It came upon the midnight clear – Sue Gilmurray

Edmund Hamilton Spears (1810-76)
Public Domain

Tune: NOEL (Sullivan) Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) Public Domain

Tune: MIDNIGHT CLEAR: Sue Gilmurray (1950 - ) © Sue Gilmurray

Sue Gilmurray

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
'Peace on the earth, good will to men
from heaven's all-gracious King!'
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
with peaceful wings unfurled;
and still their heavenly music floats
o'er all the weary world:
above its sad and lowly plains
they bend on hovering wing;
and ever o'er its Babel-sounds
the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man, at war with man, hears not
the love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.

For lo, the days are hastening on,
by prophet-bards foretold,
when, with the ever-circling years,
comes round the age of gold;
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendours fling,
and the whole world give back the song
which now the angels sing.

Sue Gilmurray version:

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold.
‘Peace on the earth, goodwill to all
from heav’n’s all-gracious King!’
The world in solemn stillness lay,
lay still to hear the angels sing.
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heav’nly music floats
o’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
they bend on hov’ring wing,
and ever o’er its babel-sounds,
above its sounds the angels sing,
and ever o’er its babel-sounds,
the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and fighters locked in war hear not
the love-song which they bring.
O hush the noise of battle now,
O hush and hear the angels sing!
O hush the noise of battle now,
and hear the angels sing!

For lo, the days are hast’ning on,
by prophets seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
comes round the age of gold,
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendours fling,
and all the world give back the song,
the song which now the angels sing,
and all the world give back the song,
which now the angels sing.
(altd. Sue Gilmurray audio below)

This Christmas carol, written by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876), has been known to me since childhood, one of the perennial hymns in Christmas services and carol concerts. Looking at it more closely, though, I find it unusual. Yes, it’s about the song the ‘herald angels’ sang to the shepherds as they ‘watched their flocks by night’, but the hymn doesn’t mention shepherds, Bethlehem, baby Jesus, or any of the rest of the Christmas story. It’s all about the song.

Sears emphasises that the song promises peace on earth; he imagines it can still be heard today if we will listen, yet we keep on fighting each other and so cannot hear it. Still, he insists, the day will come when peace reigns on earth, and we will sing the angels’ song back to them.

You can say that this is fanciful, wishful thinking, and not biblical. On the other hand, you can find places in both Old and New Testaments which look forward to God’s establishing peace on earth. As a supporter of peace organisations both within and outside the church, and as someone who has always enjoyed singing both within and outside the church, I want to bear with the fanciful bits, modernise the gender-specific language, and go on singing it.

I’m not sure whether it’s a virtue or a vice, but I sometimes can’t resist writing a new tune for a hymn that already has one. I think that what tempted me to try it for this one was that the existing tune, NOEL, an English traditional melody arranged by Arthur Sullivan, is a bit pedestrian with the iambic ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum of its Double Common Metre. Given its optimistic message, it would be nice if it danced a but more. Often the stress comes not on a key word but on a preposition, or less important word, especially at the beginning of a verse: ‘came’ in verse 1, when the important word is ‘midnight’; ‘through’ in verse 2 when the important word is ‘skies’, and ‘with’ in verse 3 when the important word is ‘sin’. So I sat at the piano and tried to find a tune which, instead of:

‘It came upon the midnight clear

hurried to get to the important word:

‘It came upon the midnight clear’

and I ended up with a calypso-style tune, in which the first strong downbeat came on ‘midnight’, on ‘skies’, and on ‘sin’. It does have a couple of iambic lines in the middle of the verse, but then reverts to the syncopation of calypso, and throws in a repeated line at the end of the verse when Sears’ words remind us each time of the persistence of the angels’ singing.

Whatever the tune, let’s keep on singing this carol. ‘For lo, the days are hast’ning on!’

Prayer

Heavenly Father,
whose prophets spoke of the ending of wars, the beating of swords into ploughshares, and the blessing of peace on earth,
as we give you thanks for the birth of your son, Jesus, we remember with gratitude the message of the angels.
Thank you that they not only announced the good news, but also sang of it.
Thank you that they not only sang glory to you in the highest, but also peace on the earth.
Please show us how we can live in that peace; in Jesus’ name and for his sake.

Amen

Recording from King's 2006

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