Every Christmas, millions of people joyfully gather in church, cathedral and cafe to belt out "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!". What they don't know is that this beloved carol is the unlikely lovechild begotten from the marriage of the lyrics of a sombre English Methodist clergyman with the buoyant and joyous secular music of a German Jew.
Charles Wesley penned his hymn ( one of over 600 ), imagining a slow and austere musical accompaniment (more like the gorgeous plainchant "O Come , O Come Emmanuel"). His original verses emphasized his belief in the nature of Jesus as Atonement for Original Sin, as the references to the serpent in the Garden of Eden make clear in the oft-discarded fourth verse:
Come, Desire of nations come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman's conquering Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent's head.
Adam's likeness now efface:
Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Wesley penned this hymn (with the far less catchy first verse lyrics, "Hark, how all the welkin rings") in 1739. Almost exactly one hundred years later, the brilliant Felix Mendelssohn (grandson of Germany's most famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn) wrote a secular cantata in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's printing press. The Festgesang made quite an impression in Leipzig as 200 men, 16 trumpets and 20 trombones crowded into the town market square and deafened the ears of all around with its resounding chorus.
A few years later, a young Brit named William Hayman Cumming appeared as a choirboy in the premiere of Mendelssohn's Elijah in London. It's not clear how William first heard the catchy tune written to extol the virtues of moveable type, but Cumming had the brilliant idea of substituting Wesley's modified lyrics, and the one of the world's most popular Christmas carols was born.