Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – The Carol That Shouldn’t Exist, Part 2

Part 3 of series: Christmas Carol Inspiration
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In yesterday’s post I explained that the beloved carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was originally penned with a different opening line, “HARK how all the welkin rings.” The author’s original was changed and published by a friend, though without his blessing. If Charles Wesley, who preferred his own “welkin” line, had had his way, we’d never be harkening to angels singing “Glory to the newborn King.”
Oddly enough, the composer of the tune we associate with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” did not intend it for such a sacred use. In fact, he specifically noted that this song should not be used for anything having to do with God.
In 1840, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a song for the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig, Germany. His “Festgesang” celebrated the invention of movable type and printing some 400 years earlier. Mendelssohn recognized the potential popularity of his tune, and advised his publisher concerning its potential use. According to Mendelssohn, in a letter to Mr. E. Buxton, if the right words were written for his song,


I am sure that piece will be liked very much by the singers and the hearers, but it will never do to sacred words. There must be a national and merry subject found out, something to which the soldier-like and buxom motion of the motion of the piece has some relation, and the words must express something gay and popular, as the music tries to do. (The Musical Times, Vol 38).

I must admit that before I read this quotation from Mendelssohn, I had never before associated the music of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with the words “national” “merry” “soldier-like” “buxom” “gay” and “popular.” Nevertheless, I understand clearly that the composer, who was born Jewish and converted to Christianity, did not envision a sacred use for his composition, and, in fact, counseled against such usage.
But in 1855, William H. Cummings, the organist at Waltham Abbey in England, who later became a leading English musician, adapted Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang” to the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Previously, this piece had been sung to different tunes. Originally, it was sung to the tune EASTER HYMN, which we use for “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” (or “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”), another of Charles Wesley’s hymns. But when Cummings’ version was published, it quickly became the standard tune for the carol. Soon it was being sung with this tune, not only in England, but also in the United States as well.
So, by the late 18th century, the lyrics that the original writer, Charles Wesley, rejected were being sung to a tune that the composer said should never be used for sacred music. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is, indeed, the carol that shouldn’t exist.
Another Version of the Familiar Carol
Just for fun, I thought I’d check out my collection of old hymnals to see if I could find a version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” I did indeed find a version in one of my oldest hymnals, Village Hymns for Social Worship, by Asahel Nettleton (New York, 1836). (Nettleton was an influential reformed theologian and preacher in the 19th century. The name NETTLETON, in honor of Asahel Nettleton, was given to the hymn tune we associated with “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”) The hymnal appears in the photo to the right. Notice how small it is, approximately 2½ by 3½ inches. And the font is a killer. I wonder how people could ever have used that hymnal!
Hymn #104 is clearly a version of carol we sing today, though with different lyrics:


HARK! – the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil’d.”
Mild, he lays his glory by;
Born, that man no more may die;
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies.
“Glory to the new-born King” –
Let us all the anthem sing –
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil’d.” [Repeat.]

Nettleton suggests two tunes for this hymn: Redemption and Hampton.
If you’re unfamiliar with the history of church music, you may be surprised to learn just how much variety there was in the early years of some of our most familiar and beloved hymns and carols. Slight changes in hymns in contemporary hymnals can get people pretty upset. Often they’ll say something like, “We should sing the hymns the way they were written!” Little do they know that, often, what they consider to be original is not original at all. Wouldn’t they be surprised if, instead of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” we sang “HARK All the Welkin Rings” to the tune of EASTER HYMN?!

  • Megan Willome

    I hope you continue this carol series in years to come. Fascinating! Merry Christmas!

  • Evan

    A very interesting series, Mark. The point is well-taken that what is often considered unchangeable tradition does not actually reflect what was going on Back In The Day. I guess since most churches lack any REAL scandal like murder or adultery, some folks make up for it by fussing about who is sitting where in what pew and grousing about how we need to sing the “old” music.
    The latter caused me to imagine a scene set in Germany in the 1520’s, where the capellmeister is saying to Martin Luther, “Martin, the image of God as a fortress IS very moving, but you have to understand… people like the OLD music, Martin, not this new-fangled stuff…”

  • Mariam

    Thanks for this series. I have the Mendelssohn tune running through my head right now, as I just finished hearing it live from Cambridge, England. Christmas blessings to you!

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