DiscoverHark! The stories behind our favorite Christmas carols
Hark! The stories behind our favorite Christmas carols
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Hark! The stories behind our favorite Christmas carols

Author: America Media

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The cookies, the mistletoe, the lights...oh, and the music! For Christians, Christmas carols mark a season of hope and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Even in popular culture, these iconic jingles capture a warmth, a cheer and a nostalgia that transcends religious belonging.

But where do these beloved yuletide songs come from? What inspired the people who composed them? How did they become popular and even mainstream? And what impact do their ancient Christian messages have on an increasingly post-Christian culture?

America Media presents “Hark!” a podcast on the meaning and the making of our most beloved Christmas carols and their time-honored traditions. 

11 Episodes
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Joy to the World

Joy to the World

2022-12-2240:04

For our last episode of the season, we’re blasting “Joy to the World” a carol that for many is synonymous with Christmas, but which has almost nothing to do with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  The prolific hymn writer, Isaac Watts, first penned “Joy to the World” after Psalm 98, which reflects the joy that followed Jewish deliverance from exile. But as a carol, it anticipates the second coming of Christ.  As for the iconic tune, that is set by American music director, Lowell Mason, who borrows the melody from the regal masterpiece of George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah.”  Colin Britt returns to the podcast to explain this carol’s musical journey, and Dr. Cecilia González-Andrieu helps us interpret its meaning through the lens of theological aesthetics and eco-theology. Cecilia’s latest book: Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty We also want to thank Christopher Walker, Matthew Pierce, Daniel G. Stocker, Smoking Bishop, Sasha Samara, Juan Carlos Quintero, Red Mountain Music, Heather Dale, and the Ignatian Schola for the music on this episode. And to Barbara Rowe, who allowed us to play music from the collection of her late husband Bryan Rowe. Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In the Bleak Midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter

2022-12-1853:02

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is the greatest carol of all time! Or, that’s what choir directors and choral experts across the U.S. and the U.K. told BBC Magazine in the 2008 poll that earned it this fame.  This haunting carol is born out of a poem written by an English poet in 1872 for a U.S. literary journal, Scribner’s Monthly, unimaginatively titled: “A Christmas carol.” But, it would take more than three decades for this mystery poet’s words to find a tune. So, intriguing is the pre-Raphaelite figure who penned these words, that you will need to listen to the episode if you want to find out the identity of our mystery poet.  But it was Gustav Holst, the world-renowned composer of the orchestral suite “The Planets”, who first set the text to music. His best-friend, Vaughan Williams, another renowned composer had asked him to write a Christmas carol for a new English hymnal that he had been asked to compile. It is out of this that the carol most people sing today comes to be. But it is not Holst’s tune that was voted the most-beloved carol of choristers. That singular honor belongs to Harold Darke, who in 1909 set the words to his own tune. And, indeed, when you hear Darke’s magical composition, weaving vocal parts in and out seamlessly and creating a Christmasssy soundscape that will bring your jaw from the pew to the cathedral floor, you’ll understand why it has mesmerized music experts and enthusiasts alike. And on this episode, two British experts pull apart the music and verse with Ricardo da Silva, S.J, our guest host and series producer along with Maggi Van Dorn. First, we invite back Christopher Walker, a church composer known for his “Celtic Alleluia,” to tackle the tune. Then, the Rev. Rachel Mann, an Anglican priest, poet, writer and one-time music journalist with expert knowledge of our mystery poet, guides us, verse by verse, through this nostalgia-inducing carol, and reveals the identity of its author.  Special thanks to the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Christopher Walker and Greg Shockmann, Garreth Brooke, Sharlene Wallace and Greg Koller, The Ignatian Schola, Debra Buesking, Wayne Bennett and Gate City Brass, Cynthia Boener and Salt of the Sound, for providing much of the music on this episode. Our featured version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” at the end of this episode is performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge under the direction of Daniel Hyde. This recording is available on their latest album, “In the Bleak Midwinter: Christmas Carols from Kings”.  You can preorder a high definition recording of this year’s Carols by Candlelight celebration which was pre-recorded at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and will be broadcast on the BBC this Christmas Eve. Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Huron Carol may not be especially well-known by Americans, but in Canada, this song is a national treasure! It has been performed by some of Canada’s biggest recording artists, from Sarah McLachlan to Toronto Children’s Chorus. For decades now, Indigenous actor and singer, Tom Jackson, has performed a Christmas benefit concert in the carol’s name.   But, beloved as this carol may be, it also comes with painful historical baggage. It was written by St. Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary and martyr who lived with the Wendat people and immersed himself in their language, culture and spirituality. It is out of this experience that Canada’s Christmas carol was born. Since the mid 17th century, when Brebeuf first penned the song in Wendat, the Huron Carol has been translated and reinterpreted several times over. “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” is the most popular version of the carol today, but its English lyrics bears little resemblance to the original and distorts Wendat culture. To help us unpack this Christmas carol, with a history complicated by centuries of colonialism, we speak with three Canadians: Geneviève Salamone, an Indigenous violinist and activist; John Steckley, one of the foremost scholars of the Wendat language; and the Rev. Michael Knox, S.J., the director of Martyr’s Shrine in Midland, Ontario. Special thanks to Geneviève Salamone for recording The Huron Carol especially for this show, and to Aidan Baker and Broken Spine Productions, Cynthia Boener, Lief Sjostrom, Don Ross, Debra Buesking, Keith Michael Roman, Brian Thiessen and Dana Lynn Seaborn, and Heather Dale for providing much of the music on this episode. Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas

