Good King Wenceslas
DESCRIPTION: On St. Stephen's Day, Wenceslas sees a poor man gathering wood, and decides to help the peasant. Wenceslas and his servant go out in the bad weather. Returning home, the servant suffers from the cold but Wenceslas miraculously keeps him warm
AUTHOR: Words: J. M. Neale (1818-1866) / Music: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1853 (tune from Piae Cantiones, 1582)
KEYWORDS: religious royalty
FOUND IN: US(Ap)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
OBC 136, "Good King Wenceslas" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 382, "Good King Wenceslas" (1 text)
Jack, p. 247, "Good King Wenceslas" (1 text)
Fuld-WFM, pp. 254-255, "Good King Wenceslas"
ADDITIONAL: Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #29, "Good Kin Wenceslas" (1 text)
cf. "The Flower Carol (Spring Has Now Unwrapped the Flowers)" (tune)
Good King Wences (Pankake-PHCFSB, p. 115)
NOTES [299 words]: Fuld gives details of how J. M. Neale created words (which the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols call, with reason, "one of his less happy pieces") to the tune "Tempus adest floridum" ("Spring Has Unwrapped Her Flowers"), which had appeared in the published version of the Piae Cantiones the previous year.
Wenceslas is Saint Wenceslaus (or Vaclav, to use the non-Latinate form) of Bohemia (c. 905-c. 932), properly a Duke (since Bohemia was a duchy), who succeeded to the throne of Bohemia c. 920 and took over from the regency c. 924 but was murdered in 935.
Wenceslaus's kingdom was beset by religious conflict, and this contributed to his fall. His grandmother was Christian, as was his dead father, but his mother Dragomira and his brother Boleslav (who murdered him) were pagan. As a ruler, Wenceslaus does not seem to have amounted to much; his later reputation probably derives from his martyrdom. He is the Catholic saint of the Czech Republic (which includes Bohemia). Several later kings shared his name, including the famously incompetent Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (1361-1419, Holy Roman Emperor from 1378 but deposed 1400).
There is no evidence that Wenceslaus ever did any of the things described in this carol, and indeed it has been noted that there are several logical flaws in the narrative; apparently it came almost whole out of Neale's head as he sought to make a song for Saint Stephen's Day.
On lyrical and theological and historical grounds, then, the song probably should be dropped. But, as Eric Routley commented (quoted by Bradley), it "contains snow and philanthropy in just the proportions calculated to make it a favorite." More to the point, it has a great tune -- though, of course, that tune has nothing to do with Wenceslaus, or Neale, or Christmas. - RBW
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