Hark! How all the welkin rings

by | Dec 17, 2020 | Blog


Suspiciously Christmas-like decorations have begun to appear again in Jerusalem neighborhoods, parks and malls, though fewer than in the recent past thanks to the world’s most pervasive virus. But one will not typically hear Christmas music in public, especially not religious hymns. In a recent seasonal sermon, at Grace Community Church, a non-denominational evangelical church in Sun Valley, California, Senior Pastor John MacArthur reminded his congregation that his all-time favorite hymn had been written by a Methodist. Most everyone under heaven is by now at least passingly familiar with that favorite, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

In the same sermon, MacArthur shared some of the carol’s fascinating history (and there was, of course, much more to be found on the web). The music we now all know didn’t take form overnight. Over the course of a century, four Methodist ministers, an eventual voice professor at the British Royal Academy of Music and a German-Jewish Christian savant all collaborated—though unwittingly—to create what has become one of the world’s most popular carols, during which welkin became angels and a slow and somber tune turned upbeat.

The process began in 1739 when  Methodist icons John and Charles Wesley published their famous collection, Hymns and Sacred Poems, but did not wind down until a century later in the sprawling market-square at Leipzig, Germany, when, in June of 1840, a male chorus and two brass orchestras performed the aptly titled composition, Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Säcularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst auf dem Marktplatz zu Leipzig stattfindenden Feierlichkeiten.

Rendered in modern English, the performance’s nifty Teutonic tag becomes, Singing for the opening of the celebrations taking place on the first day of the fourth secular celebration of the invention of the art of printing on the market square in Leipzig.

For some reason, neither handle caught on.

The work eventually became known as the Festgesang—German for Celebratory Singing—and, after that, the Gutenberg Cantata.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

How, you might ask, does a summertime performance lauding the invention of moveable type connect to Christmastime and the Wesley brothers, by then long-deceased? The Gutenberg Cantata was created by the German-Jewish Christian convert, child-prodigy and composer, Felix Mendelssohn. Also an accomplished pianist, organist and conductor, the multi-talented Mendelssohn wrote symphonies, concertos, piano music, organ music and chamber music. Among his best-known works are an overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony and the Songs Without Words solo piano pieces.

George Whitfield

George Whitfield

But in modern times, thanks to the apparently unsolicited meddling of English musician, tenor and organist William Hayman Cummings, Mendelssohn’s most often heard work is a portion of the Gutenberg Cantata, “new” music that Hayman fit to Wesley’s original hymn.

Not that everyone approved. Mendelssohn himself, though naturally fond of his own music, did not consider his cantata suitable for sacred text. “I am sure that piece will be liked very much by the singers and hearers,” he said, “but it will never do to sacred words. There must be a national or merry subject found out, something to which the soldier-like and buxom motion of the piece has some relation, and the words must express something gay and popular, as the music tries to do it.”

Undeterred by the composer’s remarks, Cummings, in 1857, punched up the old tune and a classic Christmas Carol was born. Though no Felix Mendelssohn, Cummings bore impressive musical credentials of his own. As a teenager, he was, ironically, among the choristers under Mendelssohn when Mendelssohn conducted the first London performance of Elijah at Exeter Hall. Considered an accomplished tenor, Cummings sang at festivals and concerts in Great Britain and toured the United States. In 1871, the Chicago Tribune had this to say about his performance at the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston…

“[Cummings] is a slightly-built gentleman, about five feet ten inches high, has light hair, a receding forehead, a light gentlemanly-looking…moustache, and stands quietly while singing. His voice is a tenor of good volume, and admirable quality—like a silver trumpet. The intonation is to be relied on, and his delivery of the tone pleasant. The words are delivered as well as possible, both in recitative and the airs.”

But Cummings had not been the first to stick his finger in the hymnal pie over weighty objections. George Whitfield, an Anglican cleric and one of the founders of Methodism and the evangelical movement, completely ignored the wishes of Charles Wesley, the hymn’s author and Whitfield’s contemporary and rival.* Whitfield changed Wesley’s lyrics, most notably the opening line, from Hark! How all the welkin rings to the now familiar, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Worse, perhaps only in Wesley’s eyes, for it is highly doubtful his unmodified version would now be resounding in shopping malls, Whitfield’s upgraded new lyrics and the energetic and joyful tune lifted from Mendelssohn’s cantata flew in the face of Wesley’s intent, which was for his hymn to be sung “in solemn tones,” which clearly seems, when one examines the following (and recalls the splendid music), a very bad idea.

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 angelic hosts proclaim:

“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! the herald angels sing:

“Glory to the newborn King!”


*Whitfield accepted the Church of England’s doctrine of predestination and disagreed with the Wesley brothers’ Arminian views on the doctrine of the atonement.

Of potential interest: An amazing, ultra-high-definition YouTube video walking tour, with quite a bit of footage shot in Leipzig’s modern market-square, is found here.

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