2022-12-0441:551

We’re traveling to bitter-cold Bohemia to dig deep into the story of a 10th-century duke turned king turned saint: Good King Wenceslas. The legend of Wenceslas’ generosity and faith has reverberated throughout time, but it wasn’t until 1853, that the prolific Victorian hymn writer, John Mason Neale, wrote the lyrics and paired them with a jaunty 16th-century festival song: Tempus Adest Floridum. We’re joined by two modern day music legends: Catholic liturgical music composer, Christopher Walker, and Terre Roche of The Roches! Fr. James Martin, S.J., also joins the podcast to offer his theological take on his favorite version of Good King Wenceslas—performed by The Roches.  Special thanks to Terre Roche of the Roches for her exclusive acoustic version of our featured carol, and to Molly Cahill, Francis Tuson, Fae Tuson and Ricardo da Silva, S.J., who recorded vocals especially for this episode.  We would like to thank Nancy Dahn and Timothy Steeves of Duo Concertante (featuring Christine Carter), Matt Isaac, Firjii, OCP and The Ignatian Schola for providing snippets of “Good King Wenceslas” heard in this episode. Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Support “Hark!” Become a digital subscriber of America Magazine at: www.americamagazine.org/subscribe. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Carol of the Bells

Carol of the Bells

2022-11-2729:34

We’re ringing in the second season of Hark! with “Carol of the Bells,” or “Shchedryk.” Originally derived from a Ukrainian folk song, this Christmas classic crossed the Atlantic to become a major sensation, debuting at Carnegie Hall in 1922. Since then it has become an enchanting symbol of Christmastime with over 150 versions and recordings worldwide. And to this day the story behind “Carol of the Bells” resonates powerfully with the people of Ukraine. We speak with Ukrainian-American journalist Lydia Tomkiw about these modern-day parallels and music composer, Colin Britt, returns to unpack the musical brilliance of this tune.  Lydia’s article for Slate —Toll of the Bells: The forgotten history of nationalism, oppression, and murder behind a Christmas classic. Her report on the 100th Anniversary of “Carol of the Bells”, aired on NPR and affiliates: As war rages at home, Ukrainian choir heads to Carnegie Hall to celebrate 100 years of ‘Carol of the Bells’. Colin Britt is one of four composers involved in an international collaboration called “The Same Word,” which celebrates the commonalities between the world’s religions. This piece will be premiered in Hamburg in February 2023.  Listen to Tatyana Yurina “Miss Diki” play “Carol of the Bells” on the bandura Special thanks to GIA Publications, Terre Roche of The Roches, Tatyana Yurina and James Kennerley, the director of Music at St. Paul's Church and Choir school in Cambridge, Mass, for providing much of the music on this episode. Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Support Hark! by becoming a digital subscriber to America Magazine at: www.americamagazine.org/subscribe Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Silent Night

