There is a story behind every song

Published 7:30 am Saturday, December 18, 2021

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For several years a friend sat in the pew in front of me every Sunday morning. It didn’t take me long to realize she never needed a hymnal. She had memorized every song that was called out. In thumbing through a hymnal seeking some of my favorite Christmas songs, I discovered how unique some of them were. I wondered if she was familiar with the history of those wonderful hymns.

It has been said that the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was intended as a poem by the author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He probably would have been surprised to find it had been set to music in the years ahead. He composed it in 1863 when our country was engaged in the Civil War. His son had been seriously injured during his military service in the war.

If you listen closely, you will notice that the carol is not about Christmas, but instead, it triggered the poet’s thoughts and feelings when he heard Christmas bells ring out. His mind was on peace and war, as evidenced by the lines reading “of peace on earth, goodwill to men,” repeated at the end of each stanza.

I learned that “It came Upon the Midnight Clear” was the only widely accepted Christmas carol written by a Unitarian pastor.

The Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church, Wayland Massachusetts, wrote it in 1849. It was published in 1850.

Eighteen-year-old Isaac Watts complained to his father, a deacon, about the low quality of songs in Anglican hymnals. His father found out how serious Isaac was concerning those songs when he suggested Isaac try to write better ones. He must have been surprised when his son instantly produced one he had already written: “Joy to the World.” Deacon Watts took it to church on Sunday where it was read one line at a time for the congregation to sing it to a familiar hymn tune. They were so impressed that they requested another one for the next week. He complied with their continuing requests for 222 Sundays.

One of my favorite hymns is “There’s a Song in the Air.” An American poet, Joseph Gilbert Holland, published it in 1872. He died in 1881 without hearing the poem set to music. In 1904, Professor Karl P. Harrington of Wesleyn University was in England to edit the 1905 edition of the Methodist Hymnal. He was not pleased with the tune for Holland’s “There Is a Song in the Air,” so he composed a new one.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a counting song which can be used for educational purposes as well as entertainment. It differs from other carols in being entirely about receiving gifts and nothing about Christmas time. This is an example of a counting song adapted to teach with a religious theme. “One God; Two Testaments; Three in the Trinity; Four Evangelists; Five senses; Six days of work in the week; Seven liberal arts; Eight persons saved in the ark; Nine muses or kinds of angels; Ten Commandments; Eleven Faithful Apostles; and Twelve Apostles altogether, or heavenly gates or Jewish tribes or articles of the creed.”

Notable among modern carols is “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Both words and music were composed by the author, Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jr. He was Rector of Christ’s Church, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, when he wrote it in 1857. He published it in 1862.

We probably haven’t given it much thought, but there is a story of their origin behind every song. You might want to explore them if your curiosity has been aroused.