8:49am

Thu December 22, 2011
Music

Wenceslas: A Goodhearted King And His Popular Carol

Originally published on Thu December 22, 2011 5:36 pm

Even heard in modern synthesizer arrangements, the melody of the carol "Good King Wenceslas" brings the words and images of the story into my head: "Good King Wenceslas looked out / on the Feast of Stephen / When the snow lay 'round about / deep and crisp and even.

Wenceslas was a real person: the Duke of Bohemia, a 10th-century Christian prince in a land where many practiced a more ancient religion. In one version of his legend, Wenceslas was murdered in a plot by his brother, who was under the sway of their so-called pagan mother.

Following his death, Wenceslas became a saint and martyr revered especially for his kindness to the poor. Meanwhile, the catchy tune to "Good King Wenceslas" was around when people celebrated spring, but the Wenceslas legend hadn't yet met up with the melody. For centuries, it had been sung in Latin as "Tempus adest floridum" — a springtime song celebrating nature's powers of rebirth. It had verses in various languages, some of them adventurous in their descriptions of these celebrations.

Almost a thousand years after Wenceslas lived, a 19th-century Englishman by the name of John Mason Neale wrote the now-famous English lyric for the ancient melody.

The history of this Christmas carol is a rich accumulation of music, image and legend that speaks beyond any one religious tradition. Its most basic message is summed up in its final lines: "Ye who now will bless the poor / shall yourselves find blessing."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Among the Christmas music you may be hearing on repeat, there is a song about a king from the middle ages, "Good King Wenceslas." It's a favorite of our classical music critic, Tom Manoff. He was curious about the song's origins after listening to a variety of versions.

TOM MANOFF, BYLINE: Even in this synthesizer arrangement of "Good King Wenceslas," from Mannheim Steamroller, the melody alone brings the words and images of the story into my head. "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD KING WENCESLAS")

MANOFF: Wenceslas was a real person, the Duke of Bohemia, a 10th century Christian prince in a land where a more ancient religion was still practiced. In one version of this legend, Wenceslas was murdered by a treacherous brother under the sway of their so-called pagan mother.

Following his death - and this is fact - Wenceslas became a martyr and saint known especially for his kindness to the poor. Meantime - and we're in the 13th century now - this catchy tune was around during folk celebrations of spring. It's performed here by the Martin Best Ensemble on their album of Medieval Christmas music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD KING WENCESLAS")

MANOFF: But the Wenceslas story hadn't met up yet with this melody, which had been sung for centuries and known in Latin as "Tempus Adest Floridum," a song celebrating nature's powers of rebirth. It had verses in various languages. Here it is from the 16th century in Finnish and Latin from a wonderful recording of hymns from medieval Finland, performed by the Cathedral Choir of Antwerp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD KING WENCESLAS")

CATHEDRAL CHOIR OF ANTWERP: (Singing in foreign language)

MANOFF: Almost a thousand years after Wenceslas lived, a 19th-century Englishman named of John Mason Neale penned the now-famous lyrics, which joined the archaic tune with the Wenceslas legend. It's sung here by the Choir of Westminster Abbey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD KING WENCESLAS")

CHOIR OF WESTMINSTER ABBY: (Singing) Good King Wenceslas on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even. Brightly shone the moon that night though the frost was cruel, when a poor man came in sight...

MANOFF: The history of this Christmas carol, and much of it is still unknown, is a rich accumulation of music, image, and legend that speaks beyond any one religious tradition. Its universal message is summed up in the closing lines: Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD KING WENCESLAS")

ABBY: (Singing) Therefore, every man be sure wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

NEARY: "Good King Wenceslas" brought to us by our critic Tom Manoff. He does his caroling in Eugene, Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOOD KING WENCESLAS")

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program