Beloved Christmas carols: O come all ye faithful

O come all ye faithful shows that conspiracy theories are not new in our time.  Once scholars turned their attention to Christmas carols, its origins had been forgotten, but both the words and music turn out to be the work of John Francis Wade, an English Catholic born in 1711.

Eighteenth-century England knew nothing of religious liberty. Being Catholic was dangerous. The English Civil War that began in 1642 and ended with the beheading of King Charles I took place in part because Parliament suspected the king of Catholic leanings. The Glorious Revolution of 1689 deposed King James II specifically because a son had been born to that Catholic monarch and thus the throne would no longer naturally be passed down to his Protestant daughters.

When his younger daughter, Queen Anne, died without heir in 1714, Parliament feared the rest of the Stuart family, who were all Catholic. It gave the throne to a German relative (King George I), who happened to be Protestant. James had already tried to regain the throne by force. Both his son and grandson pursued their  own claims, meeting military defeat in 1715, 1719, and 1745.

In the midst of all this political and religious strife, many English Catholics, including Wade in about 1731, went into exile in France. Wade made his living there by teaching music and making beautiful musical manuscripts. He apparently wrote the words (in Latin) and music to “Adeste fideles” some time between 1740 and 1743. Here is the first verse:

Adeste, fideles læti, triumphantes;
Venite, venite in Bethlehem:
Natum videte Regem Angelorum.
Venite, adoremus Dominum.

Some English Protestants apparently suggested that the words had some hidden Jacobite meaning. According to this theory, “Bethlehem” was a standard code word for England. “Angelorum” means angels, but take away the “e” and it become “Anglorum,” or “English. So the first verse really meant to glorify Charles Stuart as king (‘regem” of England!

That may or may not be true, but after the final defeat of the Stuarts no one remembered such theories for long. Wade  himself returned to England before his death. Both his words and music became popular all over Europe. The carol was first printed in England in 1782, but without attribution. Wade’s authorship remained unknown until more than two hundred years after he wrote it.

At least 50 English translations have appeared over the years. Frederick Oakeley, an English Anglican priest, made the most popular one in 1841. Ironically, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. He changed his original first line, “Ye faithful, approach ye,” to the familiar and more singable “O come, all ye faithful” at about the same time.

And isn’t that the real message of the entire text? O come all ye faithful: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Coptic, it doesn’t matter. Come and worship not only the King Angels, but the Lord of the Universe, born in human flesh to redeem all humanity from sin and death. Let us all adore him.

Sources: Hymns and Carols of Christmas; Christmas Classics: The Story Behind 40 Favorite Carols / by David McLaughlan (Barbour, 2010)

Beloved Christmas carols: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is a product of Tin Pan Alley, with words by Haven Gillispie and music by J. Fred Coots. Most of the lyricists and song writers who worked with Tin Pan Alley lived in New York. Gillespie, one of the few successful exceptions, chose to live with his family in Covington, Kentucky and make periodic trips to New York sell his latest work.

On one trip in the fall of 1932, he learned that his brother Irwin had died suddenly of pneumonia. Gillespie had trouble putting his heart into his work, even though Irwin had devoted his last words to encouraging him to keep pushing his songs. When the publisher Leo Feist asked the pair to write a Christmas song while he was in town, Gillespie didn’t see how he could write anything cheerful. They boarded a subway, and Coots called out the name of New York streets, in case one of them might inspire the heart-broken lyricist.

Gillespie’s own thoughts went back to Irwin, but soon he was remembering the Christmases of their childhood. His mother used to tell the boys to do as they were told or Santa Claus wouldn’t come. He found some paper and began to sketch lyrics based on her warnings. He came up with stern but affectionate admonitions leading of to the promise that Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Once he finished the words, Coots had no trouble fitting them with suitable music.

