December 14: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

I find it very difficult to sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing without totally breaking down in tears.

It’s a Wonderful Life may be partly to blame for this, since of course it’s what Janie is playing in the background of George’s breakdown–and then again at the happy ending (um…spoiler alert? Your It’s a Wonderful Life post is coming later this month):

I could also blame my tears on the tune, for which we have to thank Felix Mendelssohn, and on the dark magic of melody, which my brother (who busted out an unexpected but compelling lecture on music theory in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner) could explain much better than I ever could.

Some songs just make my heart crumple, and it has everything to do with how they sound and nothing to do with tragic stories (although if you’re looking for that sort of thing, do check out the Top 12 Downer Country Christmas songs at Moon or Shine).

It turns out that the familiar melody for Hark! is taken from a cantata Mendelssohn wrote to commemorate the invention of the printing press, so maybe that’s why it hits me so hard. Clearly my soul subconsciously picked up on the typographical elements of the tune!

This year for the first time, I noticed how different this song is from other Christmas carols. Most are packed with iconic imagery: nighttime, stars, sheep, shepherds, angels, mangers, kings, etc. Here, we get a (misleading, it turns out) reference to angels in the first line. But the rest of the song?

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Yowza! This is pretty much the most abstract, theological, and yet crowd-rallying stuff I’ve ever heard set to music. It’s basically a theory of incarnation for an army marching into battle. It reads more like a creed than a carol. What super-Protestant wrote this stuff? I asked myself.

Well, as it turns out….Charles Wesley. Brother of John, founder of Methodism. OK, maybe that explains some things.

One thing I remember from the college courses I took on the early church is that creeds don’t come out of the air. They are statements of doctrine, made explicit when one group needs to differentiate itself from other heatheny groups that believe 98% of the same stuff.

In this way, “Hark!” really is creed-like: the song was written by Charles Wesley in 1739, with slightly different lyrics:

Hark how all the welkin rings
Glory to the King of kings

“What is a welkin? Besides my new favorite word?” You may very reasonably be asking yourself. Turns out it’s an Anglo-Saxon word for up in the celestial space where the angels live. So in the original, this song didn’t paint a picture of winged beings with choir robes and hymnals, but of a sky reverberating with glory.

Almost 20 years later, George Whitfield re-wrote the words to reflect his own theology and interpretation of the Gospel:

Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king

Suddenly we’ve got singing angels, and a shift from glorifying a heavenly, transcendent God to the baby Jesus. And Wesley was, apparently, displeased (do you Methodists still sing the welkin version?). It seems that Whitfield also cut several verses–also heavy on the doctrine–although bits and pieces of them turn up in (you guessed it!) Amy Grant’s version:

Sources (some more reliable than others, but all more or less corroborating one another):!_The_Herald_Angels_Sing


5 thoughts on “December 14: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

  1. Unrelated/related – On my fall trip to Boston, I learned about “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It was written as a poem by a Unitarian pastor in MA, and at the request of a friend who was the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Quincy, MA. (This is the church where John and Abigail Adams, JQA, etc. are buried, hence the reason for my visit.) The docents at the church explain that it was a reflection on the Civil War (though it appears to be written about 10 yrs too early for that), but it was set to music about 1860, so maybe that’s what they mean. And, the guy that composed the tune (for the American version, anyway), was a student of Felix Mendelssohn!!

      • Never too late! In part of my obsession-with-Christmas-minus-all-the-religion/historical studies, I read “The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday” by Stephen Nissenbaum. Pretty excellent examination of how America’s Christmas came to be. (Also, the Chelsea neighborhood in NYC? Named for Clement Clarke Moore’s family’s former farm.) We actually read an excerpt of this book in SI many moons ago, and I remembered it ever since.

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