The 12 Days of Christmas Music in 2015, Day 12: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

Until doing the research for this post, I didn’t know how Charles Wesley, Felix Mendelssohn, and Johann Gutenberg were related. It sounds like a bad joke: So a preacher, a composer, and a printer walk into a bar…

L-R: Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468)
L-R: Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468)

The carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” brings these and several others together, just as George Bailey’s friends from Bedford Falls all gather together to sing it at the end of the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

The carol first appeared in John and Charles Wesley’s 1739 collection, Hymns and Sacred Poems under the title, “Hymn for Christmas-Day” and was written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), John Wesley’s younger brother. John was the founder of the Methodist movement, and Charles was a leader and clergyman within the movement (although Charles did not wish to break with the Anglican church as John did). Over the course of his life, Charles wrote 6,000 hymns. Can we just take a minute to appreciate that? You’d have to write a hymn everyday for over sixteen years to pull that off. Some examples of eighteenth-century devotion make even the most regular practitioners of Christianity today look like weak sauce. Others of Charles Wesley’s hymns include “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending”; “Rejoice, the Lord Is King!”; “Jesus, Lover of my Soul”; “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”; and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

In Charles Wesley’s 1739 version, besides the title being different, the first line–now the same as the title–wasn’t “Hark! The herald angels sing.” It was “Hark! how all the welkin rings.” I like the change just fine, but I love thinking about the original line too. “Welkin” is an Old English word (also found in Dutch and German) and can mean firmament, sky, cloud, and heavens. When we think of singing, we generally look for some living thing to be doing the singing, but centuries ago the skies and firmaments themselves were thought to produce and move according to heavenly music. Music–a special music inaudible to human ears–was the power that kept the elements of the cosmos in their spheres and contributed to harmonizing and ordering all of creation. In his 1687 hymn to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, John Dryden begins

From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
               This universal frame began.
       When Nature underneath a heap
               Of jarring atoms lay,
       And could not heave her head,

and closes

As from the pow’r of sacred lays
         The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
         To all the bless’d above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
   This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
         The dead shall live, the living die,
         And music shall untune the sky.

From Kepler's attempts to identify musical scales associated with the planets
From Kepler’s attempts to identify musical scales associated with the planets


This is the same tradition that C. S. Lewis refers to when, in his first book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan sings Narnia into being. The belief that cosmic music ordered the universe had been replaced by the astronomical observations of Copernicus, Kepler, and others through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and particularly Newton’s laws of motion in the mid to late seventeenth century. Still, the idea of the universe humming and vibrating–ringing, to use Charles Wesley’s word–with powerful, heavenly music is an alluring one that hadn’t disappeared from cultural consciousness by the time Wesley wrote his hymn. I like to think that this is what he wished to evoke with “Hark! how all the welkin rings.” Plus, when I hear that line, rightly or wrongly, I think of it in a thick Scottish accent, and it makes me smile. But by 1753 or 1754, less than twenty years later, George Whitefield changed the line to “Hark! the herald angels sing” as we know it today in his Hymns for Social Worship.

The words were as we know them now, but not the music. Originally Wesley intended “Hark! how all the welkin rings,” which he called “Hymn for Christmas-Day” to be sung to the same tune as what is now known as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and which was originally called, you guessed it, “Hymn for Easter Day.” Both were published in the Wesley brothers’ 1739 collection, Hymns and Sacred Poems. You can listen to “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” in the video below.

Learning that “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was originally intended as a pairing with “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” as “Hymn for Christmas-Day” and “Hymn for Easter Day” was a terrific lil’ discovery for me, and, for me, makes the character of both hymns make more sense. Of the five verses of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” only three are commonly sung now, and I found the final two somewhat anticlimactic compared to the third, the one we usually end with today. That is, until I thought of them to the tune of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” Try out these verses to the tune of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”:

Come, Desire of Nations, come,
Fix in Us thy humble Home,
Rise, the Woman’s Conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in Us the Serpent’s Head.
Now display thy saving Pow’r,
Ruin’d Nature now restore,
Now in Mystic Union join
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.
Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface,
Stamp thy Image in its Place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy Love.
Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the Inner Man:
O! to All Thyself impart,
Form’d in each Believing Heart.

Better, no? Notice, also, that the first verse of Wesley’s “Hymn for Christmas-Day” ends with the triumphant line, “Christ the Lord is born today!” just as the “Hymn for Easter Day” opens with “Christ the Lord is risen today!”

Current view of Leipzig market square
Current view of Leipzig market square

So when did we finally get to the tune we know for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” today? Over one hundred years after Wesley first published the hymn, the English musician and tenor William H. Cummings gave us the now-familiar musical setting. Where did he get it? Well, in Leipzig, Germany, the home of J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn, threw a wild party for the 400-year anniversary of movable type. Felix Mendelssohn composed a secular cantata honoring Johannes Gutenberg as part of the festivities, and it was performed in the market square (pictured here) on June 24, 1840.

Part of Cummings’ innovation was to include the memorable tag of “Hark! The herald angels sing/ Glory to the newborn King!” at the end of every verse, reiterating the annunciation to the shepherds each time. And I like to think of the original phrase, of the welkin, the whole sky, ringing with exuberance and glory to the newborn King.

The opening of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life shows a conversation that seems to be happening among the stars. We learn that God and the angels are concerned about George Bailey, a hard-working family man in Bedford Falls who has hit rock-bottom and is contemplating suicide. In response to the several prayers offered for George, God and the angels decide to send a 2nd class angel, Clarence Odbody, who has not yet earned his angel wings, to help out. By the end of the film, when George is surrounded by friends and family who rally behind him on Christmas Eve 1945, they all sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The clip at the beginning of this post shows how when a bell rings nearby, George and his family presume that an angel has earned his wings. In preparing today’s post, I liked to wonder how many angels “earned their wings” when all the welkin rang on the first Christmas.

This carol is not of the quiet scene at the manger. Rather, this portrays a massive joining of heaven and earth, of nations, of shepherds and kings, and amid all of the glory and grandeur, the setting in It’s a Wonderful Life also joins this large scope with the needs of the individual, whether an ordinary person or an inauspicious angel. This particular film context pairs the joyous, heavenly involvement of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with “Auld Lang Syne”, a reminder to not forget those around us, and both songs capture the spirit of the season.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Nicolaes Pietersz Brechem, Annunciation to the Shepherds, 1656, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

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