Editor’s Note: It’s been said that Christmas is one of the few holidays that has its own “soundtrack.” The Times-Gazette today presents the seventh in a special 12-part series entitled “The 12 Carols of Christmas” that will appear daily through Christmas Eve, relating the history and story behind some of the best-loved sacred songs of the season.
English minister Isaac Watts was 45 years old when he broke with tradition in “Joy to the World.”
While most Christmas carols evoke scenes of shepherds watching over their flocks by night, the heavenly host of angels announcing the birth of Jesus, or the magi following the star of Bethlehem in search of the Christ-child, “Joy to the World” omitted those references, author Kenneth Osbeck said.
In Osbeck’s “Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions,” he wrote that the most published Christmas hymn in North America, according to the website Hymnary.org, instead emphasized the reverent but ecstatic joy that Jesus’ birth brought to mankind.
In “Joy to the World,” Watts paraphrased the last part of Psalm 98.
The church had been laboring over the book of Psalms in an effort to translate them into poems with rhyme and rhythm suitable for singing, according to hymn historian Robert J. Morgan.
Morgan said that Watts had become dissatisfied with the quality of the music coming from the church and felt restricted in being able to sing only the Psalms, so he “invented” the English hymn.
Watts originally entitled his new hymn “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom” when he included it in his 1719 hymnal.
Morgan said the hymnal was unique in that it “translated, interpreted and paraphrased the Old Testament Psalms through the eyes of New Testament faith.”
Watts called it simply “The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament,” and leaders of the church at that time, along with fellow minister Thomas Bradbury, were highly critical of Watts’ creation.
According to Morgan, Bradbury called Watts’ hymns “whims” and even accused Watts of thinking he was better than King David.
Watts shot back in a scathing letter, “I am fully persuaded that the Jewish psalm book was never designed to be the only Psalter for the Christian Church!”
Accord to Osbeck, some believe that American church musician Lowell Mason adapted the music for what is now regarded as the most popular Christmas carol from parts of Handel’s 1742 oratorio “The Messiah.”
With the criticisms of men like Bradbury long forgotten, Osbeck observed that “Joy to the World” came from the combined talents of an 18th-century man who came to be known as “the Godfather of English Hymnody,” a German-born musical giant of the same period, and a 19th-century American choir director and educator.
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