Christmas Music Matters: Good King Wenceslas

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Now that we have both St. Stephen’s Days (Western: Dec 26 and Eastern Dec 27) with us, it’s time to turn to that wonderful carol, Good King Wenceslas!

As we know the carol is set on the Feast of St. Stephen, and the King’s Charity is manifested miraculously. We are bidden to imitate him in philanthropia: active love of our sisters and brothers.

We’ll get to the text in a minute. Both the melody and the poem have a fascinating history, fit for a big mug of egg nog!

John Mason Neale, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Belmore, wrote the lyrics in 1853. It is based on the mediaeval legends of the Duke St. Wenceslas (Václav) of Bohemia (907–935 or 929). There is some evidence that Neale translated an older text by Czech writer Václav Alois Svoboda.

Duke Wenceslas

Wenceslas was indeed a man to be emulated. His life and martyrdom formed one of the bases, on the Continent and in Britain, of the type of the rex justus, the just King. A 12th century preacher said of him:

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

Supportive of the poor, he was also even-handed to his Catholic and Orthodox subjects alike.

The Melody

The melody chosen for the Neale text was from a 13th Century Spring Carole first publish in Finland, “Tempus adest floridum” (The Time is here for Flowering). The lyrics of the original have nothing to do with the Wenceslas legend. Rather, they begin in a similar way to “Tempus adest floridum”of the Carmina Burana 1582, however, the Carmina text becomes much more earthy.

Neale’s “Good King Wenceslas” (1853) “Tempus adest floridum” (Piae Cantiones, PC 74) English translation of PC 74 by Percy Dearmer(1867–1936) “Tempus adest floridum” (Carmina Burana, CB 142) English translation of CB 142 by John Addington Symonds (1884)
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.
Tempus adest floridum, surgunt namque flores
Vernales in omnibus, imitantur mores
Hoc quod frigus laeserat, reparant calores
Cernimus hoc fieri, per multos labores.
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.
Tempus adest floridum, surgunt namque flores
vernales mox; in omnibus immutantur mores.
Hoc, quod frigus laeserat, reparant calores;
Cernimus hoc fieri per multos colores.
Now comes the time of flowers, and the blossoms appear;
now in all things comes the transformation of Spring.
What the cold harmed, the warmth repairs,
as we see by all these colors.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
Sunt prata plena floribus, iucunda aspectu
Ubi iuvat cernere, herbas cum delectu
Gramina et plantae hyeme quiescunt
Vernali in tempore virent et accrescunt.
Herb and plant that, winter long, slumbered at their leisure,
Now bestirring, green and strong, find in growth their pleasure;
All the world with beauty fills, gold the green enhancing,
Flowers make glee among the hills, set the meadows dancing
Stant prata plena floribus, in quibus nos ludamus!
Virgines cum clericis simul procedamus,
Per amorem Veneris ludum faciamus,
ceteris virginibus ut hoc referamus!
The fields in which we play are full of flowers.
Maidens and clerks, let us go out together,
let us play for the love of Venus,
that we may teach the other maidens.
“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither. ”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
Haec vobis pulchre monstrant Deum creatorem
Quem quoque nos credimus omnium factorem
O tempus ergo hilare, quo laetari libet
Renovato nam mundo, nos novari decet.
Through each wonder of fair days God Himself expresses;
Beauty follows all His ways, as the world He blesses:
So, as He renews the earth, Artist without rival,
In His grace of glad new birth we must seek revival.
«O dilecta domina, cur sic alienaris?
An nescis, o carissima, quod sic adamaris?
Si tu esses Helena, vellem esse Paris!
Tamen potest fieri noster amor talis.»
«O my chosen one, why dost thou shun me?
Dost thou not know, dearest, how much thou art loved?
If thou wert Helen, I would be Paris.
So great is our love that it can be so.»
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”
Terra ornatur floribus et multo decore
Nos honestis moribus et vero amore
Gaudeamus igitur tempore iucundo
Laudemusque Dominum pectoris ex fundo.
Earth puts on her dress of glee; flowers and grasses hide her;
We go forth in charity—brothers all beside her;
For, as man this glory sees in th’awakening season,
Reason learns the heart’s decrees, hearts are led by reason
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Here’s the original 13th Century Spring Carol. It’s actual mystical:

So then Neale and Belmore lifted the tune (“The tune has also been used for the Christmas hymn Mary Gently Laid Her Child, by Joseph S. Cook (1859—1933)) and “Good King Wenceslas” was born: “Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing,” a lesson very much needed today!

And I just couldn’t not present you with these handsome Irish Lads having a go at the morality tale! The Irish Rovers seem to be able to interject the energy of the Spring Carol back into the carol, while cavorting in a fashion those of us of Irish heritage know all too well:

Here’s a bit more meditative version:

Meditate on the lesson of the Good King, and go out and help a sister or brother this season!

Merry Christmas!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant



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