Favorite Christmas Carols - Whence Came These Heavenly Sounds?
What is it about this season above all the rest that marks it as so special? Of course, the reason behind this joyful time of year sets it apart from all our other holidays, but what is it in particular that personifies or embodies the special feeling this holiday engenders?
For me, as for many others, it is the music - those heavenly choruses wafting on the crisp snow-laden air, the childish treble piping of peace and joyous tidings at a grade-school concert, the soft strains of natal celebration to the accompaniment of crackling yule logs and the heady scent of pine boughs.
I love the carols that ring out the glad tidings of Christmas morning. They gladden the heart and wake the spirit with triumphant strains. Of all the beautiful carols that tell the wondrous tidings of the Christmas miracle though, the most deeply moving for me are not those that herald the coming of a king, but the lovely songs that gently speak of a baby's birth.
Arguably the most famous of all the Christmas Eve songs, Silent Night was first of all a poem written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest.
Legend has it, that in 1818, the organ in St. Nicholas' Church in the small alpine village of Oberndorf was broken.
Mohr's friend, Franz Xavier Gruber, composed music for the poem, and it was performed at the midnight mass that Christmas Eve to the accompaniment of a single guitar.
To this day, it is one of the most loved carols, hauntingly beautiful, deceptively simple, and yet melodically rich - a joy to sing as well as to hear.
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
Another lovely carol that began as a poem, "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" was composed in 1849 by a minister living in Massachusetts, Edmund Hamilton Sears. The music was not composed until ten years later, in 1859, when American composer, Richard Storrs Willis was inspired by the poem to compose his beautiful melody.
The carol begins with a most interesting interval - a jump from the root of the opening chord to the sixth note of that scale. The rest of the first phrase is a most interesting musical line - a run back down to the root bouncing off the third note, back up to the fifth, then dropping to the fourth, the second, and finally down to the beginning, creating a lovely, distinctive melody, once heard, not easily forgotten.
Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem
Inspired by a night-time view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine, Rector Phillips Brooks (1835-1903) of Philadelphia penned the lyrics to this lovely hymn in 1868, following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The melody was composed for the Sunday School children's choir by his church organist, Lewis Redner (1831-1903)
His deceptively simple melody begins with a major chord, and continues gently along in a positive major frame until the third line. There, he introduces a minor cadence, emphasizing the significance of the third line of every verse, only to return to the triumphant (major) resolution of the final melodic and poetic statement.
Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
Written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley founder of the Methodist church, this carol was originally sung to slow solemn music, as befitted its somber composer.
Over a hundred years later, English musician William H. Cummings adapted a portion of a cantata written by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 to suit Wesley's lyrics, giving us the joyful, celebratory hymn that resounds through so many churches on Christmas morning.
One of the loveliest parts of this carol is the glorious soprano descant (high counter-melody) that graces the second and last verses. It soars above the four-part harmony of the hymn like a faint echo of that first angelic chorus.
Joy To The World
Isaac Watts, ordained Pastor of an Independent congregation, penned many hymns and carols, and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the University of Edinburgh in 1728.
One of his best-known carols, Joy to the World", originally written in 1719, is set to the music of George Frederick Handel (1685-1759).
The first line of music is a simple descending scale, which, in the second line, rises to the fifth, followed by the sixth, the seventh, and finally, the eighth, returning to the first note of the song. Simple - genius! ...and easily one of the most joyful and triumphant of all the carols to ring out on Christmas morning.
Away In a Manger
Almost the first Christmas that any child learns, this lovely carol was first published as a little poem in 1885, in a Lutheran Sunday school book.
This created the misconception that the carol had actually been written by Martin Luther.
In fact, the author who penned the lovely little poem is unknown.
In 1895, however, William J. Kilpatrick set the children's verse to his music, and the beloved children's carol, passed down to us through the ages, was born.
Equally moving with either of the lovely tunes we know so well, this simple rendition by Billy Gilman captures the timeless grace and simplicity of this favorite children's carol.
For Sing-along Fans - A version with lyrics!
The Carol of the Bells
Set to original folk music from the Ukraine by Peter Wilhousky, the lyrics of the popular carol celebrate the traditional pealing of the church bells on Christmas morning.
The original song, entitled "Shchedryk", meaning "bountiful", was sung to celebrate the New Year.
We are most familiar with this carol now, thanks to the popular film "Home Alone, in which a young boy, played by McCauly Culkins, is left at home when his family flies to Europe for Christmas. Next time you watch this comedy, listen for this joyous music as the would-be robbers fall afoul of the snares he has laid for them.
The First Noel
Though the true origins of this carol are unknown, it is generally thought to be of English origins, dating back to the 16th Century. Some versions of the carol give the old Anglo-Saxon spelling of the word as "Nowell".
First published in 1833 by William B. Sandys, in a collection of ancient and modern carols, it remains a favorite with young and old alike.
Interestingly this carol refers to the great and glorious event of a company of angels appearing not to mighty kings or rulers, but to humble shepherds tending their flocks in the hills - a precursor of those who would first receive the message from the then "new-born" king.