It Came Upon the Midnight Clear


BEFORE I started writing this series, I had no idea that many of our favourite carols originated in the United States. Following O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger and Joy to the World, today’s choice is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.

It was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts, and anti-slavery campaigner. Sears had served the Wayland congregation before moving on to a larger church in Lancaster. After seven years he suffered a breakdown and returned to Wayland as a part-time preacher. With news of revolution in Europe and the United States war with Mexico in his mind, a melancholy Sears portrayed the world as dark, full of ‘sin and strife’, and failing to hear the Christmas message. For the full words, see here.

In America the carol is sung to a melody called Carol written in 1850 by Richard Storrs Willis, who trained under Mendelssohn. Here it is from a 2012 Christmas Eve service at the Church of Saint Michael in Stillwater, Minnesota.

The tune used in Britain, called Noel, was adapted by Arthur Sullivan from an English melody in 1874. Sullivan is best remembered as the musical partner of W S Gilbert in a series of operettas, but he started his career as a serious composer. To supplement the income from his concert works he wrote hymns, parlour ballads and other light pieces, and worked as a church organist and music teacher.

His most popular song was The Lost Chord, written in 1877 at the bedside of his dying brother Fred to a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter. Enrico Caruso sang it at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House 29 April, 1912, at a benefit concert for families of victims of the Titanic disaster earlier that month. It remains perhaps the quintessential sentimental Victorian ballad, and here is a suitably crackly performance by John McCormack in 1922. (It is followed by a score version.)

Sullivan also wrote a widely-used melody for Onward Christian Soldiers – see this lovely piano roll version.

Here is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear with Sullivan’s tune sung by the Stairwell Carollers in Ottawa in 2014, and here it is by The Sixteen in score version.

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