History of Hymns: "Advent Hymn"
by Jane Manton Marshall
"Advent people, watch and hope;
God will not delay.
God will bring the kingdom in;
Meanwhile, work and pray"*
This entry in the “History of Hymns” journal is unlike previous entries. With this column, we celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Jane Manton Marshall on December 5, 1924. The “Advent Hymn” cited above not only is representative of Jane’s contribution to hymnody, but also acknowledges her work as both an astute text writer and gifted musical composer – a rare combination for those who compose classical hymns. Unlike other discussions in this column, this hymn does not appear in current hymnals.
Ms. Marshall is a lifelong resident of Dallas, Texas, having been born and educated there. Her higher education is from Southern Methodist University, where she received her B.M. in 1945 and M.M. in 1968. Her mentor, Dr. Lloyd Pfautsch (1921-2003), Director of Choral Activities at SMU and founder of the Master of Sacred Music (MSM) program, recommended that she return for her Master of Music degree in choral conducting and composition. In line with her poetic gifts, she later taught English in Dedman College (the undergraduate college of the university), and choral arranging, music theory, and choral conducting in the Music Division, Meadows School of the Arts, and in the MSM program at Perkins School of Theology. One of her greatest contributions to church music education was her leadership in the Perkins Church Music Summer School (CMSS), a certification program for church musicians, from 1975-2010. Sid Davis, Director of Music and Fine Arts at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, has been involved in this program for years. He comments, “From decades of ‘sitting at her feet’ during classes at CMSS, I remember that watching her gesture was like being recalibrated as a conductor, year after year. It was just right.”
Among her more than 200 published choral works, the best-known are “Awake, My Heart,” “He Comes to Us,” the first setting of Albert’s Schweitzer’s famous words, “Fanfare for Easter,” and her most widely sung anthem, “My Eternal King,” which appeared sixty years ago (1954).
Jane Marshall has long been associated with hymns and hymnals. She served as the chair of the task force that produced the Supplement to the Book of Hymns (1982) and as a consultant to The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). She has had a long-time collaboration with her former pastor at Northaven United Methodist Church, John Thornburg, himself a well-known hymn writer, with whom she has composed music for 150 of his texts. Some of these collaborations may be found in the collections Can God Be Seen in Other Ways (2003) and What Gift Can We Bring (2003). Her most widely published hymn, “What Gift Can We Bring” (1980), was written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, to her tune ANNIVERSARY SONG. For a discussion of this hymn, see "History of Hymns: 'What Gift Can We Bring.'”
Dr. Carlton R. Young, longtime friend of Jane Marshall and editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, summarizes her writing style well: “Her hymn settings are characterized by an expanded, rhythmic, melodic and harmonic vocabulary, and careful attention to the lyrical, theological and literary qualities of texts. . . She is the quintessential Methodist composer. She sets her texts and those she chooses to set in unique, singable, and abiding lyrical choral and hymnic expressions of the two-fold Wesleyan theology of salvation, social and personal.” To this, I would add that Jane Marshall is an economical text and tune writer: she makes every note and every word count. Perhaps this is what most characterizes the “Advent Hymn” composed in 1992 and published in a compilation by Hope Publishing Company, Supplement 99 (1999), a collection that is noteworthy for its inclusion of an unusually large number of recent women hymn writers. The complete text of the hymn may be found on the Hope Publishing Company website.
Each stanza contains a compact concept in only 24 syllables, organized in four lines (126.96.36.199). The first line of each stanza captures in seven syllables the theological essence of the Advent season: “Advent people, watch and hope” – a line that begins each of the five stanzas. The hymn writer gives the congregation a specific identity: they are the “Advent people!” This is not a hymn about the Advent season; it is a hymn that invites the singers to embody the essential posture of Advent. The congregation receives two emphatic imperatives: “watch and hope.” She emphasizes the urgency of the imperative verb, “watch,” in the second short line: “God will not delay.” She does not release the tension in the third line, emphasizing that the kingdom of God is coming, echoing John the Baptizer in Matthew 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (NIV) Ms. Marshall frames the first stanza with two additional imperative verbs: “work and pray.”
The second stanza elaborates on the Advent theme: “strive for what is just,” her theological interpretation of her next poetic line taken from Isaiah 45:2: “God will make the crooked straight.” Once again, she provides directions for the singer in the last line of the stanza: “Meanwhile work and trust.”
The third stanza moves from theological insights to ethical imperatives as the hymn writer tells us specifically how we might embody the Advent spirit. She invites us to “weep and laugh and share.” We are then to “break the bread with those in need.”
The fourth stanza continues the theme of justice: “Christ that day will bring/ freedom, wholeness, joy, and peace.” There is a hint of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-13) in which slaves would be freed and debts forgiven. Jane Marshall asks us to both “work and sing” for these qualities of the coming kingdom.
The final stanza requests, “God’s good gift receive.” The gifts of the coming kingdom are at hand for those who will open themselves to receive them. The next line reveals her theological understanding of “realized eschatology” – the future hope that we may glimpse even now: “Now and then are in Love’s hands.” It is interesting that Ms. Marshall uses the same attribution for Jesus that was often used by Charles Wesley: “Love.” Wesley’s “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 386) is perhaps the best-known example. In addition, Christina Rossetti’s tender hymn,” Love Came Down at Christmas” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 242) follows the same idea. The composer ends with three short imperatives: “Work and rest and live.” In this, she is suggesting that we are not Advent people for one season of the year, but that process of becoming Advent people is a lifestyle.
Her tune SOUTHMINSTER is a theological player in the interpretation of this hymn. Though Jane Marshall is capable of composing flowing melodies, she has made this one a jagged tune. The leaps up and down are not initially easy for the singer! I believe that the movement of this melody suggests that becoming Advent people is not for the faint of heart, but demands our best efforts. Interestingly, Stephen Schwartz set John the Baptizer’s command, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” to similar wide melodic leaps in his famous musical Godspell. The intervallic leaps in Ms. Marshall’s composition are supported, however, by sturdy more conventional harmonies suggesting that while the command to become Advent people is not easy, our mission is undergirded by Love. In addition, the first three lines of melody imitate that “crooked” of Isaiah 45:2, while the final five notes are all stepwise – virtually “straight!”
The inherent economy of language and music that characterizes this hymn also reflects Jane Marshall’s teaching. Those who know Jane Marshall and have studied choral conducting with her appreciate her gracious, but always direct style in working with students. Just as in composition, she does not waste a gesture in her choral conducting. Dr. Kenneth Hart, Dr. Pfautsch’s recent biographer, quotes Jane Marshall on Pfautsch’s influence on her: “I think Lloyd excelled in clarity in his teaching, and in diction, too. Clarity of gesture was his hallmark . . . and there is nobody better at it than he. He was a fine choral arranging teacher, too.” Pfautsch returned the compliment in reference to Ms. Marshall’s choral arranging skills: “Well, there was Jane, and then there was everyone else.”
Elbert Marshall continues to be her loving companion as she moves into her tenth decade of life. Quoting the final stanza of her most-used hymn, “What Gift Can We Bring,” we come in gratitude, “remembering, rejoicing” for the many musical offerings composed by Jane Marshall that help us to articulate our faith and witness. Happy Birthday, Jane!