St. James Music Press

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The Office of Compline for Advent

In recent years the evening service of Compline has grown in popularity, particularly when sung in a darkened church amidst candlelight and incense. When done this way, the service becomes a mystical, contemplative experience that is particularly appropriate to the season of Advent and its overarching themes of waiting, preparedness, and expectation.

This Advent Service of Compline, drawn from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1979,  is set here to the plainsong chant Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel). It can be sung by any group of individuals assembled together. It can be sung by a choir as an Advent devotion at the end of weekly rehearsal, by a church group at the end of an evening meeting, or as a scheduled service in a parish’s regular weekly (or daily) rotation of liturgies in the Advent season.

The service is short, and can be sung simply as presented here to great effect. Alternatively, there is the possibility of incorporating anthems or motets at various points in the liturgy. An introit would be appropriate, as would a choral piece at the end of the liturgy. Any composed setting of the Compline texts can be used in place of the corresponding plainsong setting in the body of the service. Thus, there are many musical configurations with which to sing this simple evening Office. Provision for choirs to substitute musical settings in the service and suggestions for augmenting the plainsong version are given below.

The singing of Compline in a darkened church or chapel can serve to create a sense of stillness, prayerfulness, mystery, and meditativeness on the part of the congregation (as well as the choir). The use of candles accentuates this aura, particularly if their use is not limited to the standard altar or reredos (wall behind the altar) candles: it can be effective to arrange a great number of tea lights, votives, or other candles (large or small) throughout the worship space: window sills, aisles, chancel crossing, chancel steps, etc. Choir members will benefit from music stand or choir stall lights (or held candles), perhaps providing candles for congregants as well if it is desired for them to sing along (or have a booklet with the texts). There is something to be said, however, for a chorally-led Office in which the congregation sit in the darkened church, allowing the words of the liturgy to be sung and spoken in the mouths of the choir and providing further space for quiet meditation.

Along with candles, consider the use of ikons or other visual devotional objects (such as statuary), particularly those with a specifically Advent theme (ikons of the Virgin Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, or even the Prophet Isaiah).

Incense can also be an effective tool for the accentuation of the Compline office as a time of prayer set apart from the normal daily routine. Although the action of liturgical censing of the altar, Gospels, sacred ministers, or congregation does not feature during the praying of Compline itself, there is an ancient tradition of using incense in the church in a passive aromatic way – which also means that you do not need to call upon your expert thurifers and their acrobatic thurible-swinging skills. Prior to the start of the Office, make a few rounds through the church with the censer or thurible, and then find an appropriate place (perhaps near the altar, behind the pulpit, or in a transept or side chapel) to let it sit during the liturgy. A formal thurible stand is not necessary. As a word to the wise, be careful not to place the censer directly underneath a smoke alarm, and always check with your singers before planting it next to them.

As a simple, sung service, it is often effective for the organ (or other musical instruments used in the church) to remain silent for this Office. In lieu of an instrumental prelude, a choral anthem or motet – or plainsong hymn – is an effective way to gather the congregation for meditation and prayer. This is an ideal place for Advent-themed music to appear. In keeping with the brief nature of the Compline office, it is best to avoid any disproportionately long selections. Along with Advent-themed pieces, there are also numerous choral pieces with end-of-day themes, including some traditionally associated with Compline.

SUGGESTIONS from the St. James Music Press catalog:
Savior of the Nations, Come - Balthasar Resinarius (SATB)
Arise, The Kingdom is at Hand - Christopher Tye (SATB)
Mercy and Truth - Mark Schweizer (SATB)
Eternal Light - Mark Schweizer (SAB)
Prepare Your Hearts - Jacob Handl (SAB)

The space between the short Scripture reading (traditionally known as the “Chapter”) and the Responsory “Into your hands, O Lord” is an effective moment for the singing of a choral anthem (or, as the rubrics state, a hymn such as “Creator of the stars of night”). Any of the choral literature considered for the Introit would be suitable here as well, once again respecting the proportions of Compline and avoiding anything overly long or complex. The choral singing of texts already chanted in the course of the liturgy, however, runs the risk of redundancy (even if in a different language), and might be better considered sung in place of those chanted prayers.

