Friday, December 23, 2011

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Rembrandt Hears the Angels Sing

Today is the Eve of Christmas Eve, and I wanted to share with you my favorite carol.  It is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, written by Edmund Sears (1810-1876), pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts.  It is one of the few carols by an American (Americans have dominated, though, popular Christmas songs), and one of the most beautiful.  The melody to which it is most often sang is by Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), who composed a tune initially called Carol.  It is often set in the key of B-flat major in a six-eight time signature.

One of the things that is most successful in this carol is that is seems to evoke the Biblical passage in Luke that provides the most joyous Christmas message: And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, good will toward men.”  The key word here is saying; this passage is particularly musical, and if saying were replaced with singing, it could almost be set to music.  This passage does have a particularly musical tone to it, perfectly in keeping with a time of joyous Christmas music.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is its exhortation to listen.  The angels sound a note of peace and provide the opportunity for all of humanity to lift its voice in joy.  Though clearly inspired by the nativity, it is not a Christian carol, per se, and is all the more effective for it.  It seems almost as if this carol tells us to slow down for a moment and recognize the quiet miracle of our lives.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
There are many excellent recordings of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, but I would recommend that you listen to that of Burl Ives.  It can easily be found on You Tube, and is a perfect Christmas moment.

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