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 the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home:
Rise, the woman's conquering Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent's head:
Sing we, then, with angels sing,
"Glory to the new-born King!
Glory in the highest heaven,
Peace on earth, and sins forgiven."
(Scripture references: Gen 3:15, Isa 7:14, Isa 9:6, Hag 2:7, Mal 4:2, Matt 1:23, Luke 2:13-14, 2 Cor 5:19, Phil 2:6-7.)
Today is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Charles Wesley, so what other carol could I choose but this one? His other Christmas hymn, "Let earth and heaven combine", while containing some apt phrases and welcome theology, is definitely the lesser example of his art.
Hark the herald was written by Charles Wesley (1707-88), and first published in 1739 as ‘Hark, how all the welkin rings/Glory to the King of Kings’. 'Welkin' means the 'vault of heaven' or more prosaically, the 'sky'. The story is told that in the year that Wesley 'consciously believed' he was on his way to morning service when he heard the church bells ringing as if the sound was coming from heaven and he remarked "Hark, how all the welkin rings glory to the King of Kings". It was as if the whole sky rang with God's glory. It's not the sort of remark you would make today unless you were cultivating an air of quaintness.
The version known today is the result of alterations by various hands, most notably George Whitfield, Wesley's rather more Calvinistic co-worker, who changed the opening couplet to the familiar one we know today. Whitefield also cut out several verses. The original is made up of ten four-line verses and ends:
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,
Ruin'd nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Adam's likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy 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,
Form'd in each believing heart.
Wesley disliked Whitefield's version and refused to sing it. "You have no Biblical warrant for presuming that the angels sang. They proclaimed Christ's birth."
Various hymn-books, including the influential English Hymnal of 1906, have subsequently attempted to revive Wesley’s original, without success and since 1987hymn books have tended to emasculate the hymn, putting in 'we' and 'us' instead of 'man', making it what I call a 'hermn' rather than a 'hymn'. To me they are no better than:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Beecham’s pills are just the thing
Two for a woman, one for a child,
They will make you meek and mild.
The tune, ‘Mendelssohn’, was adapted in 1856 by W H Cummings (1831-1915), the organist from Waltham Abbey, from the second movement of Festgesang an die Künstler, a choral cantata, composed in 1840 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) and dedicated to marking the quatercentenary of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.
One of the original tunes that "Hark! How all the welkin rings" was sung to was also used as a tune for "Amazing Grace". Many hymns in the eighteenth century consisted merely of printed words without music. It was left to those leading the singing to choose an appropriate tune based on the metre of the verse. Wesley himself, however, envisaged his lyrics sung to the same tune as his Easter hymn, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."
The tune that is now almost always used for this carol is based on a chorus composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, part of his cantata Festgesang ("Festival Song") to commemorate the printer Johann Gutenberg and the invention of his printing press. The cantata was first presented at the great festival held at Leipzig. Festgesang's second chorus, "Vaterland, in deinem Gauen", was adapted in 1855 by William Hayman Cummings. Mendelssohn said of the song that it could be used with many different choruses but that it should not be used for sacred music. This may be because the melodic and harmonic structure of the tune are similar to the Gavotte of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 4; indeed Mendelssohn (who has always been linked with the music of Bach) may simply have adapted Bach's music for his chorus, as was proposed by Nigel Poole with his (transposed) arrangement of the Gavotte as Bach's Christmas Carol.