Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! (But Not Exactly How They Were Supposed To)

One of the things I love about my job is representing songwriters—the folks who serve as the creative engine of Music City. (A gratuitous aside: How do you get a songwriter’s attention in Nashville? A: “Hey, Waiter!”). Because I am attune to the problems songwriters face, i.e. pirating, infringement, illegal downloads, Spotify, the demise of the “album cut,” lousy tips, etc., I liked this story about one of the most prolific, most enduring songwriters of all time: Charles Wesley. If you’ve ever attended a protestant church or sang Christmas hymns, you are familiar with his work. In case his name doesn’t ring a bell, he is the writer of more than 6,000 songs (some say more than 8,000+), including such well-known hymns as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!,” “Oh For A Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” and, probably most famously, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Charles was also the brother of the founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley, and,despite his prolific songwriting, Charles was sometimes called “the forgotten Wesley.” Charles wrote his hymns as his method of teaching Christian doctrine to the poor and illiterate of his day.

At any rate, when Charles first wrote “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” it was sung to the more somber tune of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and instead of its iconic first verse, it went like this: “Hark! How all the Welkin Rings / Glory to the King of Kings.” But over time, many hands altered it so that morphed into something quite different than Wesley’s original vision for the song. George Whitefield, Wesley’s co-worker, changed the opening couplet to the one we sing today: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/ Glory to the Newborn King.” The second couplet was also rewritten and the tune was changed over the years, most notably by the English musician, William H. Cummings, who adopted a cantata composed by Felix Mendelssohn  to fit the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” thus turning Wesley’s more somber song into the joyous carol we sing today.

So what did Charles think of the fact that so many people changed his songs and lyrics, spawning derivative works that weren’t quite true to his original vision? We don’t know for sure but John Wesley wrote what could be considered a gentle but pointed cease and desist letter in the Preface to his 1780 Hymn Book (“A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists”):

And here I beg leave to mention a thought which has long been upon my mind, and which I should long ago have inserted in the public papers, had I not been unwilling to stir up a nest of hornets. Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome so to do, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them ; for they really are not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them one of these two favours: either to let them stand just as they are, to take them for better for worse; or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page; that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.

In other words, if you print our songs, give us credit and leave them alone….a sentiment not unlike that of many clients I represent today, although the songwriters I represent usually want a royalty and a co-pub deal as well. However, I wonder if we would still sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” if Charles had been successful in keeping the song true to his more sedate vision. In effect, the “commercialization” of the song gave it a second wind that has allowed the song to endure more than 200 years, relaying the message of Christ’s birth to generation after generation. So raise a glass to Charles Wesley and to those infringing, derivative innovators that came after him as you sing your carols and celebrate this joyous season. I sure will. Happy holidays to you and yours.


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