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A carol a day: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing


This the fourth in our series about Christmas carols. It was first published on December 6, 2018. 

For many of us, the ultimate Christmas movie is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946. Its affirmation of the triumph of good over evil must have been a tonic in those uncertain days after the war which had shaken the West to its foundations. The uplifting final scene with the soundtrack of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a guaranteed tearjerker.

The film’s sentiments are needed just as much now.

The carol pairs one of the greatest hymn writers with a favourite composer. The words are by Charles Wesley, who wrote around 6,500 hymns. Among them are many favourites including Lo! He Comes With Clouds DescendingAnd Can It Be That I Should Gain? Love Divine All Loves Excelling, Soldiers Of Christ Arise and O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing. However in its original form Hark! The Herald Angels Sing might have remained one of Wesley’s 6,400-plus creations which apparently did not catch on in a big way. Published in 1739, the first verse went:

Hark how all the Welkin rings
Glory to the Kings of Kings,
Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
God and Sinners reconcil’d!

The Welkin, meaning the sky or the heavens, was probably an old-fashioned word even then. Perhaps this is why Wesley’s fellow Methodist pioneer, George Whitefield, rewrote the verse in around 1753 to read:

Hark! the Herald Angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
God and Sinners reconcil’d.

For its first 100 years or so the carol was sung as Wesley intended to a slow and solemn tune, possibly the anonymous Easter Hymn which is now the melody to Jesus Christ is Risen Today (another Wesley work).

In 1840 Felix Mendelssohn composed the Gutenberg Cantata to mark the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. The English musician William H Cummings adapted this in 1855 to fit the words of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and thereby transformed it into the joyful and upbeat carol we know today. I have chosen this American performance at the First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln Nebraska as it features a full orchestra and the divine descant by David Willcocks.

At the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which is broadcast live by RTE radio, the words are sung to the tune of See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, which is the melody for Thine Be the Glory.

I would love to hear this, but try as I might I cannot find a recording on the internet, though I have found that it is on a record called Christmas from Dublin.

If you want a really different version, here it is given the treatment by Frank Sinatra.

Finally, while updating this yesterday I found this jolly version by 63 or so tubas, euphoniums and similar instruments outside St Paul’s Cathedral. It too features the Willcocks descant, which always makes my spine tingle.

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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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