What sweeter music can we bring than a carol, for to sing the birth of our heavenly King?
– Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Throughout the centuries, no single event has moved authors, poets and composers more to create beautiful music than the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.
Filled with the majesty and wonder of God becoming man, these songs permeate our culture and can be heard on the radio, in shopping malls and through our CD players.
Yet these carols really “come alive” when we sing them at church, at parties or during Christmas caroling around the neighborhood. St. Augustine once wrote “to sing is to pray twice,” so singing Christmas carols is a great way to prayerfully prepare for Christmas day.
The following historical vignettes provide insights into the composers and lyricists who penned these famous and most popular Christmas carols.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The roots of this carol date back to the 800s and a series of Latin hymns sung during Advent Vespers. These Great Antiphons (meaning psalm or anthem) were published in 1710 and rediscovered by English minister John Mason Neale. He wove together parts of the antiphons to create this song, first published in 1851. His first draft of the song began with “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel,” but a later revision restored the tradition of these antiphons by starting the song with “O.”
Joy to the World
Music in church services throughout Great Britain during the 1700s usually took the form of singing the Old Testament psalms, until Isaac Watts came along. Dissatisfied with the quality of singing, he created new music with messages that reflected important passages of the New Testament. This classic song, which is often used as the closing hymn of a Christmas Mass, was Watt’s interpretation of verse 4 of Psalm 98, which says “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.” Watts considered what the reason would be for the earth to shout joyfully and rightfully concluded – the birth of our Lord.
The original German lyrics “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” were written by Father Josef Mohr in 1816. Tradition holds that two years later, faced with a rusty, broken organ (some say damaged by mice) on Christmas Eve, Father Mohr gave the lyrics to Austrian headmaster Franz Gruber and asked him to compose the melody on guitar. At first Gruber declined because the guitar was popularly used for drinking songs, but finally agreed and created a Christmas song loved throughout the world. “Silent Night” is said to be one of the songs both English and German soldiers sang together in the great Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I.
O Holy Night
Originally published in French with a title “Christian Midnight,” its lyrics were written in 1847 by Placide Clappeau, a French wine merchant. The tune was composed by Adolphe Charles Adam, a prolific French opera composer who was educated in his youth in music and piano. The carol was later translated into English by John Dwight, a Unitarian minister who published Dwight’s Journal of Music in 1852. His fondness for European music, especially compositions by Ludwig von Beethoven, was instrumental in the popularity of European classical music in America. It is thought that this was the first song broadcast over the radio.
We Three Kings
John H. Hopkins, Jr. wrote this hymn about the Magi for a Christmas pageant at New York City’s General Theological Seminary in 1857. Hopkins had graduated from the Episcopalian seminary and was the school’s first instructor of church music. The seminary, located in the wooded, undeveloped northern area of Manhattan, was founded in part through a land gift from Clement Clarke Moore. The son of New York’s Episcopal bishop, Moore’s income and fame were the result of a famous poem he wrote: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…”
Angels We Have Heard on High
The French roots of this carol can be found in the 1700s in “Les Anges dans nos Campagnes,” which literally means “the angels in the countryside.” The French verses were coupled with a refrain taken from Luke 2:14 in the Latin version of the Bible: “Gloria, in excelsis Deo,” which means “Glory to God in the highest.” The carol was translated to English by Bishop James Chadwick and first published in his 1860 Holy Family Hymns. The traditional tune is attributed to Edward Shippen Barnes, an American organist who studied Yale University from 1910-11 and then briefly at Schola Cantorum in Paris.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in1864, the carol is best understood in the context of the Civil War. Sitting at his son’s bedside at their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow feared for his son Charley’s life. Only seventeen, Charley had jumped on a train and join the Union Army. He was wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia and arrived home December 8. Overcome with grief and despair on Christmas Day, 1863, Longfellow poured his feelings into the song. The bells he heard reminded him that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
What Child is This?
The words to this carol are taken from a longer poem written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. Born into a literary family, Dix’s father was a surgeon who also wrote a book about English poet Thomas Chatterton, after whom he named his son. William did not follow his father’s footsteps to medical school—instead he sold insurance and wrote poetry. The melody of this carol comes from the 16th century British melody “Greensleeves,” originally a ballad of a man pining for his lost love. The carol was published in 1871 in Christmas Carols, New and Old. Dix wrote many other hymns, most notably “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” and “As With Gladness, Men of Old.”
Away in a Manger
Also known as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” a popular belief in the early 1900s held that this carol was composed by Martin Luther, whose theological writings inspired the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. One published version of the song in 1887 stated that Luther composed it for his children, though it does not appear in his works or in German church history. The carol was more likely written by German Lutherans in Pennsylvania, appearing in the Little Children’s Book in 1885. Yet only the first two verses were published, with no attribution to an author. The author of the third verse (“Be near me, Lord Jesus”) is also unknown.
Go, Tell it on the Mountain
While most of our beloved Christmas carols came from England and Europe, this one was penned in Tennessee. Born in Nashville and the son of a church choir director, John Wesley Work, Jr. often sang in his father’s choirs. In the late 1890s, Work received bachelor and masters degrees from Nashville’s Fisk University and was hired by the university to teach Greek and Latin.
In addition to his studies, he developed a fondness for Negro spirituals, a type of song sung by black workers on American plantations. Many of these spirituals were passed down orally through the generations, and were eventually written down and published. One of the last songs to be published was this one, for which Work created two new verses in 1907.
However, author Robert Morgan recounts in his book Then Sings My Soul, Book 2 that the Fisk Jubilee Singers had been singing one version of the song since 1879. Work made it a Christmas tradition to lead students around the campus before sunrise on Christmas Day to sing the joyous phrase “Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”
With so many wonderful songs to sing this season, it’s easy to agree with the composer of another favorite hymn: “How Can I Keep From Singing?” May these beloved Christmas carols bring joy and happiness to you and your families as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.
Originally published in the December 6, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© Christopher Fenoglio