Thursday, October 29, 2020
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A carol a day: Good King Wenceslas


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 wonderfully full-blooded performance by the choir of York Minster in 1995, though the pictures are not very good.

And here it is by Bing Crosby.

If it was good enough for the Old Groaner, it’s good enough for me.

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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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