I’ve written a post about lyrics to favorite Christmas carols every December for several years now. (Here are links to the posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.) And it’s hard to believe I haven’t said anything yet about “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” since it’s one of my very favorite hymns from the Season. First of all, when else in life do you have the chance to sing the word “natal”? (If one former pastor had had his way, we wouldn’t have sung the word at all: he wanted to nix the song from the church services that year because, he thought, no one understood that word. I pointed out to him that everyone who had every been involved with prenatal care understood the word just fine. So he relented, but as he did he gave me a look as if he had just fallen for a trick but couldn’t quite put his finger on it.)
Far more important to me than the word “natal,” though, are the single words that begin verses 2, 3, and 4: “shepherds,” “sages,” and “saints.” Here we have the three types of people (connected by a handy alliteration) who, according to the accounts of Matthew and Luke, recognized the King of Creation in the Baby. But it occurred to me several years ago that these groups also represent a trifold division of all humanity: people in industry, farming, or the military (shepherds); people in education, politics, or law (sages); and clergy (saints). Everyone gets a verse!
I can even apply each of the monikers to myself at different times: when I’m working with my hands, when I’m working with my mind, and when I’m worshiping. Each of these activities can and does bring me closer to God in its own way. But James Montgomery’s hymn alerts us that God may interrupt any of these human activities that we devote to Him from time to time, breaking in to reveal Himself in a more magnificent way. Sometimes shepherds hear about a Baby who will tend them the way they tend their sheep. Sometimes sages see a star that shines through their studies more gloriously than any of their own brightest ideas. And sometimes worshipers who go to church to serve God are reminded that it’s really God’s Church, and that service only truly happens when He attends.
I want to say a little something about “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted,” even though airs from Handel’s Messiah aren’t actually carols. Messiah isn’t even actually a Christmas piece: the German who wrote Italian operas for the English composed this work to perform for the Irish during Lent. But the first part of the oratorio rehearses prophecies of the Messiah’s advent, so we do rightly associate this section with the nativity season, and I listen to it every December.
Handel lived at a time when composers used special techniques to make their music express their words more clearly, elicit the proper emotions in the listeners, or even draw pictures of things mentioned in the text. This last technique, identified as “text painting” in every undergraduate survey of music history, pervades the melody “Ev’ry Valley.” As you listen to it, notice how the melody climbs gradually up and up during the long melisma on the second syllable of the word “exalted” (on that word’s second and fourth appearances anyway). You won’t be surprised then when the tenor reaches the bottom of his range as every mountain and hill are made “low.” You might want to trace the shape of the next part of the melody with your finger to better experience the picture drawn during the phrase “the crooked straight”: / \ / \ ______. Pretty nifty, huh? The word “crooked” is sung with a crooked melody, and the word [absurdly obvious end of sentence deleted]. Now that you’ve learned all about text painting, you might want to try out your new analytical skills on “The People that Walked in Darkness” (probably track 11 on your recording of Messiah). What shape are the paths in the land of darkness?
Here’s wishing us all happy listening and reading during the Holiday!