Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
DESCRIPTION: "Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory (be) to the new-born King." In praise of the baby Jesus, the "incarnate deity, pleased as man with man to dwell." The song offers both praise and thanks for the coming of Jesus
AUTHOR: Words: Charles Wesley (1707-1788) (adapted by George Whitefield) / Music: Felix Mendelssohn (1808-1847)
EARLIEST DATE: 1739 ("Hymns and Sacred Poems")
KEYWORDS: Christmas nonballad religious
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (8 citations):
Peters, pp. 67-68, "'Ark, 'Ark, the 'Eavenly Angels Sing" (1 short text, 1 tune, which appears to be a badly damaged remnant of this song; the informant was 87)
Fireside, p. 264, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 381, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (1 text)
Fuld-WFM, pp. 269-270, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"
ADDITIONAL: John Julian, editor, _A Dictionary of Hymnology_, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes), p. 487, "Hark, how all the welkin rings" (2 parallel texts, one Wesley's and one closer to the "common" version)
Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns (Hallberg, 1982), pp. 46-47, "Hard, the Herald Angels Sing" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #32, "Hard, the Herald Angels Sing" (1 text); cf. #31, "Hark, How All the Welkin Rings" (1 text)
Uncle Joe and Aunty Mabel (File: EM374)
Beecham's Pills (Pankake-PHCFSB, p. 37)
Make New Friends But Keep The Old (partial tune) (DT, NEWFRNDS*, GSFRIEND*)
NOTES: In the Sacred Harp, this is given the tune "Cookham." It's not the standard Mendelssohn melody.
The original Charles Wesley text might come as a surprise; the title line is "Hark how all the welkin rings, 'Glory to the king of kings,'" then turns to more familiar lines. This text can be found, e.g., in the Penguin Book of Carols. Julian, p. 487, has a detailed comparison of the Wesley text and the "improved" version. Some of these changes even have theological implications -- e.g. Wesley wrote one line as "Veil'd in flesh, the Godhead see" (which is the way I've always heard it), but one text makes this "Veil'd in flesh the Godhead HE."
Even Methodists tend to sing the version adapted by M. Madan.
Nor was Madan's the last word; one George D. Elderkin turned this into a thorough mess that begins "Hark! the herald angels sing, Jesus, the light of the world"; if you want to expose yourself to that, see Warren-Spirint, pp. 145-147.
The "welkin" is the firmament or the dome of heaven; George Whitefield apparently changed it (and made sundry lesser changes) not because the word was archaic because it didn't fit his theology; Wesley was of course Arminian (meaning that human beings actually had some role in gaining, or at least accepting, salvation), but Whitefield was pure Calvinist, meaning that he believed in salvation by God's caprice, with no amount of human action having anything to do with it. (As you can probably tell, I am not a Calvinist.)
It was a fellow by the name of William Hayman Cummings (1831-1915), who had performed under Mendelssohn's direction, who mated the Wesley/Whitefield words with the Mendelssohn melody, publishing the result in 1856. Only then did the song become popular. McKim, p. 31, says that Mendelssohn had written the tune for a male chorus and orchestra; "Festgesang an die Kunstler" was written (slightly prematurely) to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of printing with movable type. Since Mendelsson died, while still in his thirties, in 1847, he did not see the words fitted to his tune. Which is perhaps just as well; according to Stulken, p. 162, Mendelssohn did not think the tune suitable for sacred use.
Reynolds, p. 82, says that the text had previously been published with the tune "Hendon," also used for "Ask ye what great thing I know."
According to Julian, p. 1569, Charles Wordsworth translated this into Latin as "Audite! cantant Angeli praeconium."
For the life of Charles Wesley, author of (some of) the lyrics of this piece, see the notes to "Jesus Lover of My Soul." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- McKim: LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
- Stulken: Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, Fortress Press, 1981
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