Classical Origins of Our Most Cherished Christmas Carols
By Rhiannon Schmitt
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 Frideric 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
**Rhiannon Schmitt (nee
Nachbaur) is an award-winning classical violinist/fiddler
and music teacher who operates Fiddleheads Violin School
& Shop. Fiddleheads has won several distinguished
business awards and offers beginner to professional level
instruments, accessories and supplies with exceptional
personal service: http://www.fiddleheads.ca