The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Good King Wenceslas

For St. Stephen's Day

Words: John Mason Neale (1818-1866); first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, 1853, by Neale and Thomas Helmore. Neale may have written the hymn some time earlier: he related the story on which it is based in Deeds of Faith (1849). See: The Legend of S. Wenceslaus - John Mason Neale. The historical Wenceslas was Duke Vaclav of Bohemia.

Music: "Tempus adest floridum" ("Spring has unwrapped her flowers"), a 13th Century spring carol; adaptation by Rev. Thomas Helmore from Piae Cantiones, 1582.

Source: Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols of John Mason Neale (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), from John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore, Carols for Christmas-tide (London: Novello, 1853), and their Carols for Christmas-tide: The Condensed Vocal Parts (London: Novello, 1854), pp. 37-40.

Compare: William Wordsworth, "Goody Blake and Harry Gill, A True Story," (1798)

1. Good King Wenceslas look'd out,
    On the Feast of Stephen;1
When the snow lay round about,
    Deep, and crisp, and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
    Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
    Gath'ring winter fuel.

2. "Hither page and stand by me,
    If thou know'st it, telling,2
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."

3. "Bring me flesh,3 and bring me wine,
    Bring me pine-logs hither:
Thou4 and I will see him dine,
    When we bear them thither."
Page and monarch forth they went,
    Forth they went together;
Through the rude5 wind's wild lament,
    And the bitter weather.

4. "Sire, the night is darker now,
    And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know now how,
    I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page;6
    Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
    Freeze thy blood less coldly."

5. 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.

Alternative last four lines by author.

[Wherefore, Christian people, know,
    Who my lay are hearing,
He who cheers another's woe
    Shall himself find cheering.]

Notes:

1. The Feast Day of St. Stephen, December 26. As such, of course, it is not truly a Christmas carol, but is one of several feasts which fall within the 12 Days of Christmas (Christmastide, Dec. 25 to Jan. 6). Return

2. Or: "Hither, page, and stand by me, if 'you know' it, telling, Return

3. Or: food Return

4. Or: You Return

5. Or: cold Return

6. My hardbound copy of the First Series by Bramley and Stainer (prior to 1871) gives: "my good page." Hutchins (1916) also gives "my good page," as does Ehret and Evans, The International Book of Christmas Carols (1963), and Clancy and Studwell, Best-Loved Christmas Carols (2000).

However, the Bramley and Stainer combination printing of the First and Second Series, circa 1871 (reproduced at CCEL), and my combination printing of First, Second and Third Series, subsequent to 1871, both give: "good my page." Dearmer, Williams and Shaw, The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) gives the same, as does Eric Routley, University Carol Book (1961), Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (1965), Willcocks & Rutter, 100 Carols For Choirs (1987), Keyte and Parrott, The New Oxford Book of Carols (1992), and Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (1999).

And the winner is: "good my page." The deciding factor, of course, is not a tally of the votes, but what Neale originally wrote. I have been unable to look at a copy of Carols for Christmas-tide. However, Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols of John Mason Neale purports to reproduce the contents of that work, and on p. 288, gives "good my page." See Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols of John Mason Neale (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), pp. 287-288, and Carols for Christmas-tide: The Condensed Vocal Parts (London: Novello, 1854), pp. 37-40. Both are available at Google Books. Return

The notes in Bramley and Stainer indicate that the chorus sings the first and fifth verses.  In the second verse, the first four lines are a tenor solo and the last four lines are a treble solo. In the third verse, the first four lines are a tenor solo and the last four lines are sung by the chorus. In the fourth verse, the first four lines are a treble solo and the last four lines are a tenor solo.

The tune Tempus Adest Floridum is also the musical setting for the carol Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.

Sheet Music from John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore, Carols for Christmas-tide: The Condensed Vocal Parts (London: Novello, 1854), pp. 37-40.

Page 37

Page 38

Page 39

Page 40

Sheet Music from Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871), Carol #10.

