Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 23: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear


Our last entries of this Advent Calendar will be closing out over the next three days, as we celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day in quick succession. This is therefore our last “regular day.” As such I thought I’d post a few of my favorite carols from the hymnal of the Anglican and Episcopal church, which is the church my parents called home in years past, and the one my wife and younger son call home today.

Let’s start with one of my favorite carol recordings from the past few years, Sixpence None the Richer’s It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear was a poem written by Edmund Sears, one of those Massachusetts Unitarian ministers I talked about in my history of the War on Christmas post — the ones trying to get the nation to adapt Christmas to become a spiritual and family event.  He wrote the poem in 1949, and the following year composer Richard Willis, a student of Felix Mendelssohn, put it to music.

Though Willis’ is the one most often associated with Sears’ lyrics, there have actually been dozens of melodies composed for It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. Eric Burdon used to have both The Animals and War perform the poem to the tune of the former’s signature traditional folksong, House of the Rising Sun. Sadly, I have never been able to track down a recording of this.

Another poem with a Mendelssohn connection that has been pulled into annual Episcopal duty is Charles Wesley’s Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.  Wesley wrote the poem in 1739 hoping that someone would eventually put it to music, and in fact many did.  Mendelssohn wrote the tune you most likely associate with Hark! the Herald Angels Sing one hundred years after its initial publication, but his wasn’t the first.  In fact, during Wesley’s lifetime it was mostly associated with the music of G.F. Handel, and was sung to the same tune as Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. (The other poem put to Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes, is still played during Advent in Ireland.)

Brief side note: in my youth I didn’t really know what a “herald” was, so for quite a bit of elementary school I was sure that there was an angel named Harold who, along with Gabriel, was somehow involved with Jesus’s birth. Kind of an Olive the Other Reindeer thing, I guess.

There are many great recordings of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, but for reasons entirely nostalgic this version will always be my favorite:

Lastly, I’ll post a version of my favorite non-popular Anglican carol, Gabriel’s Message. Gabriel’s Message may be the only carol I know that originated as a Basque folk song.  Modern listeners may have been introduced to an electronic version by Sting recorded in 1985, which was released as the B-side to his Russians single.  But it is this arrangement by Sting, done decades later, that most resonates with me:


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