One of the best loved Christmas carols is ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.

Written by John Wesley’s brother — and fellow Oxford graduate — Charles to a melody no longer much sung today, it was meant to be a solemn Christmas hymn, a far cry from the joyous carol we sing today. Here is the version by John Brown University in Arkansas, a stunning rendition:

Over the years, both the lyrics and melody evolved. This is Charles Wesley’s original opening couplet:

Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings

‘Hark’ means ‘listen’ and ‘welkin’ was a word used at the time for ‘skies’ or ‘firmament’.

George Whitefield, the famous preacher who worked with the Wesleys, wrote the opening lyrics which we sing today. Decades later, a prominent English musician, William Hayman Cummings, set the lyrics to a composition by Felix Mendelssohn called Festegesang. Mendelssohn had written this cantata in 1840 to commemorate the anniversary of the printing press. Cummings took part of the music and set the lyrics of the carol to it in 1855.

Cummings’s had a prior connection with Mendelssohn. In 1847, the composer appeared in London to conduct his Elijah. Cummings was a teenage chorister singing at that performance. He devoted his life to music as a chorister, organist and professor. He also held a number of appointments at music-related royal societies as well as institutes for the blind.

Mendelssohn, although Jewish by heritage, was baptised a Lutheran at the behest of his parents, who were also later baptised into the Church.  Accounts vary with regard to the Mendelssohns’ resolution of the inner tensions they experienced as a result of embracing Christianity. They took an additional surname, Bartholdy, at the suggestion of one of their relatives. Not everyone was happy with the choice, however, young Felix’s uncle had inherited an estate by that name and thought it would be a way in which the family could appear less Jewish in their Christian identity.

Mendelssohn was a child prodigy and his family moved to Berlin where he pursued his musical training.  He had also studied piano in Paris as a boy. He later married a Protestant Frenchwoman, a clergyman’s daughter. They had five children, one of whom died in childhood from measles. The two daughters married distinguished men. The sons made names for themselves in their own right; one became a notable historian and the other a brilliant chemist who pioneered the manufacture of aniline dye.

Although accounts during his life gave the impression that Mendelssohn was kind and easygoing, he was given to fits of rage and sometimes needed to sleep for extended periods so that these spells would pass. It is thought that his personality traits as well as a genetic predisposition to fatal strokes drove him to an early grave. Like his parents and sister, he died of a series of strokes. He was only 38. Mendelssohn is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery No. 1 in Berlin-Kreuzberg.