Carols: lyrics, melodies and harmonies

23 December 2020

Following his blog on why we sing, Martin Clarke completes his look at seasonal hymnody, considering traditional and modern settings of carols we know and love.

In my earlier post, I commented on the ways in which the melodies of familiar carols shape our interpretations of the lyrics. Music plays an important part in many people’s idea of a ‘traditional Christmas’, whether it’s the young chorister singing ‘Once in royal David’s city’, a brass band playing carols, or children singing ‘Little donkey’. Everyone’s Christmas traditions are different, though, and the histories of some of our best-loved carols are just as richly varied as our culinary or social customs at this time of year. ‘While shepherds watched’ is perhaps the most obvious example; while the somewhat reserved sixteenth-century tune Winchester Old is printed in most modern hymn books, there are countless other tunes that are popular in different parts of the country. ‘On Ilkley Moor’ is one of the best known (itself originally a hymn tune), but it’s well worth seeking out some of the others. My personal favourite is John Foster’s setting, which exists in several versions, including one that’s richly orchestrated.

For a more specifically Methodist example, we need look no further than Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! The herald-angels sing’, now one of the very best-known carols in the English language. The first line was originally ‘Hark how all the Welkin rings’, with the now customary line being first printed George Whitefield’s Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1753). The version of the text now regarded as standard also includes changes introduced by another associate of the Wesleys, Martin Madan, who replaced Charles’ ‘Universal Nature say/‘Christ the Lord is born to Day!’ with ‘With th’angelic Host proclaim,/Christ is born in Bethlehem!’, and the editors of Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861), who altered Wesley’s ‘Pleas’d as Man with Men t’appear/ Jesus, our Immanuel here!’ to ‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell,/Jesus, our Emmanuel.’

Musically, too, this carol has a complex history. The familiar tune is now so wedded to the words that it’s hard to imagine singing them to anything else, yet it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that W.H. Cummings, organist of Waltham Abbey, adapted it from a tune by Mendelssohn. In the first ever Methodist tune-book, the Foundery Collection (1742), it was set to Easter Hymn (the tune now used for ‘Christ the Lord is risen today’), complete with Hallelujahs after each line.

Perhaps this Christmas might be a time to search for some recordings of familiar carols to several different tunes and to reflect on the ways in which different melodies and harmonies help us to experience and interpret the lyrics differently.

Dr Martin Clarke, Head of Discipline (Music), The Open University.

Read our blog on the history of 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! ' here.

Read our blog about Christmas at Charles Wesley's house in Bristol here.