My favourite time of the year is Christmas and my favourite part of Christmas is the music. I am an evangelical Christian so the music that is of most importance to me is that which best conveys the true meaning of the holiday and resonates the scriptural foretelling and proclamation of the Messiah’s arrival. Whatever faith you do, or do not, take a part of, I am sure that music-lovers far and wide appreciate the haunting beauty and poetical nature of some of the most timeless Christmas carols. I thought I would provide a few interesting tidbits about religious seasonal music which I have gleaned from a long and intensive study on the history of church music and hymnody. Merry Christmas All!!
On Silent Night: When I was in Austria this past summer, I had the rare privilege of viewing the transcript of Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr’s masterpiece, Stille Nacht: one of the most sung carols in the world. In fact, during the British-German Christmas truce in 1914, soldiers from both sides are recorded as having sung Silent Night across the trenches: it being the song that both sides knew with utmost familiarity. Silent Night boasts a miraculous heritage. Strewn from the makings of traditional alpine folk music and bearing resemblance to the famous structure of Austrian yodeling, Silent Night was composed in a small village called Oberndorf on Christmas Eve, 1818. For a small, lullaby-type carol to sift over the alps and into its subsequent publication by John Freeman Young in 1859 is rather miraculously baffling.
Oberndorf is a remote community somewhere outside of Salzburg. Visitors to this rural community would have been sparse ( due to its location and the rather rudimentary modes of transportation available to residents in the early 19th Century) and influence from the outside world would have been sparse as well. Thus, Gruber and Mohr drew on what musical resources were available. Sketching a haunting melody and simplistic words ( with a strangely powerful imagery), Mohr and Gruber crafted a legend: using the resources they had and the meager musical range they had. Sung on that first fateful night with just guitar accompaniment, Silent Night is now one of the most popular religious songs in the world. In fact, in a society so bent on stripping Christmas from the malls and the streets, Silent Night cannot be beaten. Retail stores strict on circulating non-religious music still include Silent Night in their compilations, films and television series use it quite prominently and in a growing tradition of carolers and children unfamiliar with the lyrics to religious carols, Silent night is universally known.
Poetically, Silent Night is divine. Using a simple cadence and painting a soft, still crèche ( not unlike those so famous at the Austrian Christmas markets in the Tyrol and Vienna), Silent Night boasts little glory. And yet, at its most resonant, it encapsulates the true meaning of the season. It offers redemption with “ the dawn of redeeming grace” , assurance “ Christ our Saviour is Born”; and even testaments Jesus as Messiah, “Son of God/ Love’s pure light” This song moves me beyond words
On Handel’s Messiah: Handel was a private person whose resounding masterpiece The Messiah transcends time and place with an almost ethereal energy. For such a commonplace vessel to be used as the champion of God is a miraculous story to behold. Handel’s piece, I argue, is moving because it strings us from the earliest prophesy of Jesus through His never-ending reign. Brimming with majesty and hope, Handel draws greatly from scripture and pieces his contrapuntal, multi—layered masterpiece with fragments of the Word of God. For a large majority of religious believers living in London in 1741 ( when the Messiah was composed), the scripture presented in church through music, sermons and narrative, would have been their only link to the Bible.
The limitations of the printing press ( even since Gutenberg’s publication of the King James Bible in 1611 ) were still pronounced and the greater part of the working class world still suffered from illiteracy. Thus, the scripture performed and presented in musical form would have been greatly admired and appreciated. It does little good to attempt to dissect each and every delicious part of the great opus; but I do want to point out a few areas of note: First, The Messiah is broken into a trinity ( as it were ) of Acts: from the Annunciation through the Passion ( and significantly Christ’s ascension) and finally the Aftermath ( the promise of redemption and the glorification of Christ). The famous Hallelujah chorus ends the second part of the three acts and is not ( as can be believed from its climactic feel), the end of the composition. The centuries old tradition of standing during a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus (No.44) was begun by King George II when he first heard and was moved by the piece. There are several explanations and theories as to why King George II first rose; but I like to think he was so moved by the piece ( Handel is noted as saying that while composing it, he saw the face of God) he was forced to stand erect.
On It Came Upon a Midnight Clear : this is one of the first Christmas carols penned by an American author. Christmas carols date back as early as Roman Times. From the Tudor Courts of England through the 18th Century writings of Charles Wesley (Hark the Herald Angels Sing), Carols experienced burgeoning and wide spread popularity especially in the 19th Century when this famous Carol was written. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a pastor at a Unitarian Church in Wayland,Massachusetts . It was first published in the Boston Christian Register on December 29, 1849. Often set to one of 2 melodies, either “Carol” (composed by Richard Storrs Willis, a once student of Felix Mendelssohn, the famous composer) or “Noel” (adapted from a popular English melody).
