By THE ENTHUSIAST
Print The Legend
If "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" strikes you as having a particularly lovely melody, it’s no surprise – the music was written by Felix Mendelssohn. He didn’t write it with Christmas in mind, however, far from it. He composed the music in 1840 as part of a cantata called Festgesang ("Festival Song"), celebrating Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.
Not only did Felix not have Christmas in mind, he wanted no part of it. Mendelssohn insisted that none of his music should ever be used in a sacred context. A fan named Dr. William Cummings didn’t give two figs for the dead man’s wishes (let alone two turtledoves), and slapped on some Christmas lyrics just eight years later.
The 6000-Lyric Man
Those lyrics had been written by Charles Wesley, one of the most prolific hymnists of all time with more than 6000 to his name, and rewritten by fellow founder of Methodism George Whitefield. It’s said that Wesley was inspired by the sound of church bells ringing throughout London as he walked to church one Christmas Day. The poem that Cummings used was originally published in Hymns And Sacred Poems in 1739.
Fresh From The Cutting Room Floor
Never one to brood over an author’s wishes, Whitefield promptly snipped away two of Wesley’s verses. Here they are:
Come, Desire of nations, come!
Fix in us Thy humble home.
Rise, the woman's conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent's head;
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
Adam's likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart ,
Formed in each believing heart.
The Enthusiast has no idea what "Rise, the woman’s conquering seed" might mean, but will double the ration of brandy for any caroler who belts out that line today.
A parody popular in England during the First World War is deft enough to make one believe that it must surely have come from the advertising agency for Beecham’s Pills, a British laxative:
Hark! The herald angels sing!
Beecham’s Pills are just the thing.
Two for a parent, one for a child,
Half for a baby meek and mild!
A deliriously merry Christmas to one and all.
To quote Charles Wesley: now in mystic union join – thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Number twenty-five in a series.
Christmas Day 2020
The Enthusiast (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the pen name of critic Michael Collins. He reports back only on what’s good, never what’s bad. He is currently imbued with the holiday spirit.