Here We Come A-wassailing

In a sea of silly stories during the Advent march to Christmas, I was pleasantly surprised to hear (via the Rev. Dr. R. Albert Mohler) a great piece on NPR. It's a perfect radio piece -- snippets from songs with an expert teaching you things you never knew. In this case, the topic is Christmas carols. Here's the transcript, here's the web version of the story, and here's the link so you can listen. I definitely recommend you choose the last option. Liane Hansen broadcast the story on Weekend Edition Sunday. She spoke with Philip Brunelle, founder and artistic director of a choral music organization, about how some traditional tunes of the holiday season had nothing to do with Christmas. Right off the top, it got into religion:

HANSEN: Here's a basic question, Philip, what's the difference between a hymn and a carol?

Mr. BRUNELLE: A carol is really something that was originally thought of as kind of a circle dance that was often accompanied by singing. Whereas a hymn is something that's going to have more theological implications and it's more likely to be in a kind of straightforward four-four movement, not something you're going to dance to.

Then she asks about the history of Christmas hymns and when they started to be included in worship services. You can thank the Lutherans. They then discuss how some English hymns were incorporated into ritual. "Adeste Fidelis" was originally in Latin but translated into O Come All Ye Faithful by a number of translators. Nobody knows who wrote the melody.

My favorite bit was about "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." I was a bit skeptical about the claim that a Felix Mendellssohn hit wasn't originally for worship, being that he was another Lutheran, but here's the story:

Mr. BRUNELLE: One of the great hymns that, of course, originally had zero to do with Christmas. The music by Felix Mendelssohn was composed for a male chorus in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's printing press. And after the ceremony was done, people said, oh, that's just a wonderful, wonderful tune and it can be something else sacred. And he said it will -Mendelssohn said it will never work with a sacred text.

Well, how wrong he was because 20 years later, the combination of Wesley's words and his music came together and we got "Hark, the Herald."

(Soundbite of song, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing")

CHORUS: (Singing) Veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.

Mr. BRUNELLE: Every time you hear that, that spot (humming), those three notes right there are Gutenberg in the original. So, you can either sing "Hark the Herald" words or sing Gutenberg.

I am one of those people who love stories about hymnody -- such anecdotes regularly make it into my writing -- and I'd never known this about "Hark the Herald."

Anyway, listen to the whole thing for more stories -- the boar's head one is also a hoot -- and some exquisite clips of carols old and new. It would be difficult to ignore the religious dimensions of this story and while it could have been more substantive doctrinally, it did do a good job of explaining the how melodies help people remember and love their carols. (And why "The Fruitcake That Ate New Jersey" didn't last through the ages.)

And here's a special treat a reporter friend sent along -- snippets from the latest Sufjan Stevens Christmas tracks.

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