Beloved Christmas carols: Joy to the world

Who would have thought that the joyful text of “Joy to the World” would have ever been controversial? Yet when Isaac Watts published his song paraphrases, they unleashed a storm of criticism. Early Protestants were split on what constituted proper congregational singing. Lutherans sang hymns; Martin Luther himself wrote important hymn texts. John Calvin, on the other hand, encouraged only the singing of metrical psalms. The English followed Calvin’s example. English metrical psalms of the 17th century seem almost unreadable now. They must not have appealed to English congregations of that time, either. Watts later wrote, “To see the dull … Continue reading

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

The English headwaters of American hymn singing

I expect that hardly any of my readers have ever heard of William Tans’ur. That is partly because the history of church music in the eighteenth century has been written almost exclusively about music for various courts and major cities, to the exclusion of music for country churches. But Tans’ur appears to have had more influence on musical life in colonial America, including the important composer William Billings, than anyone else. The name William Tanzer appears in the baptismal register at Dunchurch in 1706, the son of a common laborer named Edward Tanzer. As an adult, William adopted the spelling … 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: 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 … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading