I just learned something interesting about what is probably my favorite Christmas carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

I just learned something interesting about what is probably my favorite Christmas carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Did you know it was written by Charles Wesley, younger brother of the father of Methodism, John Wesley? If I did, I had forgotten. Wesley composed the original lyrics for his 1739 collection “Hymns and Sacred Poems.” It was originally named “A Hymn for Christmas Day.” Most strikingly, however, the original version was accompanied by a much slower, solemn melody.
The upbeat, joyful tune we know today was attached to the carol in 1855 by English musician William H. Cummings, who borrowed it from German composer Felix Mendelssohn's secular 1840 “Festgesang”, which is also something I didn't know. “Festgesang” was written to commemorate the invention of the Gutenburg printing press. Incidentally, Mendelssohn is one of my favorite classical music composers, so it's not strange that I should like the melody of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” so much.
Also, the original opening line, written by Charles Wesley, went “Hark how all the Welkin rings”. Welkin is an old Middle English word meaning the sky or the celestial heavens. The line was changed to the now well-known “Hark the Herald Angels sing” by Wesley's friend George Whitefield, another early founder of Methodism, in his own 1754 work “Collection of Hymns for Social Worship.”
Another favorite carol of mine, and probably a close second, is “The First Noel”. Although its genesis is actually older than “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, it didn't appear in print until 1823, when it was included in “Carols Ancient and Modern”, edited by William Sandys. It had its origins in Cornwall, in the southwest corner of England, and the melody may have been borrowed from an earlier church gallery song. I'm not sure the lyrics, which went through a number of metamorphoses over the early decades, can be attributed to any one person, as it is a traditional song, although Sandys and Davies Gilbert arranged the lyrics to music and the latter even added some.
Whenever I hear “The First Noel” I think of a cold Civil War reenactment I participated in in December 1998 on the Prairie Grove, Arkansas battlefield. The skies were gray and spitting snow, the ground was muddy and half-frozen. A lot of us shivering, ragged “soldiers” gathered around a fire and sang Christmas carols before the battle that afternoon, and one of us, a man by the name of Troy Hisely, a friend's father, had a wonderful singing voice. He could really hit the high notes on the middle part of the chorus of “The First Noel”, on the last repeated “Noel.” He sang “No-EEE-lll” on a beautiful high note. That was the last time I ever saw Troy, or his son, my friend, too, for he moved his family to Louisiana. I should probably focus on the meaning of the carol instead of visiting memory lane, but I can't help being transported back to that moment whenever I hear it. Looking back, that Christmas was probably the peak of my happiness as an adolescent before I had to start thinking about grown up things.
Anyhow, hope you enjoyed reading about this little bit of background behind two of my favorite carols. I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas!



Wes Franklin writes a column for the Neosho Daily News.