Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Carols, Part I: Joy to the World

Joy to the World is a true oddity: it is one of the loveliest and most delightful carols, but it really has nothing to do with Christmas.  Read carefully:

Verse 1
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Verse 2
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Verse 3
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Verse 4
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

The beautiful lyric is by English Hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and is based on Psalm 98.  Watts first published it in 1719 in The Psalms of David: Imitated In the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.  But, clearly, the lyric refers to Christ’s return to earth, an event at the end of time, and not his birth here on Earth.  Joy to the World does not celebrate Christmas, but, rather, the end of days.  Joyful, surely, but sobering, as well.

Lowell Mason (1792-1872), an American, adapted and arranged the music to Watt’s lyrics in 1839, using an older melody that may have originated with Handel (1685-1759), as pieces of the music appear in the composer’s Messiah.  It is doubtful, however, that Handel composed the entire tune.

Watts is one of the more interesting figures connected with the Christmas holiday.  Author of more than 750 hymns, he was also a logician and theologian.  It would seem that versifying was uncontrollable for him – during prayers, he once said he was distracted by A little mouse for want of stairs/ran up a rope to say its prayers.  Punished for the infraction by his staunchly religious father, Watts said, O father, father, pity take/And I will no more verses make.  We’ve all known children like that.  We will look more closely at Watts in the weeks ahead.

There are many fabulous recordings of Joy to the World, which is one of the most popular carols in the English speaking world.  We at The Jade Sphinx particularly like the Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979) recording, as well as the one by Percy Faith (1908-1976).  Our favorite, perhaps, is that of Nat King Cole (1919-1965); to our ear his voice is a vehicle for pure happiness.

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