Monday, December 26, 2016

For The Season #9: "Good King Wenceslas"

One of the ongoing pleasures of the holiday season for me is revisiting Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, first in its original format as a novella - and a ripping good read it is and remains being - and then in looking at several of the almost 30 film versions out there today, most all of which make a commendable effort to translate to the screen a complex narrative replete with interior monologue from the storyteller. No single movie of the tale manages to relate the full work in all of its deliciously Dickensian asides and details, and directors inevitably must choose which aspects of the Carol that they want to emphasize. Should the redemptive transformation of an old curmudgeon take center stage, or should the more explicitly religious idea of a hell-bound monster derailed from that destination by the intercessory power of a loving God be the point of emphasis? The cute little crippled and dying  boy or the deeply loving nature of his devoted father and the clearer but tougher vision of his mother? The evils and injustices of the world and the society portrayed in the book (and this is, as we shall see, a large part of the author's intent) or the power of a right-minded individual to rectify some of those evils and injustices?

Like all great stories, A Christmas Carol speaks to each of us in different ways. If you haven't read it of late and/or if you mainly know it or only know it through one or more of the films, it might not be a bad idea at all to give the original text another look. It's not long, it's available free online at multiple sites, and you might well be surprised how much of the original story hasn't made it into any of the movies - and how much of the tale is spot-on relevant today and how thoroughly its importance and its value transcend the Christmas season. It is a book for all seasons in its attempt to wrestle with the same issues of social justice and welfare that have raised their heads into elections around the world in the last year or two, and it emanates from the exact same time, place, and cultural context of its analogue in popular folk music, the great (post) Christmas carol "Good Kings Wenceslas."

And "Wenceslas" most emphatically is a folk song. Its lyrics, characterized as they are by the call to works of charity in the closing couplet, were the sole work of High Church Anglican priest and composer John Mason Neale (1818-1866), but the melody was delivered to Neale by his choirmaster and collaborator Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), who had found the tune (a spring carol called "Tempus adest floridum" or "The time of flowers has come") in an already-ancient book of anonymous medieval songs from Finland. Now, Neale and Helmore together left a powerful and deep mark on the music of Christmas that we know in English today, having composed and/or re-worked the best-known Advent carol in "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," two very popular Christmas songs in "Christ Was Born On Christmas Day" and "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," and the only St. Stephen's Day carol that most of us have ever heard, "Good King Wenceslas."

Neale and Helmore published a truly impressive number of hymnals and other collections of sacred songs over the years of their collaboration, but our case in point here relates to their 1853 Carols For Christmas-Tide in which "Wenceslas" debuted and which appeared exactly a decade after the Dickens classic. "Wenceslas" and A Christmas Carol reach the selfsame conclusion, albeit via very different plot lines. The transformation of Ebeneezer Scrooge is confirmed not by word or by attitude but by deed - Dickens remarks at the close of the tale that

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world...and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.

Wenceslas, already regarded as a saint by his people, acts with sympathy and compassion to alleviate the sufferings of a poor man in the depths of winter, giving Neale the opportunity to moralize an explicit lesson in a lyric that becomes a sermon:  

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, 
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

It is that "wealth or rank possessing" note by Neale that draws him closest in theme to Dickens. Charles D. was most certainly a liberal reformer in his day, having been born into a middle class family that had fallen on hard times resulting in several nightmare years in his childhood that saw him living in workhouses (an enforced servitude of the homeless and jobless poor, notorious for their exploitation and harsh treatment of their residents) and even debtor prisons with his father. These experiences clearly became the grist for the plot lines of some of Dickens's best-known and most successful novels - David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and of course A Christmas Carol among many others. Dickens came to regard both Adam Smith's promulgation of unregulated capitalism and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism as pernicious lies that ignored the realities of the lives and plights of his own childhood and of millions of others like him in the Industrial Revolution era of the United Kingdom.

