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"Good King Wenceslas" is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a king braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the day after Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935).
In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the "Wenceslas" lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, 1853. Neale's lyrics were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol "Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near for flowering") first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones.
Wenceslas was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death in the 10th century, when a cult of Wenceslas grew up in Bohemia and in England. Within a few decades of Wenceslas's death, four biographies of him were in circulation. These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the rex justus, or "righteous king"—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.
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.
Although Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title" and that is why, in the legend and song, he is referred to as a "king". The usual English spelling of Duke Wenceslas's name, Wenceslaus, is occasionally encountered in later textual variants of the carol, although it was not used by Neale in his version. Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.
The tune is that of "Tempus adest floridum" ("It is time for flowering"), a 13th-century spring carol in 76 76 Doubled Trochaic metre first published in the Finnish song book Piae Cantiones in 1582. Piae Cantiones is a collection of seventy-four songs compiled by Jaakko Suomalainen, the Protestant headmaster of Turku Cathedral School, and published by Theodoric Petri, a young Catholic printer. The book is a unique document of European songs intended not only for use in church, but also schools, thus making the collection a unique record of the late medieval period.
A text beginning substantially the same as the 1582 "Piae" version is also found in the German manuscript collection Carmina Burana as CB 142, where it is substantially more carnal; CB 142 has clerics and virgins playing the "game of Venus" (goddess of love) in the meadows, while in the Piae version they are praising the Lord from the bottom of their hearts.
The text of Neale's carol bears no relationship to the words of "Tempus Adest Floridum". In or around 1853, G. J. R. Gordon, Queen Victoria's envoy and minister in Stockholm, gave a rare copy of the 1582 edition of Piae Cantiones to Neale, who was Warden of Sackville College, East Grinstead, Sussex and to the Reverend Thomas Helmore (Vice-Principal of St. Mark's College, Chelsea). The book was entirely unknown in England at that time. Neale translated some of the carols and hymns, and in 1853, he and Helmore published twelve carols in Carols for Christmas-tide (with music from Piae Cantiones). In 1854, they published a dozen more in Carols for Easter-tide and it was in these collections that Neale's original hymn was first published.
John Mason Neale published the carol "Good King Wenceslas" in 1853, although he may have written his carol some time earlier, since he carried on the legend of St. Wenceslas (the basis of this story) in his Deeds of Faith (1849). Neale was known for his devotion to High Church traditions. According to older Czech sources, Neale's lyrics are a translation of a poem by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda, written in Czech, German and Latin.
The hymn's lyrics take the form of five eight-line stanzas in four-stress lines. Each stanza has an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme. Lines 1, 3, 5, and 7 end in single-syllable (so-called masculine) rhymes, and lines 2, 4, 6, and 8 with two-syllable ("feminine") rhymes. (In the English tradition, two-syllable rhymes are generally associated with light or comic verse, which may be part of the reason some critics have demeaned Neale's lyrics as "doggerel".) In the music the two-syllable rhymes in lines 2, 4, and 6 (e.g. "Stephen/even", "cruel/fuel") are set to two half-notes (British "minims"), but the final rhyme of each stanza (line 8) is spread over two full measures, the first syllable as two half-notes and the second as a whole note—so "/fuel" is set as "fu-" with two half-notes and "-el" with a whole-note. Thus, unusually, the final musical line differs from all the others in having not two but three measures of 4/4 time.
Neale's words are now in the public domain.* MIDI recording of the melody "Tempus Adest Floridum".
A paraphrase in today's English might be useful to readers unfamiliar with earlier forms of the language. 'On the night of St Stephen's feast-day (26 Dec.) Good King Wenceslas looked out; snow lay all around, deep, and crisp, and level. The moon shone brightly though it was bitterly freezing when a poor man came into view, gathering firewood. "Come here, page, and stand next to me; tell me, if you know, who is that peasant over there? Where does he live and what is his dwelling?" "Sire, he lives at least a league [a variable measure of distance between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 miles (4–7 1/2 km)] from here at the foot of the mountain next to the fence at the edge of the forest, by St Agnes's Fountain [presumably a local landmark]." "Bring me meat and bring me wine; bring me pine logs here; you and I will see him eat when we carry them there." The page and the king set out forth together through the loud crying of the wind and the bitter weather. "Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind is growing stronger. I don't know why but my heart is weak; I can't go any farther." "Take note of my footprints (in the snow), my good page, and step in them bravely. You'll find that the winter cold won't chill you as much." He stepped in his master's footprints in the snow. The ground felt warm in the saint's footprints. So, Christian folk, you can be sure, if you have wealth or power and do good for the poor, you yourselves shall be blessed.'
Academics tend to be critical of Neale's textual substitution. H. J. L. J. Massé wrote in 1921:
Why, for instance, do we tolerate such impositions as "Good King Wenceslas?" The original was and is an Easter Hymn...it is marked in carol books as "traditional", a delightful word which often conceals ignorance. There is nothing traditional in it as a carol.
This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol...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...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.
Elizabeth Poston, in the Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, referred to it as the "product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol". She goes on to detail how Neale's "ponderous moral doggerel" does not fit the light-hearted dance measure of the original tune, and that if performed in the correct manner "sounds ridiculous to pseudo-religious words;" a similar problem has arisen with the song O Christmas Tree, whose tune has been used for Maryland, My Maryland, The Red Flag, and other non-related songs.
|Neale's "Good King Wenceslas" (1853)||"Tempus adest floridum" (Piae Cantiones, PC 74)||"Tempus adest floridum" (Carmina Burana, CB 142)||English translation of PC 74 by Percy Dearmer (1867–1936)||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.
|Tempus adest floridum, surgunt namque flores|
vernales mox; in omnibus immutantur mores.
Hoc, quod frigus laeserat, reparant calores;
Cernimus hoc fieri per multos colores.
|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.
|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.
|Stant prata plena floribus, in quibus nos ludamus!|
Virgines cum clericis simul procedamus,
Per amorem Veneris ludum faciamus,
ceteris virginibus ut hoc referamus!
|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
|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.
|«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.»
|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 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.
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