Good_King_Wenceslas_10a.gif (475738 bytes) Good_King_Wenceslas_10b.gif (403263 bytes)

Sheet Music from Rev. J. Freeman Young, ed., Carols for Christmas Tide (New York: Daniel Dana, Jr., 1859), #7

Sheet Music from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol #415

Good_King_Wenceslas_415.gif (271310 bytes)

Sheet Music from George Ratcliffe Woodward, The Cowley Carol Book, First Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1902, Revised and Expanded Edition 1929), Carol #10
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Sheet Music from George Ratcliffe Woodward, Piae Cantiones: A Collection of Church & School Song, chiefly Ancient Swedish, originally published in A.D. 1582 by Theodoric Petri of Hyland. (London: Chiswick Press for the Plainsong & Medieval Music Society, 1910).

Sheet music from George Ratcliffe Woodward, The Cowley Carol Book, First & Second Series. (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., ca. 1902, 1912), #10.

Sheet Music from Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, First Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913), Carol #13

Sheet Music from Richard R. Terry, Richard Runciman Terry, Two Hundred Folk Carols (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne Limited, 1933), Carol #160, pp. 2-3.

160a-Good_King.jpg (94355 bytes) 160b-Good_King.jpg (64211 bytes)

Rev. Terry notes:

A Spring Song of the 13th Century. (Tempus adest floridum.) Melody from Pić Cantiones, 1582. English words by Dr. J. M. Neale.”

Editor's Note:

A single copy of Pić Cantiones found its way into the hands of Rev. John Mason Neale and Rev. Thomas Helmore in 1853, and from this exceptionally rare volume an immense amount of music was saved from oblivion. For more information, see Pić Cantiones.

 

See A Garritan Community Christmas for an MP3:
Good King Wenceslas, Dan Estes

Editor's Note:

Instrumental sheet music to this and 12 other carols may be downloaded from Sally DeFord Music, http://www.defordmusic.com/carolsforpiano.htm (site accessed September 30, 2006). An MP3 of this arrangement is also available at that page.

Public Domain Recording:

Good King Wenceslas:
Venceslas' la Bona Reĝ'
in Esperanto! by Gene Keyes

An Additional 6 Christmas Carols by Gene at Jula Karolaro

Plus 148 Christmas Carols in Esperanto at Kristnaskaj Kantoj

Note From Rev. Neale.

In the notes to the first carol, "Here Is Joy For Every Age," Rev. Neale noted: "A translation, or free imitation, as are most (in this collection.)" In the Preface to the First Edition, Rev. Neale wrote that only Good King Wenceslas and Toll! Toll! are original.

Editor's Note: I am compelled to add that Neale took quite a lot of heat from the "Dons" of English hymnody for this and other carols which he wrote — as you will see below.  Indeed, the criticism of his "Good King Wenceslas" could light a good fire on a damp night.  Eric Routley, however, comes to Neale's defense:

Poor Neale! He wanted a carol for St. Stephen's day, and he had heard of the Bohemian legend of St. Wencelaus; so he writes what is to most ears a picturesque and agreeable narrative with a cosy moral that meant business in the nineteenth century. Myself, I am unable to see what is wrong with 'Good King Wenceslas' as a sociable carol. It lacks pious unction, and looking at the nineteenth-century productions that have it, we may be thankful for that; it is nothing like a hymn. But Neale knew what he was doing: had he meant to write a hymn he would have done so, and done it better than most of his contemporaries.

For all their criticisms, Neale's Christmas visions have stood the test of time, and do not seem to diminish. For more on the author, please see John Mason Neale. The above quotation is from Eric Routley, The English Carol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 193.

Other Notes:

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995)

Yes, there really was a ruler named Wenceslas. It was not a king, but instead a duke of Bohemia in the tenth century, and his name in Czech was actually Vaclav. On the other hand, the description of him as "good" is completely justified. He was noted for his piety and devotion to the strengthening of Christianity in Bohemia. In 929 his brother Boleslav, who cannot be characterized as good, assassinated Vaclav and succeeded him as duke. By the eleventh century Vaclav was honored as the patron saint of Bohemia, thus allowing Vaclav in a historical sense to have the last laugh on his power-hungry brother.

