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Good King Wenceslas

(Anonymous/Traditional Scandinavian/John Mason Neale)

This popular carol sung at Christmas-time didn’t start out as that at all, as it was a piece of dance music called “Tempus Adest Floridum” which was played to celebrate spring during the 13th Century in Scandinavia and the title translated means “Spring has unwrapped her flowers”.  This particular piece of music is also used for the carol “Gentle Mary Laid her Child” by Joseph Simpson Cook and found in Carmina Burana by Carl Orr. The first known publication of it was in Piae Cantiones, which was published in Sweden in 1582.

In the version that we now know today, the words celebrate the St. Stephen’s Feast Day, which falls on 26th December, so although it can’t be deemed as a genuine Christmas carol that celebrates the day, it is still part of the twelve days of Christmas.  It is known that there was definitely a Wenceslas, but he wasn’t a king, he was a Bohemian duke called Vaclav.  He spent his time promoting Christianity in Bohemia but his brother, Boleslav, just wanted to be the duke and gain power so assassinated him in the year 929.  Vaclav was made the patron saint of Bohemia in the 11th Century.

John Mason Neale was a hymnwriter who came across “Tempus Adest Florum” in 1853 when Her Majesty’s Envoy and Minister in Stockholm gave him a copy of Piae Cantiones, and because he had knowledge of the story surrounding Duke Vaclav, he wrote lyrics to accompany the music.  The particular legend he chose from the Duke’s story involved a king, a page and a poor man and soon this new carol would become the “Good King Wenceslas” we are familiar with.   The name “Wenceslas” was used, as it is the German form of Vaclav.

The actors Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd, the composer Peter Schikele, the comedians Jack Black and Spike Milligan, and The Beatles have all parodied this carol, it has been re-told by Terry Pratchett in his Hogfather and the BBC in their radio drama Crisp and Even, Brightly and it has been recorded by artists that include Joan Baez, Bing Crosby, Loreena McKennitt and R.E.M.

Black Dyke Mills Band recordings
Chandos 4541 (CD: A Christmas Fantasy)

Boston Pops recordings
Philips 416 287 – 2 (CD:  We Wish You a Merry Christmas)
Conductor – John Williams

DG 419 414-2 (CD: White Christmas)
Conductor – Arthur Fiedler

RCA 09026-61685-2 (CD: Pops Christmas Party)
Conductor – Arthur Fiedler

Sony SK 48232 (CD: Joy to the World)
Conductor – John Williams
Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Choir of St. John’s, Cambridge recordings
London 421 022 (CD: Christmas Weekend -16 Favourite Carols)

Placido Domingo recordings
A Medley of Christmas Carols
(Joy to the World, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Good King Wenceslas, O Little town of Bethlehem, The First Noel)
FM 37245 (CD: Christmas with Placido Domingo)
Orchestra – Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Conductor -Lee Holdridge

Kiri te Kanawa recordings
TELDEC 99000 (CD: Christmas with Kiri te Kanawa) 
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Choir of Lichfield Cathedral
The Choir of Coventry Cathedral
Conductor – R. Stapleton
Vocals – Kiri te Kanawa
Baritone – Michael George
Treble – Timothy Norris

Mannheim Steamroller recordings
American Gramaphone Records AG 1984 (CD: Christmas)

Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra recordings
Naxos 8.990005 (CD: Joy to the World)
Conductor – Richard Hayman

Rochester Pops Orchestra
Koch CHD 1531 (CD: Joy to the World – Carols for Orchestra and Chorus)

St Louis Philharmonic Orchestra recordings
Sonari records – 7 55724 00272 3 (CD: Christmas with the Philharmonic)
Conductor – Robert Hart Baker