The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 20: Good King Wenceslas
More than any other Christmas song, Good King Wenceslas is a mutt of an endeavor. Unlike other carols of more straightforward lineage, John Mason Neale’s classic is practically duct taped together.
Before we dive in, however, here is a classic Mel Torme rendition:
The song’s narrative is based on the stories surrounding the real life Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century. Legend has it that after his father’s death Wenceslaus’s soul was the battlefield where his pagan mother and Christian grandmother waged a theological war. Christianity eventually won out, of course. Though he would later be depicted as a pious and peaceful man, Wenceslaus was actually a warrior. At the age of 18 he overthrew the local governance. An eventual fealty to the Frankish King Henry the Fowler won him the title of Duke over the area where Prague is now located. The church rewarded his devotion to Catholicism richly, even if after his death. Holy Roman Emperor Otto granted him the title of King posthumously, and Pious II declared him an official Saint. The hymn written by the church in his honor, Saint Wenceslaus, is the oldest known Czeck song. It is not, however, related to the song we now sing each Christmas season.
The melody of Good King Wenceslas is actually stolen from a 13th century Finnish carol, Tempus Adest Floridum. That carol, however, is a celebration of Spring. In fact, here is the first verse:
Spring has now unwrapped the flowers,
day is fast reviving,
Life in all her growing powers t
owards the light is striving:
Gone the iron touch of cold,
winter time and frost time.
Seedlings, working through the mould,
now make up for lo-o-o-st time.
The man who would write the lyrics we know now, John Mason Neale, was a 19th century Londoner. In his life he wrote two renowned book of carols: Carols for Christmas-tide, and Carols for Easter-tide. Neale published Good King Wenceslas as part of his Easter collection. This was a most curious choice, especially considering how the Feast of St. Stephen figures so centrally in Wenceslas’ lyrics. The public thought the decision daft, and chose to sing it at yuletide despite Neale’s desires otherwise.
When you consider the song’s pedigree — a Christmas ditty about a Czech duke put to a Finnish spring carol by a Londoner hoping to tell an Easter story — it is perhaps unsurprising that it has been so disrespected over the years. Famed Christmas music historian Elizabeth Poston dismissed it as “ponderous mongrel doggerel,” and H.J. Masse declared it “marked in ignorance.” The Oxford Book of Carols just shook its head at the song’s popularity, describing it as “poor and commonplace to the last degree.” And as many OT readers are already aware, Terry Pratchett utterly skewers the carol in his book Hogfather. Still, it’s pretty unfair to declare a Christmas carol unworthy simply for the crimes of being light and saccharine.
Tempus Adest Floridum was originally a song for dancing, and so it’s probably unsurprising that I am drawn toward those renditions that arrange Good King Wenceslas around an up-tempo swing. It’s not available on YouTube, but you can hear my favorite recording, by the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, on iTunes here. If you are just not into jazz (and shame on you if this is the case), the song also does well when arranged for traditional Celtic instrumentation. Here is a good take on the carol by the Celtic Nots:
And for those lovers of trivia, here’s a spontaneous version sung by the Bealtes on an early Christmas fan-club record:
Click here to see all selections for The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar.