"There's a song in the air ... for the manger of Bethlehem cradles a King!"
- Josiah G. Holland
With echoes of the Christmas musical our choir sang last Sunday ringing in my ears, and speakers booming holiday music from every store in town, my thoughts turn again to the stories behind some of our beloved carols. Perhaps knowing who wrote them and why, despite the great diversity in culture and tradition, so many nations, generations, and composers came up with the same message, will enhance your Christmas celebration this year as it has mine.
Though many countries claim to have been the first to sing Christmas carols, its doubtful well ever know who established the custom first. Some say the honor goes to the French, who sang noels as early as the 2nd century; or with the Romans, remnants of whose 4th- and 5th-century carols still exist.
St. Francis of Assisi and his brethren accompanied their Christmas presentations with carols 800 years ago, while the custom of caroling, with groups of carolers singing in doorways or under windows, appears to have had its start in England during the Middle Ages.
Wherever the Christmas story has been set to music, however, the following are some of the carols they sang.
O Come, All Ye Faithful, an 18th-century Latin hymn, has been translated into more than 100 languages, and continues to be sung around the world today. Composer John Francis Wade was a poor British exile living in France, where he eked out a living copying and selling music and giving music lessons to children. It would be another century before British clergyman Frederick Oakeley, who believed church congregations would sing better if they had better hymns to sing, translated Wades text into English.
Theres a Song in the Air, with its exciting, well-written text, was the creation of Massachusetts doctor and writer Josiah Holland in 1874. Church musician Karl Harrington added the equally stirring melody, which first appeared publicly in the 1905 edition of the Methodist Hymnal. Note the descriptive third stanza: In the light of that star lie the ages impearled, and the song from afar has swept over the world. Evry hearth is aflame, and the beautiful sing in the homes of the nations that Jesus is King!
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day didnt begin as a carol at all, but as a poem from the grieving heart of one of Americas greatest poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The years following 1861 were cloaked in tragedy for both a country torn apart by civil war, and the poet whose wife had died the same year. After beginning his text with references to, peace on earth, good will to men, Longfellow touched a chord in all who have ever doubted that peace.
And in despair I bowed my head: "There is no peace on earth, I said; For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men. But the bells Longfellow heard one Christmas Day inspired another verse: Yet pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.
Longfellows words were sung to a tune by English organist John Baptiste Calkin until 50 years ago when American musician Johnny Marks composed a modern melody recorded by Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte and others.
Go Tell it on the Mountain combines the reaction of the shepherds to the news that Jesus Christ is born! with that of newly-freed African-American slaves in 19th-century America. When news is that good, you have to Go, tell it!, as a new arrangement of this carol by Dennis Allen exclaims. This carol became part of an early 20th-century collection of previously unpublished spirituals compiled by John Wesley Work, who added his own stanzas to the well-known refrain.
Whether Christmas carols came from other countries, or from American poets, professionals or slaves, they constitute what musicians call variations on a theme. The music may be different, and the words written in many moods and styles, but the message is the same. Only a cataclysmic event could have created such a phenomenon. Apparently, the birth of Jesus Christ was just such an event.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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