The musical mood continues here at The Portly Politico—as does the joy (check out my “Joy of” posts here, here, and here). The Christmas season always lifts my spirits, and the boost from my piece on Milo and Romantic music has further buoyed them (if you’d like to elevate my mood to transcendent heights, consider purchasing some of my music).
With yesterday’s post on Christmas carols, I thought it might be interesting to look deeper into the most joyous of them all: Isaac Watts‘s “Joy to the World.”
Like many hymns, “Joy to the World” has a fixed lyricist, but the tune itself is a matter of some complexity. Wikipedia credits George Frideric Handel’s “Antioch” with providing inspiration for part of the iconic melody, with American composer Lowell Mason arranging and adapting the tune.
What a tune it is. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Handel and Mason that a descending major scale—it’s transcribed in the key of D in my Free Will Baptist Hymnal, and is in the same key in other hymnals I’ve perused—can have such impact. Much of the tune is built around descending lines, like the song of the angels at Bethlehem showering down in light and joy on the shepherds below.
It’s little wonder, then, that “Joy to the World” is the most-published hymn, according to Hymnary.org. It’s appeared in 1387 separate hymnals, per the website, though their list hasn’t been updated in a decade. The next closest contender, the wonderful “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” isn’t even close, coming in at 974 hymnal appearances. “Joy to the World” is the only one of the top twenty most popular hymns to break quadruple digits.
After those cascading descending lines, the melody settles into a chugging series of ostinato eighth notes, punctuated with some jaunty sixteenth notes, before the legendary octave leap (on “heav’n” in the first verse) before descending back to the tonic—all to start again, back up to the top of the octave.
“Joy to the World” is not my favorite Christmas song of all time—that’s “O Holy Night,” the operatic power ballad of Christmas carols that, I contend is objectively the best Christmas tune ever written—but it’s definitely near the top. It’s certainly fun to play on any instrument, and challenging (see the aforementioned octave leap). It’s simple harmonic structure makes it great to teach younger students, and its form is flexible to accommodate many styles.
Indeed, my middle school musicians will perform it at our big Christmas concert this Friday. They’re doing a fairly straightforward version, and Southern Baptist style—we’re just doing verses one, two, and four (I don’t know the origins of this practice of skipping the third verse in favor of the fourth, but if anyone knows, please leave a comment). It’s short, sweet, and joyous.
But one year, my high school class went really bonkers with “Joy the World.” A longstanding tradition of my Christmas concerts is to incorporate some kind of classic 70s or 80s hard rock or heavy metal tune into a Christmas theme. One year we did “The Final Countdown” into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” for example. Last year, a student rewrote the lyrics to “Crazy Train” to “Christmas Train,” which made for an explosive closer.
One year, we took some liberties with “Joy to the World” (my apologies to Watts and Mason). We went from the buoyant D major of the tune into an abrupt D minor riff—that of Ronnie James Dio’s “Holy Diver,” which we changed to “Merry Christmas.” The lyrics were altered to “Merry Christmas!/You’ve been down too long in the Arctic Sea/Oh what’s becoming of me”—etc., etc.
The crowd—especially the parents—loved it, and it’s gone down as one of my favorite Christmas concert memories. There still exists a photograph of me playing bass back-to-back with a young guitarist. The young man in question was nervous about standing and playing at the end of a long platform that jutted into the audience, but I told him to stand toward the finale. The grin on his face is laser-etched into my brain.
If that isn’t joy, I don’t know what is.
12 thoughts on “Joy to the World”
How good is “O Holy Night”? Good enough that my tone deaf mother, who nevertheless did OK with piano lessons, absolutely declared it the best Christmas son, bar none.
I agree with her, but “Joy” is also excellent. One of my old Pastor’s absolutely condemned that verse skipping (which we did too). His comment was that you don’t read the Gospels and skip St. John. He had a point.
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I have a buddy who says the the oft-skipped third verse is the one that, in may instances, packs the most theological punch. By the logic of that practice, we’d be skipping Luke (the third Gospel) rather than John, but either way, it’s a big loss. Imagine the Christmas Story without Luke 2? The Physician sure had a way with words (and The Word).
“O Holy Night” is glorious. I once played it at a little Christmas party gig, singing over a beautiful baby grand piano. A small choir of ladies gathered round, breaking out into glorious harmony on the powerful “Fall on your knees!” I kept playing, but I was so overcome with emotion and the Holy Spirit that I could no longer sing. Powerful!
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True, boy how I would miss the words of that wise Physician. Sometimes in more modern churches I wonder if that’s why they skip it. Lots of excellent theology involved in hymnology.
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