The Ballad of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

Ballad: “A poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas, or verses.”

Prelude

I can hear you.

“Christmas is over!”

However, according to the calendar of the festive Christian season known as Twelvetide, today is the Fourth Day of Christmas!

Therefore, I feel completely justified in putting up this post today and not just boxing it up with the twinkle lights until next year.

So here’s the story of six people – and one insurance company – and how they brought this song into the world.

Verse 1

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was an English minister.

He also wrote hymns – just the words, not the music – and eventually compiled over 6000 of these texts.

In 1739, Charles and his older brother John put together a collection of these verses and published it under the title Hymns and Sacred Poems.

One of the entries in their book was called “Hymn for Christmas-Day.”

This is how it appeared in the fourth edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems, published in 1743.

Charles envisioned that “Hymn for Christmas-Day” would be sung with music that was slow and solemn. The tune he had in mind was the same one he liked for another piece found in Hymns and Sacred Poems: “Hymn for Easter-Day.”

“Hymn for Easter-Day” is now widely known as “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” It is most commonly sung with an anonymously composed tune called “The Resurrection,” published in 1708.

Verse 2

George Whitefield (1714-1770) was an English preacher.

In 1732, young George entered Pembroke College at the University of Oxford where he first met and became friends with the Wesley brothers.

Though George wrote several hymns of his own over the course of his career, he was inspired one day to make a few changes to Charles’ “Hymn for Christmas-Day.”

The most significant change George made was to Charles’ opening lines.

“Hark how all the Welkin rings Glory to the King of Kings” became…

“Hark! the Herald Angels sing Glory to the new-born King!”

In 1753, George published his new version of “Hymn for Christmas-Day” – now titled “HYMN XXXI” – in a book: A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship: More Particularly Designed for Use of the Tabernacle Congregation.

This image is from an edition released in 1758.

Verse 3

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) was a German musician and composer.

In 1840, Felix composed a cantata to be performed at a summer festival in Leipzig celebrating the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press.

Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Säcularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst – also known as the Gutenberg Cantata – was originally scored for men’s chorus, two brass orchestras and tympani. The text was by Adolf Eduard Proelss.

The second song or movement in the cantata – “No. II. Lied.” – begins with the words: “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen…”

Here’s a look from an 1840 first edition copy of the piano-vocal score of Festgesang

Apparently, Mendelssohn’s Gutenberg Cantata has never been recorded.

The only recording available of “No. II. Lied.” – aka “Vaterland, In Deinen Gauen” – is this transcription/arrangement for organ by Lyle Neff from 2011.

Interlude

On April 30, 1843, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a letter to his English publisher, Mr. E. Buxton regarding a translation of Festgesang… by a Mr. Bartholomew.

Felix wrote: “I think there ought to be other words [than those written by Mr. Bartholomew] to No.2, the ‘Lied.’ If the right ones are hit at, I am sure that the piece will be liked very much by the singers and the hearers, but it will never do to sacred words.”

He concludes: “The words must express something gay and popular, as the music tries to do it.”

Verse 4

William H. Cummings (1831-1915) was an English musician.

In 1847, William was a singer in the chorus at the London premiere of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, conducted by Mendelssohn himself.

William went on to be a big fan of Mendelssohn’s work, eagerly purchasing everything he composed as soon as it was published.

In 1855, while serving as the organist of Waltham Abbey in Essex, England, William discovered that the words of Hymn for Christmas-Day/HYMN XXXI perfectly meshed with the tune from “No. 2. Lied/Vaterland, In Deinen Gauen.”

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was born.

The first publication occurred on December 24, 1855 and the first edition – “adapted and arranged by William H. Cummings” – was deposited at the British Museum on December 2, 1856.

Verse 5

Richard R. Chope (1830-1928) was an English clergyman.

In 1857, while serving as the Curate of Stapleton, Richard compiled and published The Congregational Hymn & Tune Book.

Richard’s book contains – under the title “Christmas – Hymn 18” – possibly the earliest printing of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

Here’s how it looked in an edition published in 1859.

Verse 6

When I was a kid, my main source for the music to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was a small booklet of Christmas carols published by the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company of Boston, Massachusetts.

The copy of Christmas Carols that I still have has a copyright of 1960 inside the front cover and a printing date (“Litho. In U.S.A.”) of 1967 on the back cover.

This truly pocket-size pamphlet (It measures 4 1/8″ by 6″) presents fourteen of the most classic carols in beautiful 4-part choral arrangements with at least three verses for each. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is on page 8.

(I wonder who came up with that third verse?!)

Verse 7

John Fahey (1939-2001) was an American finger-style guitarist.

In 1968, John recorded and released an album entitled The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album.

This gorgeous and ground-breaking collection contains John’s syncopated fingerpicked instrumental acoustic guitar arrangements of 14 seasonal songs and carols.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is on track 3 in a medley with “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Verse 8

I don’t recall when I purchased my copy of the LP, but my initial listenings to John Fahey’s performances on The New Possibility profoundly affected my conception of how a song could be played on an acoustic guitar.

In the mid-1980’s I wrote out a melody, chords & words transcription of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and started the annual process of working out a Fahey-inspired fingerpicked arrangement of my own.

Finally, in December, 2018, I recorded a brief one-verse statement of my arrangement of “Hark!…” to share in a holiday text message with my family.

Here it is.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – arranged & performed by Eric Sinclair

I consider that a work in progress.

Postlude

Giving credit where credit was due was obviously not the standard operating procedure among the persons that participated in the more-than-a-century long story of how “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” came to be.

George Whitefield did not credit Charles Wesley when he published “HYMN XXXI.”

William H. Cummings credited Felix Mendelssohn but did not give credit to Wesley or Whitefield when he published his adaptation and arrangement of “Hark! The Hearld Angels Sing.”

Richard R. Chope credited Mendelssohn but did not give credit to Wesley, Whitefield or Cummings when he published “Christmas – Hymn 18.”

But, when The John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company published “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in their little Christmas Carols pamphlet, they gave full credit to Charles Wesley for his words, F. Mendelssohn for his music and W.H. Cummings for his arrangement.

Nice.

Liner Notes

The information used in the writing of this post was gathered from the following sources:

“‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’: An Illustrated History” by Cait Miller – from In The Muse: The Performing Arts Blog of The Library of Congress, December 20, 2016.

“The Book of World Famous Music: Classical, Popular and Folk” – Fifth Edition, Revised and Enlarged (2000) by James J. Fuld.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – article author unknown, The Musical Times #38, December 1, 1897.

The Wikipedia pages for Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, William H. Cummings, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Felix Mendelssohn, “Festgesang” and “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today.”

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