It Came upon the Midnight Clear; Angels We Have Heard on High; In the Lord, I'll Be Ever Thankful; Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light; Psalm 97

It Came upon the Midnight Clear

In the previous article, Ron Rienstra tells how this Christmas carol was “retooled” for an Advent service led by students. Since the more familiar form of this song is available in many hymnals, we are providing the arrangements for piano (below) and guitar (p. 29), which may be played together, as prepared for that student service.

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear” is the earliest American Christmas carol hymn that is included in the repertoire of most hymnals and congregations throughout North America. Edmund Sears (1810-1876), a Harvard graduate and Unitarian minister, wrote this text while a pastor in Wayland, Massachusetts; it was first printed in 1849. Consistent with the Unitarian emphasis on the social implications of the gospel, this text speaks of pain and suffering (“life’s crushing load,” “sad and lonely plains”). The text concentrates on the song of the angels but makes no reference to the birth of Christ, nor indeed to Christ at all.

The tune comes from a set of choral studies by Richard Willis (1819-1900). Willis was also born in Massachusetts, but after graduating from Yale he moved to Germany, where he became a close friend and biographer of Felix Mendelssohn. In 1848 he returned The tune comes from a set of choral studies by Richard Willis (1819-1900). Willis was also born in Massachusetts, but after graduating from Yale he moved to Germany, where he became a close friend and biographer of Felix Mendelssohn. In 1848 he returned to the States and became a journalist, serving as music critic for several newspapers and journals. He also composed a variety of songs and anthems.

There are several ways to perform this carol. One way, of course, would be to sing some or all five stanzas of the hymn text (p. 28) in the standard hymnal format (very few hymnals include all five stanzas). But consider using the arrangement shown here by Aaron

Genzink from Holland, Michigan, then a student at Calvin and pianist for student services, now teaching elementary school in Ontario, California.

One interesting presentation would be to sing the familiar version for stanza 1 with piano or organ and congregation, and then have a choir or worship team move into the darker sound of G minor accompanied by piano and guitar. Be sure to note the melody changes:

The first and third notes of the melody outline a G minor chord; that same pattern is repeated in the second and fourth lines (phrases).

• The last note of the second line (phrase) ends on a G rather than a B-flat.

You may like this pairing of somber tune to the somber text so much you may want your whole congregation to try it this way. It has more grit.

Angels We Have Heard on High

Like “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” this hymn is so familiar and readily available that we are not including the traditional version. Instead we offer an arrangement composed for a hymn festival by Larry Visser (see p. 18). This French carol includes one of the few phrases in English-language hymnals that is still lovingly sung in Latin. “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is taken from the Luke 2 account of the song of the angels.

According to Bert Polman, “the popularity of this carol stems from its refrain—all those cascading phrases in which human beings imitate the angels’ chorus” (Psalter Hymnal Handbook, p. 501). Larry Visser’s arrangement takes the joyful cascading up higher, adding yet another layer of angel voices on top. It needs full organ, but not too thick a sound—keep the voices clear so that all can rejoice in the wonderful harmony that results when many different voices (on earth and in heaven!) combine in one glorious hymn of praise.

In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful

Those familiar with music from the community of Taizé, France, will recognize familiar elements in this song: the meditative quality, the strong text set to equally strong music, and the varied instrumental options. This short and repetitive type of music  doesn’t fall into the hymn category, but neither does it seem like a chorus in the Praise & Worship genre. Welcome to the wonderfully diverse world of contemporary worship songs! All the options available today make worship planning a challenge, but a very rewarding one.

The text is based on Philippians 4:5b-6: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (NRSV). These words are often paired with the preceding verse encouraging us to rejoice (“Rejoice in the Lord always . . .”), but here the emphasis is for those who need encouragement not to be afraid. The Advent character of the song is clear: Christ is coming again, and that is comforting news for those in Christ.

Like almost all Taizé songs, the music was composed by French composer Jacques Berthier. With his death in 1994, the community of Taizé lost one of the most remarkably gifted composers of worship songs in the twentieth century. Anyone who has tried to compose a worship song knows how hard it is to be simple and yet fresh without falling into clichés. His songs for worship exhibit great skill and craft; yet they display a disarming simplicity that makes them immediately accessible.

My favorite way of singing this gentle song of encouragement is as a refrain with the congregational prayer organized into sections like these: prayers for the local congregation, for the Christian church throughout the world, and for those in the world who are suffering. Try this option for following that structure if your church has a choir (if you do not have a choir, perhaps a soloist can sing it through the very first time):

Keyboard: plays through quietly, perhaps with a flute on the melody

Choir: sings through once; director then turns to cue congregation

Congregation with choir: sings once

Prayer: a prayer leader speaks the first section of the prayer while the choir hums through another statement or two of the song, however long it takes to complete that spoken prayer

All: sing once, this time perhaps adding the first flute descant, perhaps also cello or bassoon on the bass descant

Prayer: as before, this time all humming (without need for any direction; let people hum as they are led to add their voices to those of the choir)

All: sing once, this time perhaps with another descant

Prayer: as before

All: final time of singing together; if the congregation is ready to sustain the spirit of prayer, conclude with one more time of humming together

It is important not to slow down or pause between statements of the refrain. Set a restful tempo, and keep it steady throughout. It is also important to vary the dynamics a bit, singing more confidently on “Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.” But don’t sing it the same way for each repetition.