In the thirteenth century a delightful tune was created someplace in Europe, quite possibly in Scandinavia or another northern part of that continent. In the sixteenth century (1582), the sprightly melody was published in the carol collection Piae Cantiones, accompanied by a spring carol called "Tempus adest floridum" ("Spring Has Now Unwrapped the Flowers"). In the nineteenth century, Englishman John Mason Neale (1818-1866) discovered the tune and in 1853 affixed to it some lyrics based on the story of Wenceslas. By that time the historical Bohemian personage had acquired an entourage of legends. Among these legends was the one about the poor man and the page which Neale wove into a carol. But Neale's skill at weaving was rather faulty, for the lyrics of "Wenceslas" are, quite honestly, on the horrible side, and have even received negative epithets such as "doggerel." Two other carols conceived by Neale at about the same time, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (1851) and "Good Christian Men, Rejoice" (1853), were, fortunately, better blessed literarily.

The seven-centuries-old tune, in contrast, is a bit of a marvel of both longevity and musical content. Its flowing spirit belies our usually but largely mistaken impressions that all of the Middle Ages were dull, uncreative, and culturally confining. In addition to its attachment to the flower song, its compelling attractiveness has also caused its linkage with the 1919 carol, "Gentle Mary Laid Her Child." The twentieth-century lyric, by Canadian Joseph Simpson Cook (1859-1933), is artistically superior to "Wenceslas" and is directly about Christmas. But "Wenceslas," despite its poor lyrics and its purely tangential connections to the holiday, will probably persevere over all rivals partly because of tradition and partly because of the perverse appeal of its good-natured narrative about feasting and suffering in the winter weather and, most of all, kindness. Although the lyrics, in their strange way, contribute to the song's success, the bouncy and festive melody is what really makes the carol a perennial favorite. No matter what the words may be, or whether the title is "Good King Wenceslas" or "Pious Duke Vaclav," just about anything associated with the tune will probably emerge a winner.

Erik Routley, The English Carol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959)

Poor Neale! He wanted a carol for St. Stephen's day, [December 26] and he had heard of the Bohemian legend of St. Wenceslas; so he writes what is to most ears a picturesque and agreeable narrative with a cozy moral that meant business in the nineteenth century. Myself, I am unable to see what is wrong with "Good King Wenceslas" as a sociable carol. It lacks pious unction, and looking at the nineteenth-century productions that have it, we may be thankful for that...

Dearmer, Percy, et. al., eds., The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928)

This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol, ‘Tempus adest floridum’, No. 99. Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this ‘Good King Wenceslas’, one of his less happy pieces, which E. Duncan goes so far as to call ‘doggerel’, and Bullen condemns as ‘poor and commonplace to the last degree’. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting (‘Spring has now unwrapped the flowers’), not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time. Neale did the same kind of thing to another Spring carol, ‘In vernali tempore’ (No. 98; cf. No. 102); but this was not popularized by Bramley & Stainer.

[The paperback version of The Oxford Book of Carols, 1964, has a copy of the Flower Carol, no. 99 on page 212]

Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (London: Penguin, 1965)

Product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol (Piae Cantiones) Tempus adest floridum. (The time of flowers is at hand/For the flowers are spring up/In everything springlike/All things are expressing themselves./That which the cold had harmed/Is being restored by the head./Throughly much travail/We see this coming to pass.). Unfortunately Dr. Neale also felt the urge to express himself, though it is debatable whether the bizarre results would have become so well known in the present care, but for the doubtful service of their populations by Bramley and Stainer. The tune is in the quick-moving virile measure of the branle family of dance tunes that swept Europe, characterized by a stamp on the heavy minim beats - a typical hurdy-gurdy tune. [This type of dance is still popular in the Caribbean and Latin America; you can hear similar songs if you go to Cancun resorts or on a Dominican Republic vacation for Christmas.] A late medieval song of similar structure is printed in the New Oxford History of Music (vol. III, p. 357). The Tempus adest floridum tune should be sung in unison, at its approximate speed, not slower that half-note = 120, two strong beats to a bar, with clapping drum, and plucked instruments, and a drone for the realization of the travail Neale’s ponderous moral doggerel has imposed upon a light-hearted spring dance measure. If, treated as this carol should be treated, it sounds ridiculous to pseudo-religious words, this only shows how ridiculous they are in such a contest: ‘Ste-phen’, ‘cru-el’, etc., are bathos on the accented stamp-notes. In spirit, in feeling, as in fact, it is entirely pagan. Danced as ‘twist’, with modern rhythm accompaniment, this tune would be nearer to its authentic style (This is bound to disappoint the people who enjoy wallowing in cumbrous, harmonized settings and Master and Page solos.) The sooner this carol is restored to spring and its rightful treatment, the better.

