As with Handel’s “Messiah,” the development of “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings” exemplifies the ever-evolving collaboration (some say interference) of artist, patron and theologian.
The original poem which begat the song, written in 1739 by Methodist pastor and song writer Charles Wesley, was entitled “Hymn for Christmas Day.” Wesley’s hymn was an epic with over 10 stanzas. It included words that showed Wesley’s intellect but left listeners scratching their heads. Wesley’s pastor friend, George Whitfield, pointed this out and suggested revisions, simplifying the text.
Half of the Wesley-Whitfield stanzas survived into the next century and made an impression on English composter William Cummings. Cummings liked the lyrics, but not the slower, Easter-season tune Wesley had composed ("Christ The Lord is Risen Today.") However, Cummings felt the words were compatible with the tune of the popular "Gutenberg Cantata" recently written by German composer Felix Mendelssohn. Cummings believed Mendelssohn’s symphonic arrangement captured the implied awe and power of a sky full of “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God,” the passage in the Gospel of Luke that inspired Wesley’s hymn.
In 1855 the Wesley-Whitfield-Cummings-Mendelssohn composition debuted with the structure changes familiar today, but maintaining the essence of the words first recorded centuries before in the gospel of Luke:
“Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
LEARN MORE: Comparative lyrics.
Centuries later, these words and music created controversy when used in what is not one of the most iconic annual Christmas television programs, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown,” the 1965 TV special that almost didn’t occur.
The overt gospel presentation that author Charles Schulz included in the script had CBS network offices and sponsors concerned. They were okay with the “Peanuts” gang rendering one of the most poignant versions ever of “Hark! The Herald…” as they caroled at Snoopy’s house with Charlie Brown’s revived tree to end the show.
What scared the executives was an earlier scene when Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas by reciting the gospel of Luke in the pageant rehearsal. This makes Charlie Brown one of the few programs that directly speaks the gospel of Christ for a non-church audience. There was the rub. Fearing a public backlash about show including the story of Christ in Christmas, CBS wanted the scene cut. Schulz stood firm. No gospel; no “Peanuts.” And unto us, a franchise was born.
LEARN MORE: Linus recites what Christmas is all about.
LEARN MORE: Glenn McDonald, CBS & Linus' security blanket.
Many wonder if – or how – the should could be created and aired today. Nevertheless, the evolution of “Hark! The Herald…” from lengthy, erudite poem, to symphonic anthem, to simple children’s song, to uncomfortable gospel message, point out the enduring strength of the essay researched by Luke the historian.
Poetically, the visuals of the lyrics as presented in #CarolStory starts a sequence of dialogue between the shepherds and the angels. "Do You Hear What I Hear?," another carol more recently associated with a children's cinema favorite ("Gremlins"), is added to the conversation to begin the evening's journey. First , hearing, then seeing the angels, the shepherds are moved from fear to comfort as they interpret the angels' mission and instructions to begin a Pied-Piperesque journey to Bethlehem, picking up a drummer boy and others as they go away to the manger.
The videos here -- the majesty of Mendelssohn’s anthem in Alan Silvestri's arrangement of "Hark! The Herald...," contrasted with its quiet message to Charlie Brown and connected by the intimacy of Johnny Mathis asking, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" -- allow us to experience various ways the Lord speaks: with herald trumpets and a sweet, still voice.