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Christmas Carols
Select Christmas carols, the history behind each one and the lyrics.
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Sharon Lathan
Kentucky
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December 18, 2017 - 12:17 AM
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Silent Night

 

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” ~Luke 2:8

Unlike most Christmas carols, the origins of Silent Night are rooted in well-established facts AND steeped in dramatized legend.

The Facts: Father Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), a young priest in the parish church at Oberndorf (a village on the Salzach river in present-day Austria) wrote the lyrics sometime before 1818. Some sources claim he wrote the lyrics to the German “Stille Nacht” as early as 1816, while still living in his hometown of Mariapfarr. Whatever the truth regarding the lyrics, the melody was unquestionably composed by Mohr’s friend and fellow musical enthusiast Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) — the schoolmaster and organist in Arnsdorf (a village near to Oberndorf) — days or hours before Christmas 1818. Together, Mohr and Gruber performed Stille Nacht for the first time at mass in Oberndorf on Christmas Eve in 1818.

The Legend: Adding drama to the creation of Silent Night, stories recount how, on December 23 of 1818, Mohr went to visit a mother and her new-born child. On the way back to the rectory, he paused by the river and meditated on the first Christmas. Inspired by the beauty and serenity of the winter scene surrounding him, Mohr wrote a poem capturing the essence of that great faith eventUpon his return to the parish, he was confronted with the news that the organ was broken. Being so close to Christmas and without sufficient funds to consider repairing the organ, the people feared that Midnight Mass would be silent. Father Mohr rushed to the home of his friend, Franz Gruber, and shared his plight. He handed Gruber the poem, and asked him to write a melody for it to be played on the guitar. Franz Gruber completed the task in time, and at Midnight Mass, 1818, the world heard for the first time the simple yet profound song we know, in English, as Silent Night.

While the legend is a lovely vision to accompany a profoundly moving composition that, no matter the inspiration, does capture the ineffable mystery of the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, most historians agree that the elaborations are fanciful. Gruber himself, in his 1854 “Authentic Account of the Origin of the Christmas Carol, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night!'”, simply says that Mohr handed him the poem to write music for. No hints are given of where or when the poem was penned, or that there was an organ crisis! Gruber goes on to say the song was included in the Christmas mass that evening with Mohr singing the tenor part and providing accompaniment with guitar, while he (Gruber) sang bass. According to Gruber the song was met with “general approval by all” in attendance. Perhaps Herr Gruber was simply an understated, humble chap! Or, as most historians believe, there truly wasn’t more to the story, the romantic embellishments a later addition.

As for the dating to the lyrics, in 1995 a manuscript of the score was discovered, the oldest and only surviving copy written and autographed by Joseph Mohr himself. In the lower left is written: “Text von Joseph Mohr mpia Coadjutor 1816” (“Text by Joseph Mohr – confirmed by my own signature – assistant priest 1816”). After careful study by historians, it is estimated that this autograph was written between 1820 and 1825, while the “1816” after Mohr’s name is believed to refer to the year in which Mohr created the text. This autographed score also provides a key statement in the upper right: “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber” (“Melody by Fr. Xav. Gruber”) and therewith clarifies conclusively that Franz Gruber composed the melody to Silent Night.

Soon after the first performance, Gruber distributed arrangements for use in the towns around Oberndorf, and thereafter traveling bands of folksingers started to circulate it further afield. One in particular, the Rainer Family (a 19th century version of the von Trapps), took it to the courts of the Russian Tsar and Austrian Emperor, and then, in 1839, to New York, where it was picked up by an emerging modern music publishing industry.

In 1859, Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, then serving at Trinity Church, New York City, published the English translation that is most frequently sung today, translated from three of Mohr’s original six verses. The version of the melody that is generally used today is a slow, meditative lullaby or pastorale, differing slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber’s original, which was a “moderato” tune.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

 

 

O Holy Night!

 

According to history, in Roquemaure, a small town in southern France, at the end of the year 1843, the parish church organ had been renovated. To celebrate the event, the priest asked town wine merchant and poet Placide Cappeau to write a Christmas poem, even though the latter never showed an interest in religion. Cappeau obliged, titling the poem Minuit, chrétiens — translated: “Midnight, Christians”. Composer Adolphe C. Adam wrote the music, the song titled Cantique de Noël premiering in Roquemaure in 1847, sung by the opera singer Emily Laurey.

Nearly ten years later, in 1855, Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, editor of a publication called Dwight’s Journal of Music, created a singing versionBased on Cappeau’s poem rather than a direct translation, the lyrics are quite different, while maintaining the theme of Jesus’ birth and the redemption of humanity. Over the years slightly differing versions have been penned and recorded, however, the most popular version remains the one by Dwight, as noted below.

On Christmas Eve in 1906, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden broadcast the first ever AM radio program and he played “O Holy Night” on the violin, making the popular carol the first piece of music to be broadcast on the radio.

 

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from the Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother.
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim!
His power and glory evermore proclaim!

 

 

What Child is This?

 

What Child is This? was written by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), the manager of an insurance company in Glasgow. In 1865, when only 29 years of age, Dix was struck with a near fatal illness and consequently suffered months confined to his bed.  During this time, he read the Bible comprehensively and underwent a spiritual renewal that led him to write several hymns, including “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!” and “As with Gladness Men of Old”.

The lyrics of the carol are taken from a longer poem written by Dix called “The Manger Throne”. The song consists of three stanzas in total, with the first verse posing a rhetorical question that is answered. The second verse contains another question that is answered, with the final verse a universal appeal to accept Christ.

Although written in 1865, “What Child Is This?” was not published until 1871. It featured in Christmas Carols Old and New,  a prestigious and influential collection of carols in the United Kingdom. The hymnal was edited by clergyman and famed hymnologist Henry Ramsden Bramley and composer John Stainer. It is unknown who paired the three stanzas from “The Manger Throne” with the tune “Greensleeves” – a traditional English melody popular since the 14th century – but the third edition of The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump and Stories of the Great Christmas Carols both suggest that Stainer may have done so.

 

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies he is such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
The silent word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross he borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

 

 

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!

 

Author: Charles Wesley (1707-1788), younger brother of John Wesley. Charles was a hymn writer and a poet, also known as one of the people who began the Methodist movement in the Church of England. Hark the Herald Angels Sing was composed specifically as a “hymn for Christmas day” and appeared in 1739 in a book called Hymns and Sacred Poems.

Wesley’s original opening couplet was “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”. “Welkin” is an Old English word meaning “clouds or heavens”.

The popular version is the result of alterations by various hands, notably by Wesley’s co-worker George Whitefield who changed the opening couplet to the familiar one, and then, some hundred years later in 1840, by Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn composed a cantata called Festgesang or “Festival Song” to commemorate Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. The melody of Mendelssohn’s cantata was then used by William H. Cummings, who adapted it to the lyrics of Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. This is the tune known today.

The lyrics, aside from the opening line, have remained unchanged.

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
Oh, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

 

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