I thought I’d find out a few things about one of my favorite Christmas Carols and share it with everyone. So here is what I found. I hope you find it of interest. I know I did.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a Christmas carol that first appeared in 1739 in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems, having been written by Charles Wesley. Wesley had requested and received slow and solemn music for his lyrics, not the joyful tune expected today. Moreover, Wesley’s original opening couplet is “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”.
The popular version is the result of alterations by various hands, notably by Wesley’s co-worker George Whitefield who changed the opening couplet to the familiar one, and by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1840, a hundred years after the publication of Hymns and Sacred Poems, Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, and it is music from this cantata, adapted by the English musician William H. Cummings to fit the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, that propels the carol known today.
The original hymn was composed as a “Hymn for Christmas-Day” by Charles Wesley, included in the 1739 John Wesley collection Hymns and Sacred Poems.
Wesley’s original hymn began with the opening line “Hark how all the Welkin rings.” This was changed to the familiar “Hark! the Herald Angels sing” by George Whitefield in his 1754 Collection of hymns for social worship.
A second change was made in the 1782 publication of the Tate and Brady New version of the Psalms of David. In this work, Whitefield’s adaptation of Wesley’s hymn appears, with the repetition of the opening line “Hark! the Herald Angels sing/ Glory to the newborn king” at the end of each stanza, as it is commonly sung today.
“Hymn for Christmas-Day” (Charles Wesley, 1739)
HARK how all the Welkin rings
“Glory to the Kings of Kings,
“Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
“GOD and Sinners reconcil’d!
Joyful all ye Nations rise,
Join the Triumph of the Skies,
Universal Nature say
“CHRIST the LORD is born to Day!
That was the original by Welkin and then came the revisions:
Adaptation by George Whitefield (1758)
HARK! the Herald Angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
God and Sinners reconcil’d.
Joyful all ye Nations rise,
Join the Triumphs of the Skies;
Nature rise and worship him,
Who is born at Bethlehem.
And then later:
Carols for Choirs (1961)
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”
- Hark! The herald-angels sing
- “Glory to the new-born king”
In 1855, English musician William H. Cummings adapted Felix Mendelssohn’s secular music from Festgesang to fit the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” written by Charles Wesley.[
Wesley envisioned the song being sung to the same tune as his Easter song “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”, and in some hymnals that tune is included for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” along with the more popular Mendelssohn-Cummings tune.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was regarded as one of the Great Four Anglican Hymns and published as number 403 in “The Church Hymn Book” (New York and Chicago, U.S., 1872).
In the UK, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” has popularly been performed in an arrangement that maintains the basic original William H. Cummings harmonisation of the Mendelssohn tune for the first two verses but adds a soprano descant and a last verse harmonisation for the organ in verse three by Sir David Willcocks. This arrangement was first published in 1961 by Oxford University Press in the first book of the Carols for Choirs series. For many years it has served as the recessional hymn of the annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.
An uncommon arrangement of the hymn to the tune “See, the Conqu’ring hero comes” from Judas Maccabaeus (Handel), normally associated with the hymn Thine Be the Glory, is traditionally used as the recessional hymn of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.
This is broadcast live each year on Christmas Eve on RTÉ Radio 1. The usual (first) three verses are divided into six verses, each with chorus. The arrangement features a brass fanfare with drums in addition to the cathedral organ and takes about seven and a half minutes to sing. The Victorian organist W. H. Jude, in his day a popular composer, also composed a new setting of the work, published in his Music and the Higher Life.
And of course this post wouldn’t be complete without the music sung so beautifully by Celtic Woman.