The beloved Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” began its long journey into our Christmas celebrations as a ten stanza poem entitled “Hymn for Christmas Day” by Reverend Charles Wesley (1707-88), younger brother of Rev. John Wesley (1703-91), the founder of Methodism. It was first published in Part 2 of their collection of poems entitled Hymns and Sacred Poems (London: William Strahan), 1739 (click here for the original text).
As a hymn, it was initially sung to several different tunes. For instance, see the following:
- No. 18 in The Sunday-School Service and Tune Book (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1863, 1865), #18, p. 37.
- No. 212 in The Chorale Book For England. Congregational Edition. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1863, Supp. 1865).
- No. 13 in The Altar Hymnal (London: Griffith, Farrar, Okeden & Welsh, 1885).
Meanwhile in June 1840, about 100 years after the text first appeared, the city of Leipzig in Germany held a quatercentenary celebration of the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg (c1398-1468). For this occasion they asked Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) to compose some special music. He composed four relatively short works for Men’s Choir accompanied by a brass ensemble. This music was performed in the Leipzig square during the course of the festivities. The second of these was entitled Lied (or Song).