Friday, December 25, 2020

Song Lyric of the Day (Edmund Hamilton Sears and Richard Storrs Willis, on How ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’)

“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 men,
  From heaven's all-gracious King.’
The world in solemn stillness lay,
  To hear the angels sing.”—“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” lyrics by Unitarian minister-poet Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876), music by American composer Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 1: Philip Freneau to Walt Whitman, edited by John Hollander (1993)

Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote these lyrics in 1849, at a point that many contemporary readers might appreciate: a time of public disruption and private depression. The United States was still coming to terms with the nature of its recent victory in the deeply polarizing Mexican War: the vexing       question of whether to admit the newly won territory as free or slave states. At the same time, after a year off because of health issues, he was trying to resume his ministry, this time with a congregation in Wayland, Mass.

On her blog “History? Because It’s Here!” Kathy Warnes has a fine post giving more details on the life and career of Sears, as well as on how Willis and, over in the U.K., Arthur Sullivan wrote melodies to lyrics that hover between hope (the singing of the angels) and despair (“the woes of sin and strife”).

Incidentally, the image accompanying this post is the 1500 painting The Mystical Nativity, by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1501)—the only signed work by the Italian Renaissance master.

No comments: