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A carol a day: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear



The ninth in our daily series of Christmas carols repeated from previous years. This was last published on December 22, 2020.

BEFORE I started writing this series, I had no idea that so many of our favourite carols originated in the United States. Following O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger and Joy to the World, today’s choice is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.

It was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts, and anti-slavery campaigner. Sears had served the Wayland congregation before moving on to a larger church in Lancaster. After seven years he suffered a breakdown and returned to Wayland as a part-time preacher. With news of revolution in Europe and the United States war with Mexico in his mind, a melancholy Sears portrayed the world as dark, full of ‘sin and strife’, and failing to hear the Christmas message. Here are the words:

1 It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.

2 Still through the cloven skies they come
with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats
o’er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains,
they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o’er its Babel sounds
the blessed angels sing.

3 And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

4 For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
shall come the time foretold
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendours fling,
and the whole world send back the song
which now the angels sing.

I love these lines: ‘Still through the cloven skies they come / with peaceful wings unfurled’.

In America the carol is sung to a melody called Carol written in 1850 by Richard Storrs Willis, who trained under Mendelssohn. Here it is from a 2012 Christmas Eve service at the Church of Saint Michael in Stillwater, Minnesota.

I rather like this version by Frank Sinatra.

The tune used in Britain, called Noel, was adapted by Arthur Sullivan from an English melody in 1874. Sullivan is best remembered as the musical partner of W S Gilbert in a series of operettas, but he started his career as a serious composer. To supplement the income from his concert works he wrote hymns, parlour ballads and other light pieces, and worked as a church organist and music teacher.

His most popular song was The Lost Chord, written in 1877 at the bedside of his dying brother Fred to a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter. Enrico Caruso sang it at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House 29 April, 1912, at a benefit concert for families of victims of the Titanic disaster earlier that month. It remains perhaps the quintessential sentimental Victorian ballad, and here is a suitably crackly performance by John McCormack in 1922. (It is followed by a score version.)

Sullivan also wrote a widely-used melody for Onward Christian Soldiers – see this lovely piano roll version.

Here is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear with Sullivan’s tune sung by the Stairwell Carollers in Ottawa in 2014.

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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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