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Felix Mendelssohn

The creation of the familiar Christmas carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," a work more than 100 years in the making, involved the efforts of three men, none of whom knew each other. The words originated with the well-known hymn writer Charles Wesley (brother of Ur-Methodist John Wesley), who in 1739 penned "Hark, how the welkin (i.e., heaven) rings." Just over a century later, Felix Mendelssohn wrote the cantata Festgesang (1840), a paean to Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1390 - 1468), the man credited with the invention of movable type. In 1856, nearly a decade after Mendelssohn's death, the British musician William Cummings effected a marriage of Wesley's text, which by that time had evolved into its present form, and the music from the second number ("Vaterland, in deinen gauen") of Mendelssohn's cantata. Ironically, despite the carol's enduring popularity, both Wesley and Mendelssohn would likely have expressed disapproval: The devout Wesley made clear his desire for a slow, dignified musical setting for his words, while Mendelssohn, who never approached the compostion of sacred music lightly, had produced this brisk, exuberant music expressly for a decidedly secular work.