Neale shared many of Dickens's convictions, but please. We are not talking here about bomb-throwing anarchists or even members of Britain's incipient Socialist movement. We are talking about a pair of Victorian gentlemen of the upper middle class, High Church Anglicans both, men whose response to the savage inequities of the 19th century capitalist economy would warm the cockles of even the flintiest of hearts of modern American conservatives. For Neale and Dickens both believed that poverty could be alleviated and economic injustices resolved by moral action from those of wealth and privilege, not in the patronizing manner of the French concept of noblesse oblige but rather in the high-minded understanding of the Christian imperative to care for those in need. Dickens's reformed Scrooge and Neale's Wenceslas are literary embodiments of that belief, deeply held by both writers.

It likely doesn't matter that the Wenceslas story is entirely apocryphal or that the actual man was a Duke of Bohemia with the familiar Czech name of Václav who was murdered by his own brother. What bothered some of Neale's 19th century critics was that he and Helmore had co-opted the melody of a perfectly serviceable religious song about God's glory reflected in Spring and turned it into what one Grinch-like writer referred to as "insipid sentimentality" and "Christmas doggerel." No matter; "Good King Wenceslas" is doing quite well, thank you, more than 160 years after it first appeared. However, in the interests of fairness and full disclosure, here is that "Tempus adest floridum" root song in all its pristine glory:

There is much to like here, and the sprightly, even optimistic rhythm and melody fit perfectly with the lyric's joyful evocation of the wonders of Spring:

Spring has now unwrapped the flowers, day is fast reviving, 
Life in all her growing powers towards the light is striving: 
Gone the iron touch of cold, winter time and frost time, 
Seedlings, working through the mould, now make up for lost time.

For a sense of how this may have sounded in the era of its 1582 publication, here is Ernst Stoltz playing an authentic Renaissance lute with an anachronistic but charming and unobtrusive modern guitar:

For a solid pop-folk rendition of "Wenceslas," we turn to the Kingston Trio:

This is the longest-running iteration of the group that will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, the configuration that has been touring together since 2005 and that features Bill Zorn doing the lead with the King's dialogue and George Grove and Rick Dougherty harmonizing beautifully with the page's lines. That kind of antiphony is characteristic of much medieval music, even if Grove's tastefully understated banjo line is not.

My good friend George, however, is not the only performer to see the possibility of an Americanization of this most English of carols via the inclusion of the banjo. Here is Dr. Josh Turknett, a neuroscientist and major proponent of clawhammer banjo music, with a delightful frailed version of the tune:

And if you were never quite sure what the difference was between the folk/clawhammer/frailing style of banjo playing and modern bluegrass banjo music, take a listen to Banjo Ben Clark with his instructional video in bluegrass rolls and fills - using this ancient carol as his model:

You can find scores more experimental versions of the song all over YouTube and other video sites, including reggae and blues and jazz and fiddle renditions. I love them all for their innovativeness and originality, just as I remarked above that I love the many cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol, however far they may stray from the author's initial intent. But "Good King Wenceslas" is in its own origins a stately English carol composed for Helmore's choir, so our last version today will be a recording of the great Robert Shaw Chamber Singers performing the traditional song as most of us first heard it:

Shaw's always tasteful arrangements and disciplined direction are here enhanced in this 1990s recording by baritone Victor Ledbetter singing the King's lines and mezzo-soprano Katherine Murray as the page.

The poor we have always with us, as Scripture reminds us, and both Charles Dickens and John Mason Neale use the Christmas season and its attendant joy to inspire people of good will everywhere to do what they could to meet the challenge of dealing with that sad fact. Their solution may not be mine and may not be yours, but it is an idea worthy of the earnest men who propounded it a century and a half ago. May we all feel blessed enough this Christmas season to share some of what we have with those who have less and bring the reformed miser and saintly king to life once again in our own world.


*The first eight songs in this series of holiday-related folk tunes include #1 - "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"; #2 - "All Through The Night/Ar Hyd Y Nos"; #3 - "When Was Jesus Born/The Last Month Of The Year"; #4 - "Gloucestershire Wassail Song"; #5 - "Sing We Here Noel"; #6 - "The Bitter Withy/Mary Mild"; #7 - "The Coventry Carol"; and #8 - "The Cherry Tree Carol." Other Christmas-themed articles on CompVid101 include "The White Snows Of Winter", "Children, Go Where I Send Thee", "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy", "Riu Riu Chiu/Guardo Del Lobo", and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".