This past Sunday was the first of December, and my first time back at my little church since Thanksgiving. That meant it was time—finally!—to play some Christmas carols.
We started the service with a rousing congregational singing of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which is apparently my pastor’s favorite carol. Our second congregational singing was “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” a beautiful little hymn with some interesting harmonies and leaping melodies—typical of carols.
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” originated as a five-stanza poem by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister and theologian. He wrote the poem in 1849, shortly after the Mexican-American War concluded in 1848. In 1850, Sears requested Richard Storrs Willis to compose a melody for his poem; the result, simply entitled “Carol,” is the melody with which Americans are so familiar today (apparently our British cousins sing a different melody than our own).
When Sears wrote the poem, war was fresh on his mind—not just the recent Mexican-American War, which was widely opposed in Sears’s antebellum New England, but also the tumultuous European revolutions of 1848. The lyrics of the second and third verses depict a particularly bleak world, in which men and nations have turned a deaf ear to the song of the angels, which proclaims, “‘Peace on earth, goodwill to men/From heav’n’s all gracious King.'”
It’s a popular hymn, appearing in 802 hymnals, according to Hymnary.org. I can see why: it’s a beautiful song, and one that is fun to both play and sing. The melody is iconic, consisting of a leap of a sixth interval from F to D at the very beginning of the piece. Willis’s use of 6/8 time also gives the piece a persistent, flowing quality, with plenty of pleasing triplets throughout.
The harmony, too, is quite interesting, as Willis employs quite a bit of chromatic motion and secondary dominants. In the third measure (“glorious song of old”), the harmony moves from an Eb (the IV chord in Bb major) to a C7 (the V7/V7 chord), which points to the F (V chord) on the word “old.” It gives the alto part a pleasing stepwise progression—Eb on “glorious” to an E on “song of” to F on “old.”
The B section of the hymn—typically the third line when printed in a hymnal—starts with powerful D major chord, which is only distantly related to the key of Bb. That harmonic contrast draws attention to the song of the angels in the first verse (the “Peace on Earth” line quoted above). The D leads into a G minor chord, the relative minor of Bb, which takes us to an F7-C-F7 progression. The F7 points back to the Bb major tonic, and we end with a repeat of the second line, melodically and harmonically.
That “glorious song of old” has, indeed, been forgotten at times, no more so, it seems, than in our present age. That song of the angels is constantly drowned out with multiplying distractions: work, the Internet, noise. The steady rhythm of our daily lives can be a comfort, but can easily distract if we let it.
We’d do well to take time to internalize the song those angels sang that glorious night in Bethlehem.