Friday, December 09, 2011

Classical Music Origins of a Couple Christmas Songs

From the comments posted yesterday, I noticed that several of you like Christmas songs left alone.  No new renditions, please!  I have to agree – mostly.  While I am not a talented singer, I have sung my share of Christmas carols and I can even sing my part (and not just the melody like most people do today).  If you have sung Christmas music from the printed sheet, you may recognize that in many cases, printed at the top of the page are separate people composing the lyrics and music.  You probably won't be surprised that a couple of our more famous traditional melodies were written by some pretty famous classical composers.  That's because many of the familiar songs we recognize started out as poems or words first and then music was added later.  (Fair warning:  If you really don't want Christmas Carols to ever resemble waltzes or other tunes in your head, maybe just skip this blog post entirely).

"Away in a Manger" is certainly a familiar tune to us, but some may not realize that this traditional melody was borrowed from an existing Johann Strauss waltz written about 19 years before the poem.  Note the resemblance below starting at 2:48:

I'd also like to mention "Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing."  The words were written in 1739 by Charles Wesley – well, not exactly the ones we use today.  Wesley's words were changed slightly by George Whitefield and later a portion of "Festgesang" by Felix Mendelssohn (a song written to commemorate the invention of movable type) was used instead of Wesley's preferred tune at the time.  If you'd like to hear how the Christmas song might have sounded if Wesley had his way, you can play the video and sing along with the printed words below (the intro ends at about 0:21).

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 the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Yep, Wesley wanted his words to use the tune to "Christ the Lord Has Risen Today."  Talk about confusing!  It would be hard for me to keep Christmas and Easter separate.  Although I do like Mendelssohn.  If this has your mind all mixed up, here's a version with the traditional lyrics and Mendelssohn's music that you probably recognize:

There's also a Mendelssohn connection to another Christmas tune.  "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" is usually set to the "Carol" by Richard Storrs Willis who was trained by Mendelssohn.

So, while I agree with most of you that I like the familiarity of traditional Christmas songs, I also like to hear creative adaptations of these tunes, because they get me to focus on the lyrics which are also beautiful in their own right.


mary said...

A resonant rebuttal Nate.

DAG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DAG said...

To add my two cents here.

Christmas music has always been among my favorite music. Often the music itself is more interesting than the lyrics.

I would recommend John Fahey's Christmas recordings as a perfect example. He was a finger picking guitar genius who recorded a few albums of outstanding seasonal music.

The Kings Singers acapella Christmas music albums never fail to put me in the spirit of the Christmas season.

I should also add that the Kings Singers also recorded some great interpertations of Beatle songs.

Virgil S. said...

Good point about the lyrics, Nate.
Maybe I'll need to rethink my aversion to Christmas songs sung in nontraditional style. Our pastor focusses attention on the lyrics of the closing hymn by signalling the pianist to stop playing on the second or third verse; then he reads the lyrics to that verse & comments very briefly on them, then we sing the final verses. I like the effect of that. Somewhat paradoxically, I like instrumental versions of hymns because I find myself mentally or literally singing the words, and it helps me focus on them.

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