Of course, on the Monday before Christmas I had to feature my favorite hymn of all time. Charles Wesley’s words put to an arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s tune by William H. Cummings. It is reported that Mendelssohn considered his tune unsuitable for “sacred words”–how wrong he was! This is a perfect marriage of words and music, each complementing one another such that you can’t help but think of the tune when you read the words (and vice versa). I’ve talked about the theological significance of the words elsewhere on this blog, so today I’m going to highlight some of my favorite points about the music.
First, I love the subtle half-diminished chord in the third line, “Peace on earth and mercy mild”–right there over the word “mild.” In the key of G-major, that’s a C# half-diminished to an A, creating a beautiful transition from the key of G-major to the key of D-major, at least for a few lines. The half-diminished is one of my favorite chords. You might also see it referred to as a minor-7th-flattened-5th (m7b5), which is a little more descriptive of how the chord is formed. For example, the C#-minor chord is formed with a C# root note, an E, and a G#, making the minor triad. You make it a minor-seventh by adding a B, which is the dominant 7th in the scale of C#. To make this into a half-diminished, you simply flatten the fifth, the G#, to a G. If you wanted to make it a full-diminished, you would also flatten the dominant seventh from a B to a Bb. Once you recognize the sound of the half-diminished, you’ll hear it used all over the place. Two examples: “You Never Give Me Your Money” by The Beatles, and “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel. See if you can spot it!
Second, there’s a descant part that is sometimes sung on the third verse that is like the cherry on the icing of the cake. It gives that final glorious verse an extra lift that sends a shiver down the spine. I’m not sure if it was in Mendelssohn’s original version, or if Cummings added it as part of his arrangement, or if someone else much later wrote it. Whoever’s responsible, I applaud you! Unfortunately, I’ve not seen this descant given in many hymnals, so I’ve transcribed it for those who might want to try singing (or playing) it:
That descant is on the version of the hymn I’m sharing with you today. This is Hereford Cathedral Choir singing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” I like this version for a couple of reasons. First, they sing the descant part on verse three. Yay! Second, the choristers and choir sing beautifully (if you listen carefully, you can even hear Welsh accents coming through). And finally, I was a student at Hereford Cathedral School from 1981-1988, so this brings back a lot of happy memories for me.
I was never a part of the Cathedral Choir, but every year on the last day of the Christmas term there was a carol service in Hereford Cathedral, and every student of the school was required to attend. Term usually ended on a Thursday, and that Thursday evening we would all make our way to the Cathedral for the service. There are few things in my life that I’ve been required to do that have given me so much pleasure. The service would begin with Cathedral plunged into darkness and the unison strains of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” sung by the Cathedral Choir as they process by candlelight from one of the transepts to the nave. This would be followed by an hour of the most wonderful renditions of Christmas music my ears have ever had the pleasure to know. After, we would all go to the Bishop’s Palace for mulled wine and mince pies. And this was mandatory! All part of my happy childhood.
Enjoy the song, and have a very happy Christmas!