For the Bulletin

Rather than spelling out the directions on paper, the choir director or worship leader can simply cue the congregation with gestures while modeling the humming as well as the singing. But you will want to include the following in your bulletin:

Intercessory Prayer with sung refrain

[Photocopy the music here; be sure to include the credits:]

Text: from Philippians 4:5-6

Music: Jacques Berthier, for the Community of Taizé in France, admin. in North America by G.I.A. Publications. Reprinted by permission.

(Note: Get permission by calling G.I.A. or by using your G.I.A. or LicenSing [Canada] license.)

This song will be included in Sing! A New Creation. It was first published in Songs & Prayers from Taizé, a collection of fifty songs published in North America (G.I.A., 1991; order no. G-3719; 1-800-442-1358). It is available in the full edition (as included here), peoples’ edition, cassette, and CD of twenty songs from the collection.

Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light

In honor of the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach (1585-1750), here is one of his most beloved chorales, still found in many hymnals (see the article on p. 39). Bach is famous for his harmonization of hundreds of chorale settings for worship, yet none of them are based on his original melodies. Instead, Bach turned to the vast number of chorales in his hymnal collection. After the Reformation, thousands of chorales, or hymns, were composed for the Lutheran liturgy, and Bach chose many of these as the basis for his cantatas and oratorios.

“Break Forth” was included in the second part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Bach chose just one stanza of the original nine-stanza text by Johann Rist, which is the reason most hymnals today include only that one stanza. The melody by Johann Schop, another German composer, follows the familiar bar (AAB) structure of many German chorales—in other words, the first half consists of two repeated phrases and the second half is one long new phrase. The first phrase follows an arc shape, starting and ending on the same note and rising a fifth in the middle. The second half also arcs, but much more dramatically, with wonderful text painting. The lower notes begin with Christ’s infancy but rise a full octave as we sing “this child, now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be.” The climax comes as we sing of Christ “the power of Satan breaking,” and then the melody subsides gently, one eighth note at a time, as we sing the result: “our peace eternal making.”

Bach’s rich harmonization of this wonderful text and tune, almost more of a choral piece than a hymn, was (and is) so beloved that it was included in our hymnals. Organists find it a challenge—one worth working on. Congregations that enjoy singing in harmony love the rich uspensions and passing tones. In fact, the harmony requires that congregations sing this chorale at a stately tempo that permits the lower lines enough room to continue the tone painting. After calling the highest heavens and the lowly shepherds to praise in a sturdy, strong opening, the hymn turns to the object of our praise. A quieter and more legato touch is appropriate for “this child, now weak in infancy . . .” But then the music grows again, building as we sing of our “confidence and joy” and reaching a peak on the word “power.” At the word “breaking,” the harmonization paints the picture with the alto suspension and the shaking of the tenor and bass notes, as if Bach is indeed shaking and breaking the power of Satan.

In a way, that stanza says it all. But it is so beautiful that it would be good to continue. In 1973, Norman E. Johnson wrote a second stanza, which is included in the Covenant Hymnal and Psalter Hymnal. That stanza tells the same story. And so we get to sing it twice. Gladly.

Psalm 97

Psalm 97 speaks prophetically and poetically of the power of the Messiah. For centuries throughout the world, to this day, Christians have read or sung Psalm 97 on Christmas Day. The setting here combines a recent chorus by Bob Fitts with text from the NRSV appointed for responsive reading. This is one example of many such psalms that will be set responsively with refrains in the forthcoming hymnal supplement Sing! A New Creation, scheduled for release in 2001.

The growing practice of responsorial psalmody follows a simple pattern: Often the refrain is sung first by a soloist or choir and then repeated immediately by everyone. A reader reads the first verses, the congregation sings the refrain again after verse 6, and once more after verse 12.

This refrain by Bob Fitts is part of a complete song (included in Celebration Hymnal and Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book, edition). To learn more about Bob Fitts and his music ministry, check out his website (, which also includes the following information:

In January 1982, Bob and Kathy moved to Hawaii to begin working with YWAM [Youth with a Mission]. It was while they were leading a DTS [Discipleship Training School] in the most remote area of the Big Island of Hawaii, just two miles from the end of the road that dead-ends into a deep coastal valley, that he received a call from Maranatha! Music, wanting him to record a song. . . . If he never knew before, Bob was now convinced that it is God who prepares the way, opens doors, and provides access for increase!


1 The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!

2 Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

3Fire goes before him,
and consumes his adversaries on every side.

4 His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.

5 The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.

6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness;
and all the peoples behold his glory.


7 All worshipers of images are put to shame,
those who make their boast in worthless idols;
all gods bow down before him.

8 Zion hears and is glad,
and the towns of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O God.

9 For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods.

10 The Lord loves those who hate evil,
he guards the lives of his faithful,
he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.

11 Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.

12 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name!



Eight of Bach’s Best-known Chorale Harmonizations

Several of Bach’s arrangements from cantatas have become organ favorites for church as well as for weddings, including “Now Thank We All Our God” with two trumpet parts; “Sheep May Safely Graze” with two flute parts; and “Jesu, Joy.”

The harmonizations below (all found in the Psalter Hymnal) are listed by their tune name (usually based on the first line of the original German hymn) and the English text they are associated with.

    “The People Who in Darkness Walked” (192)
    “Our Father, Who in Heaven Art” (208)
    “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” (343)
    “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” (357)
    “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (383)
    “The Heavens Declare Your Glory” (429)
    “O God, My Faithful God” (574)
    “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” (613)

Emily R. Brink ( is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 57 © September 2000, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.