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Christmas Eve with guest blogger Father Asa’s take on ‘Hark the Herald’

December 24, 2022

I am about to leave for the pageant service with all its millions of moving parts back again and lots of music from our children and teens! Our combined anthem will be the Ukrainian Bell Carol which you can read more about in this weeks New York Times. Also in the Times was a discussion of “the chord” every organists’ favorite moment in the David Willcocks reharmonization of “O Come All Ye Faithful” as well as the history of the “green book” which our 9 pm choir will be. relying on heavily! Also at 8:45 I will song a Brahms work which quotes the carol “Joseph Deart” int he viola part. It was just too exciting to have Kmberly Love back from Oberlin with her viola and organ scholar Henry back to play the piano part. You can find the translation here. And please join us at 10 Christmas morning when a single treble chorister opens the service with “Once in Royal David’s City” and children and adults enjoy presenting “I Saw Three Ships,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and letting loose on “Go Tell It”!!

Here is an old tableau I found from way-back when with our wonderful Christian Ed Director Miss Kathryn as a shepherd!

Now here is Father Asa with some words of Wesley wisdom:

“This week we closed out our weekly Advent Bible Study, which focused on the scriptures which influenced and are found in the seasonal hymns of Charles Wesley. Wesley is arguably one of the most prolific hymn composers within Christendom and his texts have without question influenced the music and theology of Anglican/Episcopal and Methodist traditions.

Over the class we sang and studied the words of Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending (57&58)Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (66), and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (657). This week however we moved past Advent into Christmas a little early with Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (87), which Wesley penned in 1739.

Strangely, that wasn’t the title Wesley picked for the hymn, he had suggested “A Hymn for Christmas Day” as the title. In fact, that wasn’t even the way Wesley had written the opening line. While the vast majority of the text we sing at Christmas remains as Wesley wrote it, in 1754 his fellow Anglican priest and Oxford Methodist schoolmate George Whitfield, revised the first verse to what we have today.

Wesley’s first line originally read, “Hark how the welkin rings, Glory to the King of kings,” and closed out the first stanza with, “Universal nature say, Christ the Lord is born today.” While the cadence and meaning is certainly similar, Whitfield changed those to our now memorable, “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king” and “With angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem.” The word welkin is an archaic English word which simply means “Heavens” – and we wondered together in the Bible Study if we’d all readily know that ancient word if the hymn text had not been adjusted.

As I am sure the avid readers of Doctor Anne’s blog know, when we say the word hymn we really mean the text or lyrics. Especially in early hymn writing (going all the way back to the book of Psalms in our scriptures and prayer book) the texts were written, but tunes were most often not directly associated with them, the tunes were assigned, and often reassigned, latter as diverse communities used the text in many settings. That was true for the majority of Wesley’s hymns.

For Hark, the Herald Angels Sing Wesley has suggested in his notes that a somber and solemn tune accompany this hymn [think: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence/Picardy (324)] – that obviously didn’t happen. Several tunes have been used throughout history for this text, including Maccabaeus which is particularly familiar to our Daughters of Zion here at Grace Church. However, the one best known to us became officially connected with the text much later. 

The tune we most associate with this hymn is by Felix Mendelssohn who wrote it in 1840 as part of a cantata to celebrate the anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press. As his work was created to celebrate the advancement of human technology and ingenuity, Mendelssohn specifically requested this tune never be used for a religious purpose.

Around the turn of the century musician William H Cummings ignored the preference of both Wesley and Mendelssohn for their works and published the hymn text and tune together as we now know it. Consider how the authors of both the text and tune of this hymn we sing would never have envisioned the two together. For us this is another example of how music and song are a living art, which can be more powerful and expansive than their creator’s intentions. Even ancient words and tunes have the potential for great things in modern times as each new generation adapts for their context and community.”


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