Omdahl: Oddities mark creation of our Christmas songs

GRAND FORKS -- Over the past 400 years, Christendom has accumulated a wonderful collection of songs to celebrate the arrival of a redeemer for fallen man. Some of the songs have curious beginnings. At the top of the list is "Silent Night," the mo...

Lloyd Omdahl

GRAND FORKS -- Over the past 400 years, Christendom has accumulated a wonderful collection of songs to celebrate the arrival of a redeemer for fallen man. Some of the songs have curious beginnings.
At the top of the list is “Silent Night,” the most popular of all Christmas songs. While one would believe that such a great song would require meditation and wordsmithing, it really was a quick cut-and-paste job.
On Christmas Eve of 1818, Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, was desperate for guitar music because the church organ had been disabled by a recent flood, and he wanted a song for Christmas Eve Mass. All he had was a few lyrics he had written two years earlier.
He walked a couple of miles to see his friend Franz Gruber, church choir master and organist, and asked him to create some guitar music for his lyrics.
A few hours later, the Mohr and Gruber stood at the altar of St. Nicholas Church and sang “Silent Night,” backed up by a local choir group.
The original manuscript was lost until 1995, when a manuscript was discovered in Mohr’s handwriting.
Another very popular Christmas song, “Joy to the World,” was not written to celebrate Christmas at all. Isaac Watts wrote it in 1719, intending it to be a song welcoming the Second Coming - not the First Coming - of Jesus.
It is alleged that Watts got his inspiration from Psalm 98. Verses 4-9 of the Psalm seem to validate this allegation.
But the song fit so well at Christmas that Watt’s intention has been disregarded for 300 years.
Watt got into the songwriting business when he complained to his father about the somber music of the day. His father told him to write something himself, so he wrote “Joy to the World” and 600 other songs.
Incidentally, the music for “Joy to the World” was not written until 1839 - 120 years after the lyrics - by Lowel Mason, a bank teller with a compelling interest in music.
Mason later became the first music teacher in American public schools and wrote 1,600 pieces of music.
The Mexican War and international conflicts compelled Edmund Sears to write “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”
This Unitarian pastor was greatly stressed by world conditions in 1849. Revolution was rampant in Europe, and the Mexican-American War had just ended.
Sears thought the Christian message was being muted by world events, so he gave his message in song. However, the stress prevailed, and he eventually had a nervous breakdown.
Charles Wesley, born in 1703 as the 18th of 19 children, a deacon and elder of the Church of England, was headed for Georgia as a missionary when he encountered Moravians who taught him a new kind of hymn singing. As a result, we have “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
While a number of self-appointed musicians tampered with the song, credit for the music has been given to Jacob Mendelsohn, son of a Jewish banker.
When war came to France, he escaped to Berlin, where he joined the Lutheran Church and added “Bartholdy” to his name to prove that he was now a Christian.
The music came from a cantata commemorating the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg 300 years earlier.
Then there is “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the authorship of which has been widely debated. Some attribute it to John Wade, some to John Reading, some to Handel, some to an order of monks and, most interesting of all, some to King John IV of Portugal.
While fending off other claimants of the throne in the 1600s, King John dabbled in music enough to gain credibility as the musician king.
The song came out in Latin as “Adeste Fideles” and was finally translated in 1841 into English by Father Frederick Oakeley, so now we have “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Omdahl is a retired professor of political science at UND and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota. Email him at .

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