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A carol a day: Good King Wenceslas


We are repeating last year’s series about Christmas carols. This was first published on December 9, 2018. 

I HAVE always thought that Good King Wenceslas was about a benevolent old gent trying to spread a little happiness. Wrong. According to the Guardian ‘it glorifies a patriarchal definition of charitable giving that belittles the value of a properly funded welfare state’.

In the spirit of Christmas I will admit that the writer seems to have been joking (funny, isn’t it?) but it is not the first time that Good King Wenceslas has had it in the neck, as I will mention in a minute.

It is an unusual carol in that it makes no reference to the Nativity (the Christmas connection is that the action takes place on the Feast of Stephen, December 26). It is based on the life Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935). He was a good Christian who gave generously to the poor but he was assassinated at the age of only 28 on the orders of his brother Boleslaus the Cruel. He is now the patron saint of the Czech Republic and there is a statue of him in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.

The carol is thought to have been based on a poem about the Duke (he was posthumously promoted to King) written in Czech, German and Latin which was translated by the English priest and hymnwriter John Mason Neale and published in 1853. He chose to set it to a 13th-century Finnish tune called Tempus adest floridum in praise of the spring.

This has not pleased some academics. The editors of the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols (one of whom was Ralph Vaughan Williams) wrote: ‘This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol . . . Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this Good King Wenceslas, one of his less happy pieces, which E Duncan goes so far as to call “doggerel”, and Bullen condemns as “poor and commonplace to the last degree”. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting . . . not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, Good King Wenceslas may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time.’

Elizabeth Poston, in the Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, referred to it as the ‘product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol’. She regrets that Neale’s ‘ponderous moral doggerel’ does not fit the light-hearted dance measure of the tune which she says ‘sounds ridiculous to pseudo-religious words’.

Oh dear.

Here is a sprightly performance by the choir of Westminster Cathedral, featuring Benjamin Luxon and a young Aled Jones.

I like this jolly version by the Irish Rovers, a group of Irish musicians which originated in Toronto.

My piece last year revived memories of a scarring experience for our reader 39 Pontiac Dream, whom we also know as Michael Fahey. He wrote: ‘One of my favourite Christmas carols but imagine singing this as a young boy. You’re 13 or 14 years old, your voice still has that high pitch tone it had when you sang in the carol concert when you were eight. You get to “brightly shone the moon that night though the frost was” and then suddenly it happens. Baritone, quickly, suddenly, and when “cruel” comes out, you sound like Barry White.
“Gosh, where did that come from?” you think. You think you have a sore throat, cough a few times, clear your throat and carry on but it’s no good. That lovely choirboy voice has been replaced by a deep, low growl.

‘Our high school choirmaster must have expected things like this to happen with the boys at school but it’s disconcerting when your voice suddenly changes like that, and partway through Good King Wenceslas too.

‘A moment I remember well with a shudder.’

You can read the rest of last year’s comments here.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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