The classical origins of our most cherished carols
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
The “Ave Maria Polka” is blaring on the radio, “Jingle Cats” are meowing “Greensleeves,” and the doorbell is chiming a shrill “Silent Night.” To the untrained ear this musical goulash may seem tacky and not, by any means, traditional. However, this festive household has been influenced by many sophisticated classical composers!
It’s easy to forget the classical origins of our most cherished carols when the 9-year-old next door is hollering “Batman Smells!” to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” To most children’s (and adults’) surprise those “dead guys with wigs” are responsible for many of their favourite holiday tunes.
German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote symphonies, concertos, masses and hundreds of other works. Strangely his most recognizable piece, excluding his popular “Wedding March,” is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It was written in 1840 as a part of his cantata Festgesang that honored printer Johann Gutenberg and the invention of printing! The original lyrics were written by Charles Wesley 99 years before the music, but were changed to suit the cantata. Ironically, Wesley had specifically requested slow solemn music for his words. To top it all off, Mendelssohn had made it clear that his music was for secular use only!
Though it was written 260 years ago, George Frederic Handel’s “Messiah” is the most performed Christmas work in symphonies around the world. Oddly enough, it was composed while Handel suffered partial paralysis on his left side as a consequence of a stroke and took only 3 weeks to write! Even stranger was the cool reception it received during Handel’s lifetime. It was only through annual Eastertide performances to benefit the Foundling Hospital that “Messiah” was heard at all!
Music historians have recently discovered an embarrassing credit error. Cleric Isaac Watts published “Psalms of David,” based on Psalm 98 of the “Old Testament,” in 1719. In 1839 American composer Lowell Mason decided to set Watts’ translations to music and “Joy to the World” was born. The confusion came from Mason’s modest footnote, "From George Frederick Handel," which was said to be a tribute to the late composer. A misunderstanding was soon accepted as truth and for 100 years Handel was given credit for writing the music to “Joy to the World!”
Other music greats such as Beethoven, J.S. Bach, Holst, Corelli, Saint-Saëns and Vaughan Williams are responsible for lovely Christmas Cantatas, Oratorios, and Carols we hear every December. Whether they meant to or not, these beloved artists have inspired generations of carolers.
Yes, even the off-key 9-year-old next door.