Silent Night

2021-12-1941:31

It is hard to imagine a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve without Silent Night. Musicians may treat it differently—singing it a cappella, with spare chords on the organ in the background, or to the gentle picking of a guitar as its creators intended—but it is universally cherished. Its basic three-chord structure makes it a cinch to play and its lilting rhythm is perfect to soothe a congregation and lull a baby to sleep—even to sing to a president breathing his last. But it has also been usurped for evil. Join host Maggi Van Dorn on this final episode of “Hark!” as she plumbs the historical and emotional depths of this Austria-born classic with Jesuit priest Ed Schmidt and Rusty McDermott, the songbird mother of another Jesuit. To pull apart the chords and arpeggios of Silent Night, we invited back Colin Britt, the composer and conductor we spoke to in episode three about “Hark! the herald angels sing.”   Special thanks to the Liturgy Arts Group at Boston College, One Hope Project, Harpa Dei, Portsmouth Cathedral Choir; Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir, Convivium Records and the Ignatian Schola for allowing us to play their recordings of Silent Night.  To support the production of “Hark!” and to access other great Advent reflections from America Magazine staff, please subscribe at americamagazine.org/subscribe.  Related articles: Ed Schmidt's article for America: Is ‘Silent Night’ the greatest Christmas song ever? Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
O Come, All Ye Faithful is a rousing, controversial and some might even say, miraculous Christmas carol! And it’s believed to have a subversive Jacobite rallying call hidden in the text. To peal back the layers of history in this song, Host Maggi Van Dorn is joined by Rev. Andrew Cameron-Mowat S.J., a Jesuit priest at St. Ignatius, Stamford Hill (London), and an accomplished organist and music director. We also hear from Dr. Kim Harris, Assistant Professor of African-American Thought and Practice at Loyola Marymount University, along with a former Choir of King’s College organ scholar, Parker Ramsey. Special thanks to the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and the Ignatian Schola for allowing us to play parts of their recordings of Adeste Fideles/O Come, All Ye Faithful.  To support the production of “Hark!” and to access other great Advent reflections from America Magazine staff, please subscribe!  Related articles: Black spirituals meet the liturgy: Why I composed a Mass for Black Catholics Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The title track of the podcast is here! Even though “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was never meant to be a Christmas carol, it has proven one of the most popular in history. We’re exploring its soaring descants and hallmark harmonizations with conductor/composer Colin Britt. And we’re unpacking its many scriptural allusions with Laurie Brink, a Dominican sister and New Testament scholar.  Special thanks to the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, the Ignatian Schola and One Hope Project, for allowing us to play parts of their recordings of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” To support the production of “Hark!” and to access other great Advent reflections from America Magazine staff, please subscribe! Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
What would it mean to approach Advent with a sense of longing, rather than wanting or demanding? That’s the question posed by Roc O’Connor S.J., of the famed St. Louis Jesuits. And the Christmas carol that seems to best encapsulate this holy longing is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It’s one of the oldest carols in circulation, with a text that dates back to the 8th century. To uncover the story of this ancient hymn, we’re joined by Cameron Upchurch, chapel organist and Director of Music at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Special thanks to the Ignatian Schola and to Salt of the Sound (and their record label Echoes Blue Music), for their recordings of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel;” to Frank Tuson for providing instrumental accompaniment to the Schola; and to Cameron Upchurch, Frank Tuson and Ricardo da Silva for vocals on this episode.  Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. To support the production of “Hark!” and to access other great Advent reflections from America Magazine staff, please subscribe at americamagazine.org/subscribe. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
On the first episode of Hark! we unwrap the history of Christmas carols in Europe and why so many of them are set in a haunting minor key. Host Maggi Van Dorn is joined by Rosie Pentreath, musician and music writer for Classic FM, and the founder/host of the OUTcast podcast. To support the production of Hark! and to access other great Advent reflections from America Magazine staff, please subscribe at americamagazine.org/subscribe.   Special thanks to Harpa Dei and Jim Bilodeau for providing some of the original music you heard in this episode. And to Frank Tuson for our theme music. Which Christmas carols would you like for us to explore next year? Let your voice be heard! Complete this brief listener survey. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
America Media presents “Hark!” a podcast on the meaning and the making of our most beloved Christmas carols and their time-honored traditions. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
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