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Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

(Charles Wesley/George Whitefield/Martin Madan/Felix Mendelssohn/William Hayman Cummings)

This carol was written in the first half of the 1700s by the hymn writer Charles Wesley and appeared in his Hymns and Sacred Poems published in 1739.  It is said the influence for this carol came from him walking to a Christmas Day service and hearing the church bells of London ringing joyously.  Originally it had ten verses and was given the title and initial line of “Hark! How All the Welkin Rings” and due to the fact that hymnals did not provide specific music for singers in the 18th century it was sung to a tune that was also popular as an accompaniment to “Amazing Grace”.  Charles Wesley thought it would be given the same tune as his “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, traditionally sung at Easter, but over the years it would undergo several changes and in 1753 it was rewritten by the minister George Whitefield who also changed the first two lines.  Re-written again Reverend Martin Madan changed the seventh and eighth lines in 1760 in a further adaptation, and these were followed by yet further changes in 1782, 1810 and 1861.

The music that we now know as the tune for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was an adaptation by the organist William Hayman Cummings and presented by him on Christmas Day 1855.  He had sung as a chorister when Felix Mendelssohn had conducted a performance of his Elijah and obviously retaining and interest in his music he decided to take the second chorus, “Gott ist Licht” (God is Light), from his 1840 cantata Festgesang (Festival Song).  Festegang was actually a commemorative piece honouring the invention of the printing press and it’s creator, Johann Gutenberg, and Mendelssohn said himself that the song “could be used with many choruses” but followed that with “it should never be used for sacred music”.  A suggestion for his reasoning behind this statement is the likeness of it to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Gavotte” that appeared in his Orchestral Suite No. 4 and the fact that he could have possibly adapted the piece for his own use.

Remaining a very popular Christmas carol it was arranged and published by Sir David Willcocks  in his Carols for Choirs in 1961 and has been the recessional hymn since 1918 for King’s College, Cambridge, in their annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

Appearing in many films and TV shows it can be heard in It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Peace on Earth, The Simpsons, South Park and Pinky and the Brain, and often sung by popular artists it has been recorded by Mariah Carey, The Fall, Bradley Joseph and Busted.

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)
Conductor – George Guest
Organ – Stephen Cleobury

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 – Robin Stapleton
Soprano – Kiri te Kanawa
Baritone – Michael George
Trumpet – Jouko Harjanne

Kings College Choir, Cambridge recordings
London 444 848 (CD: Noel – Christmas at Kings)
Conductor – Sir David Willcocks

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

Robert Shaw Chorale recordings
RCA 6429 – 2 – RG (CD: A Festival of Carols)
(Arrangers – Robert Shaw/Alice Parker)

Dale Warland Singers and Ensemble recordings
Gothic 49208 (CD: Christmas with the Dale Warland Singers)
Arranger– Carol Barnett