SUGGESTIONS from the St. James Music Press catalog:
In Night's Dim Shadows - Robert Lehman (SATB)
Let Me Love You, O Christ - Ronald Turner (SATB)
Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming - Mark Schweizer (SATB)
The Apple Tree - Mark Schweizer (SATB)
Lord, We Beseech Thee - Adrian Batten (SAB)
O Word, that goeth Forth on High - Robert Lehman (SATB)
The White Dove - Johannes Brahms (SATB)
Prepare Your Hearts - Jacob Handl (SAB)
O Gladsome Light - Raymond Weidner (SATB)
Teach Me, My God and King - Arlen Clarke (SATB)
Hide Me Under the Shadow of Thy Wings - John West (SATB)
Thou Evermore of Evermore - Fraser Wilson (SATB)
Round Me Falls the Night - Drese/Shephard/Bach (SATB)

The Nunc dimittis (Song of Simeon) is the traditional Canticle sung at Compline year-round, with its attendant Antiphon. Choirs who are accustomed to singing Evensong will have a quiver full of polyphonic, choral Nunc dimittis settings at the ready, but many that feature organ accompaniments and boisterous Gloria Patri conclusions will be a bit out of place here. Unaccompanied, a cappella settings a bit more introspective in nature will be at home at this moment, but the Antiphon (“Guide us waking…”) should always be sung both before and after, no matter how the Canticle is sung.

SUGGESTIONS from the St. James Music Press catalog:
Song of Simeon - Lassus/Schweizer (SATB)
Nunc Dimittis (Dorian) - Tallis (SATB)
Nunc Dimittis - Robert Lehman (SATB) 

As is the case with the optional Introit, the conclusion of Compline is another opportunity for a choral selection, in place of a final congregational hymn or organ postlude. If your church is friendly with devotions to the Virgin Mary, this is the traditional home of the singing of one of the Marian antiphons: a setting of the Ave Maria serves double purpose in also accentuating the Advent theme. Again, plainsong and polyphony are equally effective here. Other Advent or evening/nighttime texts are also effective at this point. The choral closing can be sung in place, in procession, or at a location removed from where the rest of Compline has been sung (such as the back of the church).

SUGGESTIONS from the St. James Music Press catalog:
Ave Maria - Sergei Rachmaninoff (SATB, some divisi)
Ave Maria - Arlen Clarke (SATB)
Ave Maria - Chris Bearer (SAB)
Let Me Love You, O Christ - Ronald Turner (SATB)  

If this service is being held in the church as a congregational liturgy, the choir may wish to sing the Introit in procession. Alternatively, processing in silence, and beginning the Introit once in place, is equally effective. A hymn could also be sung in procession after a choral Introit, but in keeping with the meditative nature of the service, might best be sung by the choir only. If desired, both a hymn and choral anthem could be sung between the Chapter and the Responsory. The Lord’s Prayer is another opportunity for the substitution of polyphony or part-singing, especially if the service is being sung without congregational participation.

Particularly if Compline is being prayed as a public service or liturgy, it is worth paying attention to how things end. There is a sense that in singing Compline one is “putting the church to sleep,” and it can be jarringly disruptive to immediately throw on the lights, “strike the set,” and start up some boisterous small talk.  Instead, consider having the choir depart in silence, leaving the candles lit and lights off until everyone in the congregation has departed. In a day and age where stillness and quietness are not often found, you may be surprised just how many people will wish to stay and sit for a while before departing, especially if they are given the space to do so. Don’t forget to extinguish the candles, though, and if incense has been used your Altar Guild will thank you for properly cleaning the thurible/censer.

Back to the Advent Compline download page.


Amy Simons
P.O. Box 249
Tryon, North Carolina 28782
Phone 828.859.0323


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