Perfect for Twelfth Night, ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ by Edmund Hamilton Sears, to the tune NOEL by Arthur Sullivan.
Edmund Sears (1810-1876) was born in Massachusetts, and preached first as a missionary, then pastor of a Unitarian church in the town of Wayland. He moved away to the larger settlement of Lancaster, but suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to Wayland in 1847, where he took on only part-time preaching duties and devoted the rest of his time to writing. ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ was written in 1849 during a bout of melancholy, in which Sears reflected on a domestic war with Mexico and a year of revolutions throughout Europe. It is not explicitly a Christmas carol – there is no mention of events in Bethlehem, or any other aspects of the Nativity (save, perhaps, the Annunciation – which is only implied), and the tone of the middle verses is downright gloomy. Only the last stanza gives any hope of better times to come.
Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) though best-known for the Savoy operas he wrote with W. S. Gilbert, decicated an early part of his career to devotional works including oratoria, anthems and hymn-tunes. Such was his standing in the field that he was asked to edit two hymnals, The Hymnary (1872) and Church Hymns (1874). NOEL (also known as GERARD or EARDISLEY) appeared in the latter book. The core of the tune is taken from an old English melody or folk origin, with Sullivan standardising the phrases to make it fit ‘double common metre’ (four couplets consisting of eight syllables, then six). Sullivan himself paired ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ to his tune, which is how it is most often sung in the UK. In the United States it is better-known to the tune CAROL by American composer Richard Stores Willis.
As ever, the following descant is free to download and use, so please do so, and let us know how you get on. And we’d be delighted to receive any audio or video of your attempts.