Although Gillespie had written successful children’s songs before, most of Tin Pan Alley avoided them as unlikely to sell well. When other songwriters first heard Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, they kidded the pair for its corniness. The next step after finishing a song, trying to find a well-respected star to sing it, proved difficult. In fact, it took two years. Finally, they approached Eddie Cantor. He hesitated just like everyone before him, but his wife loved the song. He sang it on the radio for her sake, and it became one of the biggest hits of 1934, selling 25,000 copies a day.

Both Gillespie and Coots had successful careers before they wrote Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and both continued to write songs successfully for years afterward. Hardly anyone sings or remembers anything else that either one wrote, but Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, written reluctantly by a man mourning the death of his brother, remains as popular today as when Eddie Cantor made it famous nearly seventy five years ago.

Sources: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
America’s Songs / by Filip Furia and Michael Lasser (Routledge, 2006)

Nutcracker: Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet

For some reason, Americans turn to Tchaikovsky for special holiday celebrations: 1812 Overture for the Fourth of July and The Nutcracker at Christmas. The story of The Nutcracker, based very loosely on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann, takes place during and after a Christmas Eve party.

In Hoffmann’s original story, the Stahlbaum family receives a nutcracker doll as a Christmas gift from the childrens’ godfather Drosselmayer. Marie especially loves it. Unfortunately, Fritz accidentally breaks it trying to crack too hard a nut. Marie bandages it with a ribbon from her dress and waits for Drosselmayer to come fix it. She dreams that some mice come, fight with her dolls, and capture the nutcracker, so she throws her slipper at the king of the mice.

So far, all of this serves merely as a prelude to the elaborate and very imaginative story Drosselmeyer tells Maria, about his feud with the Mouse Queen, her spite, and as a result, how nutcrackers came into existence and why they look as they do. Tchaikovsky loved Hoffmann’s work, and so eagerly agreed to write a ballet on his nutcracker story. Unfortunately, the choreographer Marius Petipa chose to base his work on Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation. Tchaikovsky immediately hated it for being so far removed from Hoffmann’s imaginative tale.

In Petipa’s version, the Stahlbaums have become the Silberhaus family and Maria has been renamed Clara. Fritz deliberately breaks the nutcracker out of spite at a big party. Drosselmeyer has a surprisingly small role. What’s left of the story he told Maria in the original story does nothing to explain the mice at all. The Director of the Imperial Theatres, who had commissioned it, determined that Petipa’s plan for dances and variations would not please the audience and suggested improvements to Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky began composing The Nutcracker in February of 1891 and only slowly warmed up to the project. He had to interrupt work on the ballet for a tour that took him to Germany, France, and the United States. During that time, he learned of his sister’s unexpected death, which made working on happy and carefree music especially difficult for him. The premiere had been intended for that Christmas, but Tchaikovsky asked for a postponement.

The Nutcracker‘s first performance took place in December 1892. Its first audience did not greatly appreciate it. Critics did not like its unfaithfulness to Hoffmann’s original story any more than the composer had, and apparently people disliked the choreography and the appearance of some of the dancers. Most of them did praise the music, and the suite of dances Tchaikovsky had already issued before the ballet’s premiere became immediately popular. The ballet, however, had only sporadic performances for half a century

The San Francisco Ballet presented the first full-length performance of The Nutcracker in the United States in 1944. George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet began a series of annual performances of The Nutcracker ten years later. The tradition of performing the complete ballet at Christmas has since spread across the entire country.

The Nutcracker has by now gained worldwide popularity, especially at Christmas, but nowhere else does its popularity rival what it enjoys in the United States. Besides major opera companies, enough regional and college productions take place annually, or at least with some regularity, that probably every region of the country has had the opportunity to see it .

Beloved Christmas carols: Good Christian men, rejoice

Both the original text and tune of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” appeared in early fourteenth-century Germany. European conditions then were not very pleasant. Temperatures were cooling as the earth entered the so-called “Little Ice Age.” The King of France had arrested the Pope and removed the papal court from Rome to Avignon. Bubonic plague, known as the “black death,” ravaged Europe. England and France became embroiled in the Hundred Years War.