A cross-denomination hymn, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear can be found in a myriad of hymnals from the Lutheran Book of Worship to the United Methodist Hymnal (which usually set the lyrics to the tune Noel mentioned above). While the “Carol” setting (written by Willis) is used commonly in Episcopal churches. It is the Carol setting that is most popular in pop recordings by famous artists. Edmund Sears was a prolific author of numerous works influencing 19th Century liberal protestants; but it is his haunting carol emphatically positioning the angel’s presence, not only at the birth of Christ, but still as Christ’s “guardians” here on Earth, that has lasted. Sears was educated at Harvard Divinity School and always showed a great propensity to understand and communicate tenets of theology.
When questioned how a Unitarian minister could write so passionately about the events surrounding the nativity (as outlined in his famous carol), Sears declared “I am more Unitarian in name than conviction.” In his book “Sermons and Songs of Christ’s Life”, published a year before his death, Sears wrote “Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the divinity of Christ” There are several theories behind the inspiration behind It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and yet it is the resonance of the lyrics that are truly the most potent reflection of Sears’ intentionality. Some believe that it was penned at the request of a minister-colleague of Sears; others believe Sears originally wrote it as a melancholy reflection of contemporary circumstances (most notably on the Mexican American War, 1846-1848 and particularly the bloody annexation of Texas). Sears opposed the Mexican-American conflict due to his religious beliefs and his great belief in the American public which had, since the Revolutionary War, been thriving and peaceful.
The lyrics of It Came Upon a Midnight clear reflect a time when the United States was torn asunder yet reconciliation and hope, through Christ’s birth and everlasting presence, present a reconciliatory theme that the singer is left with far after the last stanza. Moreover, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear binds humanity with an ethereal presence and with heavenly divinity. “From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold” provides a sense of solace to our gritty earth-bound souls. Here, as Christ came to touch the very lowest of humanity; so do the angels bridge the gap between earth and heaven intervening as heavenly hosts to a broken world much in the same way that Christ’s birth ransomed humanity, broke the “veil” and connected us with his golden and everlasting life through the Father.
Later, during the American Civil War, this particular song experienced resurgence in popularity. Sung in Civil War camps and throughout the nation, it once again spoke peace to a gravely desperate humanity in the same way it had expressed Sears’ frustration with the Mexican American War. Scripturally-sound and still relevant to Christian’s 160 years after its authorship, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is as prevalent today as it was when Sears first took pen to paper. Still we struggle with hardship war and the evasion of Peace. Yet still, as in Sear’s days of yore, we recognize that Christ intervenes: be it through His glorious presence or the imagery of angels to re-iterate the promise of eternity and the peaceful glory that awaits believers.
On I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: Renowned American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow experienced great hardships to counter his beautiful and beloved poetry. “ How inexpressibly sad are all of the holidays”, he wrote in his journal on Christmas Day, 1862 after the untimely death of his wife to a tragic fire accident. “’ A merry Christmas!’, say the children,” Longfellow expressed in the same journal entry, “but that is no more for me.” In December 1863, tragedy struck again when Longfellow learned that his eldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of Potomac during the American Civil War had been severely wounded in Battle . Shortly after a visit to his son a year later in December 1864 ( where Charles was still gravely ill), Longfellow penned the words to “ Christmas Day” a poem equally illustrating Longfellow’s despair of circumstances past and hope of assurance in the peace of the future. Later set to music and entitled “ I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, the song remains a Christmas standard.
It is Longfellow’s personal hardship which makes the lyrics to the carol a profound and simple exposition of God’s presence in a faltering world that remains so relevant today. There are two musical settings to this song. Both are widely used in modern recordings. One (as recorded by Elvis) is set to a composition written in the 1870s by English organist, John Baptiste Calkin and the other to a composition by Joseph Mainzer in 1845. It is my belief that the latter better houses the melancholy and reflective tone of Longfellow’s words.
Historically, the words of Longfellow’s poem resonate with the common experiences of many soldiers on both sides of the North and The South. Corporal J.C. Williams, Co. B, 14th Vermont Infantry, wrote this comment on Christmas Day 1862: “This is Christmas, and my mind wanders back to that home made lonesome by my absence, while far away from the peace and quietude of civil life to undergo the hardships of the camp, and may be the battle field, I think of the many lives that are endangered, and hope that the time will soon come when peace, with its innumerable blessings, shall once more restore our country to happiness and prosperity.”
Like the greatest works of literature, the above musical offerings continue to stand the test of time. Next time you are in the mall, on the street, or near your own fireplace harkening to your favourite renditions of traditional carols, spare a thought for their composers, their lyricists and the rich and resounding history that informs the most popular of Christmas carols and hymns.