. Brown recalls:

I moved to Atlanta in February from North Carolina to begin this position as Director of Music at St. Luke’s. After a month, the pandemic hit, and I had to quickly pivot to learn things I never thought possible. The Choirs of St. Luke’s accepted the challenge of this new paradigm, and I couldn’t be prouder of their work and staying on this journey with me.

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In conformance with guidelines set forth by the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and St. Luke’s ongoing commitment to pandemic safety, the entire Advent Lessons and Carols service was prerecorded to video, then edited. All spoken liturgical elements – prayers and lessons – were recorded a few weeks prior to Advent Sunday using safeguarding measures, including sanitizing the lectern area and a period of time in between recording those speaking. The organ voluntaries were also prerecorded in one afternoon.

Matt Brown (SLEC)

Matt Brown (SLEC)

According to Brown, the choir began rehearsal the anthems and hymns through weekly 30-minute Zoom rehearsals starting in October with the choir divided into two groups: 1) sopranos and tenors and 2) altos and basses. Each section met online for 30-minutes weekly. The audio assembly process began with Brown recording the organ accompaniments, then with several staff singers he recorded “master tracks.” The choir was e-mailed specific directions for submitting their individual part recordings via DropBox. After hours of downloading and editing using the digital audio editor Audacity, the final presentation was uploaded using the videos submitted through Apple’s Final Cut Pro software. The finalized video was premiered, as intended, on Advent Sunday.

Of the experience, Brown writes:

Sound engineering was not a part of my professional portfolio until it practically shifted the music world in such a major way. As a conservatory trained musician, never in my wildest dreams would I ever realize these skills would be necessary for a full-time church musician. The beauty of it all is how it has built and sustained community, particularly for me as a newcomer to St. Luke’s and the City of Atlanta.
It is an exhausting process, but one that I’m grateful for, as it has kept the St. Luke’s choir community together during the pandemic. Many restrictions on indoor singing have paralyzed many church choirs and choral ensembles, both volunteer and professional.

The structure of the Advent Lessons and Carols is, again, much like that of the Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The service opens with organ preludes or voluntaries, followed by a “Bidding-prayer” — a prayer or exhortation to prayer which normally occurs prior to a sermon in Anglican worship, but here the entire service of Biblical lessons and attendant sung music stands in place of the sermon. The singing is divided into “carols” and “anthems” sung by the choir and “hymns” sung by choir and congregation.


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The structure of the Lessons and Carols actually makes some elements easier when reimagining purely in terms of video editing under normal circumstances, with distinct segments for organ spoken and musical segments. But under the non-normal circumstances, the all-important singing element is most challenging – the choral music, most obviously, as described above by Brown. But there is another elusive factor here which applies to the service in general: The absence of congregation on-site, and only recipients of digital signal remotely, offers no opportunity of two-way emotional interaction back to the those officiating and presenting.

In Christian worship, hymnody is the voice of the people upward and outward. It is also a communicative interaction among congregants as well as with those who are responsible for officiating and presenting other elements of the service to them.

There are hymns in Lessons and Carols meant to be sung by the congregation, as well as responses, both in the service booklet. But in a virtual-only service, there is no opportunity for communal feedback through the digital screen. As with all video church services, and live-streamed concerts, the unfortunate limitation is that it’s necessarily a one-way street.

That may be the best we can do now as we walk through the shadow of pandemic, but we have expectation of light at that shadow’s end, when the people can gather again in common voice; a reflection Advent’s larger promise that hope is with us now and healing will soon come. ■


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