In its multiplied upheavals and catastrophes, the fourteenth-century resembles our own time. Then as now, many people dreaded what seemed likely in the future. Then as now, devout Christians found more cause to rejoice in the God than to sink into despair. One of them, a German mystic and Dominican monk named Heinrich Suso, decided that the birth of Christ deserved celebration regardless of the gloomy headlines.

One night in 1328 he had a vision of dancing angels, who commanded him to lay aside all sorrow and misery in order to keep them company. He danced with them and then wrote the poem “In  dulci jubilo” remembering his vision. The text is macaronic. That is, it combines Latin with a vernacular language, in this case German.

The familiar tune is preserved in the library of Leipzig University in a manuscript copied around 1400. It probably existed some time before then and may even be contemporaneous with Suso’s poem. Many songs and texts of the Medieval period fell into disuse and sat forgotten until rediscovery over the past two centuries. “In dulci jubilo,” on the other hand, has enjoyed unbroken popularity of the association of text and tune.

The first known English version appeared in 1540, and numerous others have followed, some maintaining the original Latin and merely substitution English for the German. John Mason Neale, who also translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” published  his English paraphrase, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” in 1853.

In some ways, the world has changed a lot since the Middle Ages. In other ways it has not. World conditions, which seemed grim back then, have seemed just as grim most of the time since then. People still do horrible things to each other and very often appeal to religion as justification. But the coming of Jesus is still worth celebrating, because Jesus alone brings redemption to a world the rest of the humanity has ruined.

Source: Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Gisele MacKenzie sings Papa Loves Mambo in a holiday setting. 12-18-1954

The mambo, a Cuban dance form, first became popular in the United States in the late 1940s and reached its peak of  popularity here in about 1954. Perry Como’s recording of the song “Papa Loves Mambo,” by Al Hoffman, Dick Manning, and Bix Reichner,  was released on August 31, 1954 and made it to #5 or #4 on the Billboard chart later in the year.

Nowadays most recording artists perform their own material, but in the 1950s, the fact that Como scored big did not mean that other stars regarded the song as his. Many performers sought to capitalize on the success of others by releasing other versions of their songs.

And so in December of that same year, Giselle MacKenzie, admired as both singer and dancer with beautiful legs, appeared on Your Hit Parade singing and dancing to “Papa Loves Mambo.” Since it was December, the dance features Santa Claus (Papa) dancing at the North Pole.

This and similar televised acts are important predecessors of todays music videos. It is probably only because technology did not yet permit it that such performances were not released as singles, just like the records themselves were.

Beloved Christmas carols: O come, o come Emmanuel

“O come, o come Emmanuel” is among the oldest of hymns still known, both in terms of the words and the tune. Like many old Gregorian chants, it lay forgotten for centuries before its rediscovery. Thomas Helmore published the tune in 1856 in Part II of The Hymnal Noted. He said it was found in a French missal in the Portuguese National Library in Lisbon, but no one since has found it there.

The French National Library in Paris has a fifteenth-century processional of Franciscan nuns with the identical tune, an added second voice, and words from the funeral antiphon “Libera me, Domine.” That means neither that the chant melody is from the fifteenth century nor that its original text was “Libera me, Domine.”

The Latin text of “O come, o come Emmanuel” (“Veni, veni Emmanuel”) probably originated in the twelfth century as part of one of the seven great antiphons sung at Vespers along with the Magnificat during Advent.Those seven antiphons address Jesus as Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of Nations, and Emmanuel. The first letter of each (in Latin) in reverse order yields the phrase ero cras, which means “tomorrow I come.” The original melody could even be the same one used for “Libera me, Domine” in the fifteenth century.

The text takes the viewpoint of ancient Jews, crying out to God to come and ransom them from the captivity that resulted from their sin. They can pray in faith, secure in the knowledge that the same prophecies that told of their captivity also told of God’s plan to redeem them. We, too, suffering from our own sins, can repeat their cry in the same assurance of faith.