Robert Joseph, The Christmas Book

Whether this carol is myth or history, there did exist a ‘King’ Wenceslas. He was Duke of Bohemia during the tenth century and worked tirelessly to Christianize his land. He was murdered in 929 by his brother Boleslav I, who succeeded to the throne. Wenceslas was later sainted, and legends of his good acts and miracles spread wide and far. He was said to have aided the poor on Christmas, and especially on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26). On that day, centuries later, this song was sung by all who went out to collect alms. The melody was once an old spring carol that appeared in a Swedish-German hymn collection made by Martin Luther, [sic] called "Diae Cantiones." [sic] An English clergyman, the Rev. John Mason Neale, eliminated the Latin verse and wrote a new lyric, basing it on one of the old Bohemian legends that surround the Good King to this day.

Keyte and Parrott, eds., The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Wenceslas is the German form of Vaclav. Vaclav the Good reigned in Bohemia from 922 to 929, later becoming the Czech patron saint. Neale’s carol is not based on any known incident in the saint’s life; it is probably no more than a pious illustration of the virtue of charity — St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day, 26 December) is a traditional day for giving to the poor. The tune is that of a spring song from Piae Cantiones (1582).

William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003)

Yes, Virginia, there was indeed a noble Wenceslas. He was not a king, however, but the Duke of Bohemia. He was a good and honest and strongly principled man -- as the song about him indicates -- too good, perhaps, because in 929 he was murdered by his envious and wicked younger brother. In 1853, John Mason Neale, an English divine, selected the martyr Wenceslas as the subject for a children’s song to exemplify generosity. It quickly became a Christmas favorite, even though its words clearly indicate that Wenceslas "look’d out" on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas. For a tune, Neale picked a spring carol, originally sung with the Latin text "Tempus adest floridum "or "Spring has unwrapped her flowers," which was first published in 1582 in a collection of Swedish church and school songs.

Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols

This carol was written by John M. Neale (1818-1866) to fit a tune, 'Tempus Adest Floridum', in the recently discovered 16th century Finnish carol book Piae Cantiones. This tune, the title of which translates as 'Spring has unwrapped her flowers' goes back to a 13th Century spring/Easter carol. The modern carol was first published in Carols for Christmas Tide, 1853, by John Neale and Thomas Helmore. The narrative may be confused and there may never have been a King Wenceslas, but there was an historic Bohemian Duke Vaclav (925-929), famed for his philanthropy. His father was Christian and mother pagan, and he was brought up by his Christian grandmother. Thought kind, even 'holy', by the people, he was murdered by his jealous pagan brother, Boleslav. Boleslav later repented, became a Christian and had Vaclav's remains enshrined in Prague.

Editor's Note:

Dr. Clare A. Simmons, Professor of English, The Ohio State University, prepared a delicious paper, “Visions of Christmas: Specific Pasts in Christmas Carols and their Illustrations,” which compared and contrasted "Good King Wenceslas" with William Wordsworth's lyrical poem "Goody Blake and Harry Gill, A True Story," (1798). Dr. Simmons paper was presented at the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth Century Studies Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, March 22-25, 2012. Dr. Simmons has additional plans for this paper, and for that reason I won't be posting a link at this time. However, at such point when she is comfortable, I hope that we can provide a link to her presentation.

Update: As of June, 2014, the links to papers at the Conference website has been removed.

Instrumental sheet music to this and 12 other carols may be downloaded from Sally DeFord Music, http://www.defordmusic.com/carolsforpiano.htm (site accessed September 30, 2006). An MP3 of this arrangement is also available at that page.

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