Last December I dedicated several posts to reviewing and analyzing some of my favorite Christmas carols. It’s the season for playing and singing them, and the more I dive into their histories, the more I appreciate them.
One carol that escaped my notice last year was “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It’s one of my favorites, so I’m surprised I didn’t write about it (although it did enjoy the spotlight in my Christmas Day post).
Apparently, my pastor noticed—not that I didn’t write about it on this blog, which I’m certain he doesn’t know exists, but that I didn’t play it at church. In one of his sermons, he said, “One of my favorite carols is ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’ I didn’t hear it this Christmas season. I don’t know why they didn’t play it, but…” and then he went on to make whatever point he wanted to make. Of course, all he had to do was ask, and I would have played it!
Well, there’s no time like the present. I’m a better pianist than I was one year ago, which matters, because “Hark!” is hard to play, at least the way I play solo piano (basic chords in the left hand, melody in the right hand). In The Free Will Baptist Hymnal it’s in the key of G, with the first two notes written as pick-ups on beats 3 and 4 (which does not make sense—the first “Hark!” clearly falls on beat one rhythmically—but it works out in the arrangement, so what do I know?). G is a very easy key to play, but there are some tricky secondary dominants that sneak in, such as the A major over the “God and sinners reconciled” line in the first verse. There’s also the move to A minor (the minor ii chord in the key of G major) that pivots to its V chord, E7 (“Hark the her-ald an-gels sing”; italics indicate the secondary dominant E7, which functions as V7/ii). Mentally, it’s a lot to keep straight.
Charles Wesley, one of the great hymn writers of the First Great Awakening and a key Methodist figure, wrote the original text, and wanted it set to a slow, solemn melody. The first line in Wesley’s original text was “HARK how all the Welkin rings/’Glory to the King of Kings!'” George Whitefield, the famous evangelist and a contemporary of Charles and John Wesley, altered the lyrics to very close to the version we sing today.
Musically, the melody comes from Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. A British musician, William Cummings, adapted the tune from Mendelssohn’s Festgesang, itself a cantata written in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press.
It’s a grandiose, triumphant melody. The major fourth movement from D to the tonic G in the first two notes possesses a powerful feel. It is a song of glory and praise to “the newborn king,” so the Mendelssohn setting is fitting (although some hymnals will also print Wesley’s preferred, slower setting). The movement to the A minor in the chorus creates a might contrast with the buoyancy of the major mode. It also sets up a familiar ii-V-I cadence of Am-D-G heading into the end. The ending itself lends itself to a slight ritardando, driving home the sense of victorious finality.
It’s a wonderful tune, and another example of the effectiveness of adapting Romantic composition to convey the emotional power of Christ’s Birth.