John Mason Neale provided the English translation. One of the most prolific hymn writers of nineteenth-century England, he had no equal as a translator of ancient and medieval Latin texts. His translation of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” changes the order of the verses. Originally, it began, “Draw nigh, draw nigh Emmanuel;” Fortunately it has since become the more singable  “O come, o come Emmanuel.” Among his original poems, Neale wrote “Good King Wenceslas” on the basis of an old Bohemian story, which he loved so much he didn’t care if it was history or legend.

Toyota robot musicians

Recently someone posted four videos on Trombone-L of musical robots made  by Toyota. Someone else found them very depressing. Live musicians, he wrote, have enough  trouble without competition from yet another machine. If Toyota has already had this much success, what’s next? I have an answer, but first, here are the robot musicians:

A tuba player–to me the least impressive of the bunch but still quite amazing:

A trumpeter with pretty good sound. It plays better than a lot of human trumpeters, even if it’s stage presence is a little, shall we say, mechanical.

A small jazz combo. What, no trombone?

And finally, a brief appearance by a robot violinist. This final video reveals the reason why Toyota is working on robot musicians. The engineers have no particular interest in music. Developing these robots is no more than a means to an end.

Toyota engineers (among others) want to develop robots with more useful and practical skills. You will notice a robotic wheel chair and a robot capable of acting as a tour guide and signing its name. Ultimately, Toyota wants to produce robots capable of interacting with people in real time, robotic cars, for example. Apparently people will still drive the cars, but the robots will notice road conditions, hazards, and whether the human is too tired or otherwise impaired to continue safely.

In other words, Toyota engineers have developed the ability to build an entire orchestra of robots, but they  probably won’t. Once they learn all they can from building robot musicians, they will turn to other challenges, long before they make robot musicians for every instrument. I, for one, would love to see them build a trombonist that can play Pryor’s Blue Bells of Scotland before they move away from music.

Even though it is possible to build robots with the mechanical ability to play tunes or even ensembles, I can’t conceive of robots playing with feeling or taste. So there are at least three reasons not to worry about live musicians losing work to robots: engineers are not interested in making enough robots; they would be far too expensive to build, program, and maintain; and they can never make the jump from technological mastery to artistry.

The raucous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

By the time Stravinsky mounted  Rite of Spring in 1913, history had already seen many premieres of operas and other theatrical works where audiences loudly disliked what they saw. In some cases, such as the premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the noise came from a paid claque. In Rossini’s case, he dared to use the same story as an already successful opera by Giovanni Paisiello, who sent his friends to shout it down. But what happened to Rite of Spring (original title Sacre du Printemps) topped anything that had happened before.

Stravinsky’s earlier ballets for the same company, Firebird and Petroushka, had been successful, even though the music was quite different than what French audiences were accustomed to hearing, as was the choreography of the Russian dancer Vaslev Nijinsky. In Rite of Spring, both men pushed the envelope still further.  Nijinsky’s wife anticipated that the new ballet would make the audience fidget.

Instead, within moments after the music started, they began to murmur. Then some of them started making cat-calls and shouting. That angered  other audience members who wanted to hear the music. Their attempts to stop the shouting simply added to the noise. The orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux, continued to play even though no one could hear them at all. He looked to the box of impresario Serge Diaghilev for instructions, and Diaghilev signaled him to keep going.

The theater manager ordered the house lights turned on. Instead of stopping the noise, it only made audience members visible enough to each other that they could begin to fight with each other. When one lady slapped the face of a man nearby, he and her escort exchanged cards and fought a duel the next day. Eventually the police arrived and emptied the theater, except for the performers. The orchestra had never stopped playing and finished performing the ballet to the quiet of an empty room.

Monteux later recalled that the company presented five performances in all in the same theater, all with the same kind of reaction. Each time, he concentrated on keeping the orchestra together and did not look up to see the ballet itself. After a couple of performances in London, where audiences sat quietly and left, it seemed that Rite of Spring had simply failed. Usually in case of such failure, that is the end of the story.

