Thursday, December 24, 2009

Glad Tidings of Great Joy

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.

“Fear not!” it said, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and humankind.

“To you, in Bethl'hem town, this day
Is born of David’s line
A Savior, who is Christ the Word,
And this shall be the sign:

The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.”

Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song:

“All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav’n to earth
Begin and never cease!”

Nahum Tate, 1700; alt.
The Whole Book of Psalmes, 1592
arr. William H. Monk, 1861

This was the first Christmas hymn authorized to be sung in the Church of England. Prior to the eighteenth century, only psalm paraphrases were used in worship. Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady had published their New Version of the Book of Psalms in 1696, and in 1700 they issued a supplement, which included sixteen texts not based on the Psalms. This hymn is a paraphrase from the well-known nativity story in Luke 2:8-14. You may also know it from the first part of Handel's Messiah, from the soprano recitative There were shepherds abiding in the fields through the chorus Glory to God. (this sequence of text also opens the Christmas Oratorio of Camille Saint-Saëns). I think it may even be in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Tate's hymn has remained in many hymnals since that time, though it may no longer be so near the top of the Christmas music list. It has been sung to several different tunes, including CHRISTMAS, arranged from a different Handel oratorio (you have to repeat the last line of each stanza), and this early American (and now unknown) tune.

One Year Ago: The World In Solemn Stillness Lay

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