Christmas hymns

Two of the most popular Christmas hymns are Hark, the herald angels sing and Joy to the world. We sang both on Tuesday morning, which sparked this post.

Hark, the herald angels sing is usually sung to the tune MENDELSSOHN, which is usually credited as, eg, “From a chorus by Felix Mendeslssohn-Bartholdy 1809-47 adapted by William Hayman Cummings 1831-1915” (The Australian Hymn Book). So which work of Mendelssohn is this adapted from? Something pretty obscure. The website Hymnary.org states:

The tune is from the second chorus of Felix Mendelssohn’s Festgesang (Op. 68) for male voices and brass; it was first performed in 1840 at the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig, a festival celebrating the anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

There seem to be no performances of this work on Youtube; at least I couldn’t find one in a reasonable time. I found a performance which turned out to be another Festgesgang for another occasion. The best I can do for you is a Youtuber named Lyle Neff’s performance on MIDI organ with a scan of the original score. Noticeable differences are the two notes at the end of the second line (where ‘(recon)ciled’ is in the hymn) and the splitting of the choir and brass in the two following phrases (the choir sings the equivalent of Joyful all ye and holds the last note while the brass plays the equivalent of nations rise). 

Wikipedia gives the whole text, and Google Translate translates it rather unpoetically. The first two lines are: 

Vaterland, in deinen Gauen
brach der goldne Tag einst an.

Fatherland, in your districts
the golden day started once.

and the last two are:

Gutenberg, du wackrer Mann,
du stehst glorreich auf dem Plan.

Gutenberg, you brave man,
you are gloriously on the plan.

(which rhyme in German and English. Gauen and an don’t rhyme because the rhyming scheme there is abba.)

The tune’s use as a hymn dates from 1856, when Cummings adapted it for use at Waltham Abbey (officially in Essex, but now on the outer suburban fringe of London). Mendelssohn wrote to his London publishers that the chorus “will be liked very much by the singers and the hearers, but it will never do  to sacred words”. Shows how much composers know! Various versions of the words, melody and harmony exist – check your hymn book carefully.

Joy to the world is usually sung to the tune ANTIOCH, which is usually credited as, eg, “Arranged from George Frederick Handel 1685-1759 by Lowell Mason 1792-1872”. So which work of Handel is this arranged from? Hymnnary.org doesn’t say, and the best answer is “It isn’t”. In Songs of the people of God, Wesley Milgate writes:

The music is supposed to be based on 2 themes from Messiah, and indeed the opening 4 notes can be parallel in the beginning of 2 of Handel’s choruses ‘Lift up your heads’ and ‘Glory to God’. It is possible to find bars [in other places of Messiah] that match parts of Mason’s tune; but the exertion is hardly justified. The music is best taken as a repeating tune in a pastiche of the Handelian style.

(The autocorrect on Pages for Mac changed that to Dandelion style.)

It is important for everyone to agree whether the note for ‘king’ is one-and-a-half beats long (making a three-bar phrase) or three-and-a-half notes (making a four-bar phrase). 

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One thought on “Christmas hymns

  1. I listened to the Neff recording and, of course, all I could hear in my mind was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, even whilst reading (attempting to anyway) the German lyrics.

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