But as friends described the ballet to Monteux, he concluded that the choreography upset the Parisian audiences at least as much as the music. Monteux persuaded Stravinsky to allow a concert performance of Rite of Spring in Paris. With nearly every important musician in town attending a sold-out concert hall, some of the more conservative members of the audience still hated the music, but they simply walked out. Others left at the end of the concert with renewed appreciation for Stravinsky’s music in general and Rite of Spring in particular.


By 1940,  Rite of Spring had become so much accepted in concert  halls that Walt Disney had no qualms about including it in an animated feature with a sound track entirely comprising classical music. Nowadays, as regular readers of Musicology for Everyone may recall, conducting Rite of Spring has literally become child’s play, at least to one five-year-old!


Sources: The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Lebrecht (Free Press, 1985), numbers 721, 722; pp. 306-07.

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by dalbera

Help me help the needy all over the world

With the ads and affiliate links on my blogs, it’s no secret that I intend to make money from them. To that end, I read quite a bit on advice on blogging. Saturday, a post caught my eye that suggested a means of using blogs to give to various causes. As a Christian, I believe in tithing to the Lord, so I found that post so exciting that I dropped all of my other plans to follow through on it. That explains why I didn’t update any of my blogs today, even though I had not managed to update all of them over the past week.

So I’d like to introduce you to a new widget where you can donate to World Relief, a wonderful charity I have donated to for years.

For more than 60 years, World Relief has been equipping churches and communities to help victims of disease, hunger, war, disaster and persecution. World Relief reaches people no one else reaches, people often overlooked or forgotten, including many in volatile and vulnerable situations. The heart of our mission is to create a lasting impact by strengthening local churches to serve those who are hurting.

The blogger whose post inspired this move asked  his readers and followers to help him raise $10,000 over two years. I’m not as big as he is, so I have set what feels like a very ambitious goal of raising $1,200 over one year. That will take God’s help and all of yours.

I’m starting to get decent traffic to my blogs, and frankly I hope this move will earn enough trust that I can get more traffic. I also welcome your comments. The better I know you, the better I will be able to understand how and what to write to fulfill the interests and needs that draw you here.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the widget leads you to FirstGiving, and you will make your donation through them. They will pass it on to World Relief. I will not see any of the money. 

Children and classical music revisited

classical music

Last March I wrote Children and classical music, which featured Charlie Loh, a professional conductor’s five-year-old son conducting Rite of Spring. The proud father also mounted a video of Charlie conducting something else when he was only four. Charlie got off to a good start then, but made remarkable progress by the time he was five!

Lately, a video of a three-year-old, identified only as Jonathan, conducting the finale to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has been making the rounds. There are 10 videos in all (as of today) of Jonathan either playing violin or conducting something. I see he showed interest in classical music and started conducting on his own at about eight months of age.

Jonathan is clearly not an ordinary three-year-old. I’m not sure how many children at that age have the attention span to listen to a four-and-a-half minute piece and come to know it as well as he clearly knows the Beethoven. But on the other hand, he and Charlie Loh enable us to make some generalizations about classical music:

  • Children love what becomes familiar. If they hear classical music growing up, they will love it.
  • Because young children know nothing of history, sociology, or class distinctions, the fact that they can love classical music proves that it is not elitist.
  • Children can learn to read music and sing from solfège at an early age. (No surprise there; solfège was first designed as an easy way to teach music to children.)
  • Young children learn new skills much faster and easier than teenagers or adults.
  • After a certain age, it takes longer for something to become familiar and comfortable, and learning it becomes less fun and more of a chore.
  • Therefore, the best time to introduce children to classical music, music reading (and for that matter, their first foreign language) is early in childhood.
  • Children, all children regardless of race or social class, deserve to be exposed to a wide variety of excellent things (classical music and any other good music, art, literature, etc.). They will choose which enthusiasms to carry into adulthood, when developing new enthusiasms for the arts might be more difficult.

What do you think?

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by dcaseyphoto