Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas carols--ugh (though not always)

I generally dislike Christmas carols, as so many of them have been repackaged as annoying ear-worms that bombard us at this time of year. I do make an exception for the stately “Adeste, fideles” or “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

"Adeste, fideles, laeti triumphantes;
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte Regem angelorum."


"Venite adoremus, venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus, Dominum."

I learned to sing this hymn in the second grade, before they excluded such things from secular schools. I particularly enjoyed the way we lingered over the Latin words, including the final “Domin-uuum.”

Not classical Latin, the words are almost certainly medieval. The text has been ascribed to various individuals and groups, including St. Bonaventure (13th century), King John of Portugal, or some particular order of monks. A Portuguese connection seems likely.

The tune that is currently used seems to stem from the English composer John Francis Wade in 1743. However the music seems to have been generally common at the time, being attributed to John Reading, Handel, and the Portuguese musician Marcos Antonio da Fonseca.

Now comes an instance of academic criticism that seems to have gone off the rails. Professor Bernett Zon, the head of the department of music at Durham University, proposes that the hymn is actually a birth ode to Jacobite pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie. He maintains that there are "clear references" to the Prince in the carol's lyrics. Zon claims that “Fideles” means Faithful Catholic Jacobites. Bethlehem is a common Jacobite cipher for England and Regem Angelorum is a well-know pun on Angelorum, angels, and Anglorum, English. Therefore, Zon holds the Carol really means "Come and Behold him, Born the King of the English.” Supposedly, the carol is actually a birth ode to Bonnie Prince Charlie, and embodies a secret political code decipherable by the "faithful," the followers of the Pretender.

Since the words were probably written centuries earlier, these claims seem speculative at best. Wade may have been a Jacobite, but he wrote--possibly--only the music not the words.

Perhaps the central problem is the search for a single author, rather than seeking collective roots. Works that enjoy such talismanic popularity often embody a series of changes, as they are gradually fine-tuned into a version of enduring resonance.

A case in point is the familiar song "Lili Marlene," about a soldier on leave. The text, the first part of it at least, was written by the poet Hans Leip in Berlin in April 1915. He was in love with two women, Lili and Marleen--hence the title fusing the two names. Leip himself wrote the first musical version, which was followed by another setting by Rudolf Zink. In 1938 Norbert Schulze finally created the melody that we all know. During World War II the singer Lale Andersen gave it the distintive melancholy tincture that is now part and parcel of the song.

Thus it is vain to search for the "author of 'Lili Marleen'." as four different people contributed to its final realization. Likewise, it seems, for "Adeste, fideles."

At all events, happy holidays to all!



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