Beloved Christmas carols: Hark the herald angels sing

Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,500 hymns, most of which condense a deep understanding of Christian theology into simple poetic form. Many of them maintain an important place in modern hymnals. According to noted hymnologist John Julian, “Hark the herald angels sing” is one of the four most popular English-language hymns. Except, that’s not what Wesley wrote. Here’s the beginning of the original text, written for Christmas day 1739: Hark, how all the welkin rings, “Glory to the King of kings; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Joyful, all ye nations, rise, join the triumph of … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: The Holly and the Ivy

[ad name=”Google Adsense 728×90″] Ever wonder why, in this popular carol, there are half a dozen or so verses about holly, but the ivy is mentioned only in the first? Ivy gets its due in any number of carols of the same vintage as The Holly and the Ivy or older, but no one sings them any more. A choir I was in performed one years ago, and I found it totally unremarkable–and near totally forgettable. I can’t answer my question about why ivy gets such short shrift in The Holly and the Ivy, but at least I can explain … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Seventy years ago this month, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the Second World War. The war years, in turn, provided the background for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” one of the most melancholy Christmas songs ever written. The movie that introduced the song, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the exemplary 1944 MGM period musical, takes place in 1903, when St. Louis was preparing to host the world’s fair. While two songs from that period have prominent places in the movie, composer Ralph Blane and lyricist Hugh Martin produced three songs that became instant hits, including … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: Angels We Have Heard on High

It seems safe to say that no one knows the origin of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It originated in France as “Les anges dans nos campagnes.” I have seen more specific assertions that it came from Languedoc (southern France)–or Lorraine (western France). The tune is very old, or more likely, from the eighteenth century, or maybe even newer than that. It does not appear to have been printed until 1842 in Quebec, specifically in Choix de cantigues sur des airs nouveaux, by Abbe Lambillotée. When elderly French-Canadian singers were interviewed in 1907, they remember it becoming popular in … Continue reading

Christmas posts on Musicology for Everyone

[ad name=”Google Adsense 728×90″] Now that we have finished observing Thanksgiving, it’s the right time to start thinking forward to Christmas. I have some more posts planned for the coming month, but here are things I have published over the last two years. I switched from Blogger to WordPress in the mean time, so chances are that bookmarks and any existing links to these posts won’t work. The following, of course, are up to date. Beloved Christmas Carols Chanticleer sings “In the bleak midwinter” The Christmas song  Good Christian men rejoice  O come all ye faithful  O come o come … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Chanticleer sings "In the bleak midwinter"

At least within the context of Christian worship, the male chorus can be dated back to priests singing liturgical prayers, a practice even older than Gregorian chant. By the time singing choral music in parts became commonplace, the church disapproved of women participating in worship anywhere but in a convent. Mixed church choirs would have been anathema. Churches initially found two ways to provide treble voices within a male chorus. Men could develop the so-called falsetto register, substituting a kind of head voice for the normal, deeper chest voice. Probably plenty of tenors in volunteer church choirs today occasionally cheat … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Silver Bells

Silver Bells, which appeared in 1951, comes at the end of an amazing 19-year run that witnessed 19 Christmas songs that have have enjoyed continued popularity for more than half a century: • Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1932) • I Wonder As I Wander (1933) • Winter Wonderland (1934) • Carol of the Bells (1936) • The Little Drummer Boy (1941) • Happy Holiday (1942) • White Christmas (1942) • I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1943) • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944) • Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945) • All I … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: O Holy Night

Isn’t it hard to believe that such a beloved Christmas carol as O Holy Night was actually banned by the French church for a time? It seems some of its leaders looked askance at both the poet and the composer. A parish priest in Roquemaure, France, asked a local wine merchant and amateur poet, Placide Cappeau, to write a Christmas poem in the fall of 1847. Cappeau found inspiration and wrote his poem “Minuit, Chrétiens” on his way to Paris for business. When he arrived, he took it to a friend of friends, the operatic composer Adolphe Adam. Adam wrote … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading