Friday, December 17, 2010

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol

Obviously, I read things that aren't on The List: academic books and articles, student papers, detective fiction, children's books, things friends recommend.  Lately, like millions of others, I have been reading Christmas carols.  Or am I like millions of others?  I suppose many people sing them every year without much thinking about the words except as markers of happy memories and pious feelings, and I have no agenda to denigrate this function of language.  But I actually sometimes just read the texts, without singing or hearing the melody, and ruminate on their lessons.  (Such a pre-postmodern thing to do!)

I think "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" might really be the greatest song in existence.  With lyrics by Charles Wesley and music by Felix Mendelssohn, the song is bound to be beautiful.  But in this instance, each artist produced something especially good, and their separate contributions fit together like key and lock.

Wesley's original hymn begins, "Hark! How all the welkin rings!"  This effective figure of speech (a metonymy, I believe) raises the singular image of an entire sky filled with the sounds of celebration.  But "welkin" has become unfamiliar, and some helpful person has taught us instead to refer directly to the angels and their function as messengers.  After this change in the opening line, what we sing annually is almost pure Wesley, and the great hymn writer packs into the tableau the theology of redemption and the entire history of Christ's relationship to mankind: after a long war between God and sinful humans, the Desire of Nations has come, the Reconciler, the Prince of Peace, born of a virgin and completely righteous, the fullness of Deity born in human flesh after humbly emptying Himself of glory in order that we may have a second birth and avoid the Second Death.  If the nations truly understood this news, they would surely rise to join the welkin's triumph.

Mendelssohn's music combines the classic stateliness appropriate to a congregational hymn with the loveliness of the Romantic musical language.  In giving us a second key, its proper modulation in the phrase leading up to the midpoint presents a picture of two warring worlds (just in time for us to hear that these two worlds have been reconciled!), and its accented embellishments ("angels SI - ing," for instance, and "glory TOOO the newborn King") raise in us a longing to partake of this reconciliation.

But Mendelssohn's extraordinary contribution comes just after that midpoint, with the repeated unison D's ("JOY - FUL  ALL").  I remember playing this song soon after I learned to play a keyboard instrument (with a method that emphasized chords) and puzzling over the lack of harmony on these notes.  I tried a G major chord; it didn't sound right.  I tried a D major chord; it didn't sound right, either.  And of course nothing more exotic would fit at all.  These notes taught me something new under my dim sun: a melodic figure that truly had no harmony, either explicit or implied.  I'm accustomed now to all the pop-flavored recorded versions, with their tepid tonic harmony at this place.  But Mendelssohn's bold genius offered something infinitely better.  These insistently repeated, unison D's sound a clarion call that seizes our full attention and focuses it on the King.  Eminently suitable to the joy and triumph of verse 1, the regal fanfare befits even better the commands of verse 2: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!  Hail th'Incarnate Deity!"
Meditating on the same scene and urging us to listen to the same angels, "It Came upon the Midnight Clear" nevertheless portrays and evokes a completely different emotional spectrum.  Like many of Dickens's Christmas stories (see a post from earlier this month), this sweet song portrays a world of "solemn stillness."  Far from filling the welkin with noisy triumph, the angels in this carol sing so quietly, we must block out all the inner noise and listen hard in order to hear them.  (Check the little-known third verse here.)  And instead of proclaiming joy, the tender lyrics recall the pain of our lives and provide some much-needed talk therapy; it seems that every year I need to hear again its sympathetic urgings: "O ye beneath life's crushing load, . . . rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing."

They are bending near the earth still.  One is there, just at your shoulder.  Step off the weary road for a moment, and listen to the song.

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