Tune of the Day: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Originally, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was sung to the same tune as Charles Wesley's celebrated Easter song, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today". According to researcher William Studwell, it was "a poor fit at best".
But in 1855, William Hayman Cummings, an English organist, adapted Wesley's hymn to some passages from Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's choral work entitled “Festgesang”; the full title is actually Festgesang zur Eröffnung der am ersten Tage der vierten Sakularfeier der Erfindung der Buchdruckerkunst (“Festival Song”), which should not be confused with the similarly titled Festgesang an die Kuenstler, Op. 68. This Festgesang honored the 400th anniversary of Johann Gutenberg's invention of moveable type, and was first performed at the great festival held at Leipzig's open marketplace in June 1840.
Cummings was a Mendelssohn enthusiast who sang as a choirboy under the composer’s direction in London. At this point, it is impossible to say precisely where Cummings took his inspiration; however, the tune by Cummings appears to have been inspired by some passages in the second movement of Mendelssohn's cantata, “Vaterland, in deinem Gauen”.
Mendelssohn said of his work that it could be used with many different choruses but that it should not be used for sacred music. This may be because the melodic and harmonic structure of the tune are similar to the Gavotte of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 4; indeed Mendelssohn, who has always been linked with the music of Bach, may simply have adapted Bach's music for his chorus.