Have you thought much about what might happen to your life’s work after you’re gone? You might after you read this story.
As my Christmas gift to readers this year, I’ve decided to do something different. Rather than a continuing fictional tale, each week will bring you a stand-alone true story about the history behind some of our favourite Christmas carols.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing has become one of my favourites. Maybe it’s because of the wonderful way the Peanuts gang sing it at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Maybe it’s because the song contains the entire gospel of Christ within its verses (basically, God and sinners reconciled).
In any case, until I did a little research, I had no idea that neither the writer of the words nor the writer of the music would have wanted the two joined. Did you?
In 1739, Charles Wesley penned the lyrics with the request that only slow, solemn religious music be coupled with his words. It was sung to a different, probably depressing, melody that is no doubt long forgotten.
A hundred years later, Felix Mendelssohn, a Jew, wrote the joyful melody now so familiar to us, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg printing press. It was called “Festgesang an die Künstler” and he made it clear he wanted his music used only for secular purposes.
Long after both Mendelssohn and Wesley were dead, an English organist named Dr. William Cummings joined the joyous music to the profound words. Almost two hundred years later, you and I still sing along to this beloved carol. We would remain unfamiliar with both music and lyrics if someone had not come along and joined the two.
Do the original writers roll over in their proverbial graves every time this carol is sung? I sure hope not. I hope they look on from above with glad hearts, both now understanding the depth and beauty of their contribution to the world.
And I hope the rest of us can learn to hold loosely to those things we “create.” Firstly, because most things improve with a little collaboration. Secondly, because after we’re gone we have little say about the things we leave behind. And thirdly, every shred of creativity we possess is only a gift from the One who first created us.
I hope you enjoy the carol more now that you know the story. For fun, try reading it through as simple prose, without the tune ringing in your head if you can:
Hark, the herald angels sing, “glory to the newborn king! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Joyful, all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies! With the angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Christ, by highest heaven 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 men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen 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!”