December 2016 /January 2017 - Vol. 89

 nativity manuscript art
“All Ye Hevinly Operations”
– An Advent Anthem on Christ's Coming

by Stephen Bick

I was walking around my neighborhood this late autumn morning, talking with my mentor, as I do every other week, and on several occasions we both had to interrupt the other and point out a particularly lovely garden or fiery tree so that we wouldn’t pass them by unnoticed. We apologised for the interruption each time, but understood that, while our conversation was important, it would almost be a rejection of the goodness of creation not to alert the other to the wonders around us.

The trees were doing their own kind of pointing, anyway. The colors are costly: the plants expend vast amounts of energy turning the leaves red and yellow and brown, just when they ought to be saving it for the winter. Nobody knows why this happens, but as Advent approaches I wonder whether there isn’t a certain prophetic edge to the scarlet and gold at this time of year, almost as if they’re trying to join us in heralding Christ as we prepare to celebrate his first coming, and look to his second.

From poem to musical piece
The same impulse is behind William Dunbar’s poem, On the Nativity of Christ, which I set to music a few years ago. Dunbar was one of the most famous of the makar, a group of court poets in 15th- and 16th-century Scotland. Not content to announce the Incarnation to his immediate neighbors, he summons the entire mediaeval world - not only men and women, animals and plants, but the four elements and several ranks of angels - to worship Christ Jesus, born for us at Christmas. Characteristically, Dunbar includes references to Latin hymns, which would have been familiar to his audience as the texts of various chants for Catholic liturgies at Advent (Rorate caeli desuper, ‘drop down, ye heavens, from above’, on the first Sunday of Advent) and Christmas (Pro nobis puer natus est, ‘for us a son is born’, on Christmas morning [as seen in the illustration at the top of the page]).

This is all supposed to be more of a roll call than an encyclopedia, but as I wrote my piece I saw the opportunity to try something similar and show as many elements of Dunbar’s musical world as possible. I included fragments of plainchant alongside elements from modern-day Scottish folk music, to try and make the experience of hearing my piece something like a three-minute trip to medieval Scotland and back. The title of my piece comes from one of the lines of the poem: after the angels, Dunbar summons some celestial bodies for good measure: ‘all ye hevinly operations: star, planeit, firmament and spheir’ (the original spelling).

In his day-job as Professor of Medieval and Rennaisance Literature, CS Lewis said of this poem that it  "might almost claim to be in one sense the most lyrical of all English poems - that is, the hardest not to sing." That’s certainly been my experience, and I hope yours, too, as you listen to my piece.

> Click red button below to hear audio clip

On the Nativity of Christ

poem by Wiliam Dunbar

Rorate, caeli, desuper!

Heavens, release your balmy showers,
For now is risen the bright day-star,
From the rose Mary, flower of flowers;
The clear Sun, whom no cloud devours,
Surpassing Phebus in the East,
Is coming from his heavenly towers,
Et nobis Puer natus est.

Archangels, angels, and dominations,

Thrones, potentates, and martyrs various,
And all ye heavenly operations,
Star, planet, firmament, and sphere,
Fire, earth, air, and water clear,
To Him give loving, most and least,
That comes in so meek [a] manner
Et nobis Puer natus est.


Sing, heaven imperial, most of hight,

Regions of air, make harmony.
All fish in flood and fowl of flight,
Be mirthful and make melody.
All “Gloria in excelsis” cry,
Heaven, earth, sea, man, bird, and beast:
He that is crowned above the sky
Pro nobis Puer natus est.

Stephen Bick grew up in the Antioch community in London. After a gap year in Lansing and musical studies in Cambridge, he has now inevitably returned and lives with the Servants of the Word as an affiliate. He works for the local university outreach, Koinonia and divides the rest of his time between professional singing and composition and semi-professional gardening.

manuscript illustration (top) by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci's Nativity in an Initial P (Morgan Library, c. 1392-1399)

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