It's Christmas time. And what better time to take a look at the Christmas hymns in The Hymnal 1982? In particular, we will be looking at the less commonly sung hymns in the Christmas section. You may wish to begin with part 1 of this series, or get caught up on part 2 (hymns that score a 9 or a 10) or part 3 (hymns that score a 6, 7, or 8) or part 4 (hymns that score a 4 or a 5).
We're using a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the least popular and 10 being the most popular. (On this scale we cranked it up to 11 for hymns which are unbelievably popular.) Here we at last get to those hymns that are truly uncommon in Episcopal services. Hymns that score a 2 or a 3 on our popularity scale.
And a descant now in publication by Stephen Cleobury is a real favorite of mine (much better than that of his predecessor David Willcocks in this instance).
As a church musician in the American South, where the Arthur Seymour Sullivan tune FORTUNATUS holds such sway on Easter Day, it is an odd twist of fate that this Sullivan Christmas tune has not caught on at least in these parts.
The Hymnal 1982 Companion doesn't mince words; it simply states that this is the tune known by congregations in England. It was included first in The Hymnal 1940 and retained in the current hymnal.
Interestingly, in that earlier hymnal a First Tune and Second Tune were often provided for a hymn of the same number. This approach reinforced the notion that a "hymn" is really the words, while the associated tune is a more malleable thing. It was standard for the more "common" tune to be listed first. In The Hymnal 1940 NOEL is the first tune, while CAROL is the second. The current hymnal could be seen as reversing this preference with Hymn 89 (CAROL) serving as the "First Tune" and Hymn 90 serving as the "Second Tune".
As it is, I don't get the sense that this is sung by any congregations, the weight of association of CAROL with these words being too great.
I have never sung any of these hymns, nor am I aware of any American congregations who have. (I would love to hear of any who have sung these.) They score a 2 on our scale.
The hymn is filled with marvelous turns of phrase as only John Byrom could compose. Byrom was "one of the more remarkable of the gallery of distinguished characters that the eighteenth century provides," claims Erik Routley in The English Carol.
The tune YORKSHIRE also seems eminently singable, though it is a bit long.
This hymn has a long pedigree in the Episcopal Church, the hymn being first published in 1871, and published again paired with the present tune only three years later.
Has it fallen out of favor?
It looks a bit overwhelming on the page, and this may be one reason it is not chosen. The Hymnal 1982 wisely stars stanzas 2 and 3, giving permission to omit them without ruining the logic and sense of the hymn. And indeed, the singing of four stanzas only (st. 1, 2, 5, & 6) is congruent with the practice at Westminster Abbey.
But I can also imagine a scenario in an Anglo-Catholic parish where the full length of this hymn would be just perfect for the ceremonial of an entrance rite replete with incense.
In hearing it sung and studying it for a few moments I am disappointed that I have not made its acquaintance until now.
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