Most books on Christmas music list John Francis Wade as the composer of today’s selection, Adeste Fideles (better known to some as Oh Come All Ye Faithful). These books are all quite wrong.
Wade was an 18th century hymnist. He lived in England for the first half of his life, before joining the failed Jacobite coup of 1745. Following the final defeat of his fellow absolute monarchists at the Battle of Culloden, Wade fled to France where he lived out the remainder of his days. Because of his political leanings, some scholars in the past believed that Adeste Fideles was a coded message about Bonnie Prince Charlie wrapped up in camouflaged swaddling clothes. Some even go so far as to suggest that within the floral imagery of the songs lyrics lay a specific coded message to Wade’s fellow Jacobites. And while all of this makes for a good Dan Brown-esque story, it is nothing short of bunk.
The truth is that there are copies of Adeste Fideles that predate Wade’s birth. It is most likely that the song has had many different hymn writers and evolved over time — a kind of Catholic intramural folk song, if you will. Fragments of its lyrics can be found on documents going all the way back to the 13th century. There is strong evidence that points to its final evolution being crafted by none other than King John IV of Portugal, or at the very least someone within his court. John IV was known as “The Musician King,” and with good reason. He used his monarchy to assemble what was thought of at the time as the largest and most comprehensive musical library ever. He created a music school in Vila Viçosa where he trained a generation of Portuguese music teachers, and then sent those teachers out throughout Europe to train other countries’ noblemen in the intricacies of Apollo’s art.
Adeste Fideles remains part of the English Hymnal, and for most of its history has been a number sung boldly by choirs and individual artists alike. Still, I find myself preferring more subtle and intimate interpretations. My two favorite recording are short instrumental solos, played on guitar and piano by Bruce Cockburn and Marcus Roberts, respectively.
And for those wanting a thoroughly modern yet still bombastic version, Weezer has your back: