Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Hark the Herald, Angels Sing"

Words: Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739.

Music: Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, in his cantata Festge sang an die K√ľnstler, 1840 (second movement, Vaterland, in deinem Gauen); the cantata celebrated the 400th anniversary of Johann Gute berg’s invention of the printing press. This arrangement, by William H. Cummings, appeared in the Congregational Hymn and Tune Book, by Richard R. Chope, 1857.  ---

This hymn is chalked full of Scriptural allusions and deep theological truths.  You can read some background information on this hymn at  Hymns books that use more than three verses of the hymn generally combine the first half of the fourth and first half of the fifth verses into one fourth verse.  The truths in that portion of the hymn are vital for the Christian's sanctification.

    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 power,
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:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.


Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” is another of the more than 6,500 hymns from the pen of Charles Wesley that have enriched Christian hymnody. It is thought to have been written one year after his dramatic, Aldersgate conversion experience of 1738. This text, along with “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” is generally considered to be one of Wesley’s finest. According to John Julian, noted hymnologist, this is one of the four most popular hymns in the English language. It certainly has become one of the classic, Christmas carol hymns to the present time, sung thousands of times every year all around the world.
Like so many of Wesley’s hymns, this text condensed course in biblical doctrine in poetic form. Following the re-telling of the angelic visit to the shepherds in the initial stanza, the succeeding verses teach such spiritual truths as the virgin birth, Christ’s deity, the immortality of the soul, the second or new birth, and a concern for Christ-like living. As the late Eric Routley, noted English hymnist, observes in his book, Hymns and Human-Life: “These [Wesley] hymns were composed in order that men and women might sing their way, not only into experience, but also into knowledge; that the cultured might have their culture baptized and the ignorant might be led into truth by the gentle hand of melody and rhyme.” Charles Wesley is also the author of the hymn “A charge to keep I Have” and “Depth of Mercy.” Other Charles Wesley hymns include “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

The tune, “Mendelssohn” was contributed by one of the master composers of th early nineteenth century, Felix Mendelssohn. He was born into a Jewish-Christian home on February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany, and died at Leipzig, Germany, on November 4, 1847. Mendelssohn was a highly acclaimed boy prodigy, making his first public appearance as a pianist, at the age of nine. Felix Mendelssohn was not only a noted performer and conductor, but also a prolific composer throughout his brief life-time. His works included symphonies, chamber music, concertos, as widely performed today is the oratorio. The Elijah, first performed in England on August 26, 1846. The “Mendelssohn” hymn tune was adapted from the composer’s Festgesang, Opus 68, composed in 1840. This was a work that Mendelssohn wrote to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing. The hymn setting of this music was made by William H. Cummings, a noted English musician and scholar, and was first published in Richard Chope’s Congregational Hymn and Tune Book of
1857. Although other tunes have been tried with Wesley’s text, the “Mendelssohn” has become the recognized music or this carol hymn.

Felix Mendelssohn is also the composer of the “Consolation” tune used for “Still, Still With Thee” and the “Munich” tune, used for the hymn “O Word of God Incarnate.”It is interesting to note briefly the the history of our Christmas carol hymns. The word “carol” is derived from the word “carola,” which means a ring dance. Carols, then have long been thought of as an early form of sacred folk music, dating in time from the early middle ages. During this period they seem to have been an integral part of the early mystery and miracle plays which were widely used by the medieval church for teaching its religious dogmas. The carols were sung during these plays as an intermezzo between the various scenes, much like the role of a modern-day orchestra between the scenes of a drama production.

Then, in 1627, the English Puritan parliament abolished the celebration of christmas and all other “worldly festivals.” During the remainder of the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth century, there was a scarcity of these folk-like carol hymns in England. Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” represents one of the relatively few, important carol hymns to have been written during this time.

“The hinge of history is on the door of a Bethlehem stable.” - Ralph W.Sockman
101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck is a great book.

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