Carols Rise From Diverse Origins

TUESDAY, DEC. 23, 1997

We play ‘em, we sing ‘em, we love ‘em, we wear ‘em out. Every year.

Christmas carols.

Christmas carols are held in unique affection and awe, much like the hearth, the tree, the colored lights and the creche.

But the carols themselves are as different from one another as tinsel and tonsils. Though they come out of the same book on the music stand, they have very little in common. And their origins often are miles removed from the Christmas celebrations they have come, over the years, to enliven.

While musicologists tear their hair trying to pin down who actually created many of these favorites, we can simply enjoy them. We find the elusive Christmas spirit embodied effortlessly, harmoniously in the fetching melodiousness and musical quality of the timeless carols and hymns. The carols speak for themselves.

The songs’ origins are as different as the way people around the world regard and depict the Christmas feast.

Consider “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” that sprightly, mobile piece in triple time that gets organists all but dancing on the pedals.

An inspired collaboration of lyricist and composer, right?

No, not at all.

In fact, composer Richard Willis wrote his own words, only to have them discarded. Edmund Sears, a preacher who died 100 years ago, wrote the present words (in quite another context), which were tacked on to Willis’ tune to form a magical combination.

Willis had studied music with the great Felix Mendelssohn, who is himself credited with another popular carol.

Mendelssohn wrote a tuneful choral piece to mark the 300th anniversary of the invention of printing - an important date, no doubt, but one of the more obscure themes in the composer’s illustrious career. He considered recycling the melody in a new context but not for church use: “It would never do with sacred words,” Mendelssohn believed.

How wrong he was. The recycling was ingenious, done after Mendelssohn’s death in 1847 with words written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788). The result? The glorious, upward-welling march, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

“The First Noel” and “Good King Wenceslas” are ideal marriages of words and song, though they turned up in very different eras. In both cases the music is believed to be more than 300 years old and of uncertain origin. For both, the words we use didn’t appear until the 19th century.

The “Wenceslas” tune was converted, however improbably, from a spring song to a tribute to a holy 10th-century ruler of Bohemia.

The mysteries of the carols are, I suppose, appropriate to a season that contemplates the mystery of the Christ-child’s birth. Your carol book (like one of mine) may still contain traditional but entirely inaccurate attributions.

The music of “Away in a Manger” is often attributed to Martin Luther even though it is unknown in Germany and so far has been traced back only to an American publication in the 1880s. More likely, it is by James R. Murray.

Is “Joy to the World” by Handel? There’s nothing to support the notion.

The error probably stemmed from the first four notes’ matching Handel’s “Lift Up Your Hearts” in “Messiah.” The probable composer remains that incredibly gifted, prolific and versatile composer identified in music books simply as Anon (for Anonymous).

Unknowns played a great part in great music.

The obscure church organist Lewis Redner wrote the choice music for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” - just listen to that elegant modulation to the mediant key at “Yet in that dark street” - on a Saturday night, in time for his Sunday-school classes.

Organist F.X. Gruber wrote “Silent Night” in a single day because of an emergency at his tiny village church in Oberndorf, Austria, finishing just in time for Christmas Eve.

But in the end, it’s not essential that we know exactly where these selections came from. It’s more a matter of where they take us, into an exalted celebration of the holy event surrounding this unique season of beauty, devotion and inspiration.

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