Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good King Wenceslas

In these last few days before Christmas, I thought we would look at some of our most beautiful Christmas carols.  I have always had a deep affection for Good King Wenceslas, not the least for the fact that, when he was a boy, my younger brother insisted the lyric was “Good King Vince, the louse, met his friend named Stephen…”
At any rate, at their best Christmas carols seem to us a bridge between a vanished world of the past and our contemporary lives while retaining a lyric loveliness.  Good King Wenceslas fits, I believe, both of those promises by detailing the legend of a little-remembered saint, telling a tale with the simplicity of a fable and a wonderful musicality.  Despite being in a minor key, the melody of King Wenceslas remains bright, cheerful and pleasing.
The carol details the story of King Wenceslas, who leaves his castle on the Feast of Stephen (December 26th) to feed the poor.  With him is his page, who yearns to give up the quest due to the bitter weather.  However, the very footsteps of the king seem to generate supernatural warmth, allowing King and Page to finish their quest.
The text of Good King Wenceslaus was written by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the celebrated hymn writer, with an assist by Thomas Helmore (1811-1890).  It first appeared in the 1853 collection Carols for Christmastide.  The melody is based, oddly enough, on a 13th century carol celebrating the advent of spring, Tempus adest floridum.  It has remained one of the most popular Christmas carols ever since.
But who was King Wenceslas?  Most scholars believe that the legend is based on the life of Saint Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia (907-935).  Wenceslaus seized power when only 18 years old, and was a fair but stern king.  He stopped the persecution of priests and was celebrated for his kindness to the poor.  Many of the Bohemian nobles resented Wenceslas' attempts to spread Christianity, and were displeased when he swore allegiance to the king of Germany, Henry I.
Wenceslas was murdered by his own brother, Boleslav, who joined the nobles to assassinate him.  He invited Wenceslas in 935 AD to a religious festival and then attacked him on his way to mass. As the two were struggling, Boleslav's supporters jumped in and murdered Wenceslas. Wenceslas became Bohemia's most famous martyr and patron saint. 
The historic Wenceslas was not a king, but, rather, a duke; however Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred a kingship on Wenceslas.  He is a revered figure in Czech Republic and several statues of him can be found there.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

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