Friday, December 23, 2011

Hear the angels sing

We got to talking about Christmas carols the other day --- personal favorites and the like. And that gave me opportunity to ride off on a favorite hobbyhorse --- the disconcerting habit of some who plan church services of truncating hymns willy-nilly in the interests of brevity without actually reading the words, as in “Oh let’s just sing the first three verses.” Despite the fact the first three verses, without the last two or three verses, sometimes make no sense whatsoever.

The difficulty here, I like to point out self-righteously, is that we really do not sing hymns or carols for variety --- to give the preacher a chance to rest his voice --- or because it says in the prayer book that we’re supposed to sing here or sing there.

Each hymn incorporates a message, usually thought out rather carefully, and while it may be possible to cautiously eliminate a verse or two if it is extraordinarily long, meaning really does deserve at least as much respect as melody.

Take “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” for example, one of the most familiar carols in the U.S. version of the English language. And it is “the” midnight clear, by the way, not “a” midnight clear. This is the Nativity we’re talking about --- not just any old birth in a stable.

As written (first as a poem) during 1849 by Massachusetts Unitarian minister Edmund Sears, the carol has five stanzas --- although some hymnals eliminate for some reason one or another.

The Episcopal “Hymnal 1982” axes stanza four; the “United Methodist Hymnal” and “Lutheran Book of Worship” chop stanza three, which happens to be my favorite of the original five.

Part of the difficulty is the setting we’re all most familiar with, Richard Storrs Willis’s 1850 “Carol.” This setting encourages the words to be sung as a lullaby --- or a dirge. Trying to get through all five stanzas in a reasonable amount of time using this setting, although lovely, is like swimming through molasses --- it’s going to take a long time to reach the other shore.

Nearly all recorded versions of the carol --- even those by devout schmaltz masters like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir --- reduce the number of stanzas to two or three.

In the process of all this, we lose two of the meatiest stanzas, necessary if the other three are going to make much sense --- one addressed to humankind collectively, the other to us individually.

It’s all very well, as the final stanza does, to announce that “peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,” But obviously very little of that peace has been flung about over the centuries and to understand why, it’s necessary in the context of this carol to go back to the third stanza and sing, among other things, “O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”

Here are the most frequently missing stanzas:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

There is an alternate setting to the carol --- used most frequently in Britain although it is included in the Episcopal hymnal --- an 1874 arrangement by Arthur Sullivan of a traditional English melody, "Noel."

I prefer it in some ways because of the way it moves along in a less syrup-dipped sort of way. Here’s the carol to that setting as sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the words of the third stanza which, if you think about them, are downright revolutionary.

“O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”

No comments: