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The Last Word - January 2020

Adeste Fideles

What would the Christmas be without the music that fills the air and enhances every gathering and celebration of the season? When anyone asks what my favorite Christmas carol is, I immediately respond: Adeste Fideles.  My heart never fails to stir as the first bars of this majestic hymn begin to play.

From where did this triumphant hymn come?  Who wrote it and under what circumstances was it written?   The answers to these questions have eluded musicologists for ages.  It seems just about everyone has a theory of its origin – it’s claimed by the English, the French, the Germans, the Spanish, and the Portuguese.  The list of possible authors is even longer and includes St. Bonaventure, King John IV of Portugal, John Reading, Marcus Fonseca, George Frideric Handel, Cistercian monks, and Irish Dominican nuns!

Present musical scholarship attributes this hymn to a Catholic Englishman named John Francis Wade (1711-1786).  While very little is known of Wade, we do know that he lived in a turbulent time for English Catholics.  A Jacobite sympathizer (a supporter of the last Catholic English King, James II and his descendants, then in exile), he was himself forced to flee England due to Catholic-Protestant tensions.  He made his way to Douay, France, which had become a haven for exiled English Catholics.  There he made a living as a music copyist as well as a teacher of both Latin and music.  The earliest known manuscript of Adeste Fideles was written in his hand and dated 1743.  The first published record dates to 1751.

Interestingly, the hymn was not originally known by the title we use today.  Instead, it was known as “The Portuguese Hymn.”  This developed for two reasons.  First, an early manuscript by John Francis Wade was made expressly for the English College in Lisbon, Portugal, a seminary for exiled English Catholics studying for the priesthood.  Secondly, and more importantly, the hymn was heard in London by the Duke of Leeds while attending a Mass at the Portuguese Embassy (embassy chapels were one of the very few places where the Catholic Mass could be celebrated legally during much of the eighteenth century).  He was so taken by the song that he had it included in a concert that he sponsored in 1797.  That gave the Christmas carol greater exposure than it had ever had up to that point.  Suddenly, it became a phenomenon!  A missionary priest in Scotland wrote: “Apprentice boys whistled it in every street, and it was even said that the blackbirds in the square joined in the chorus!”  Let’s keep that image in mind the next time we hear this great hymn of Christmas!

Did you know:  The hymns Away in a Manager, How Firm a Foundation, and Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise can all be sung to the tune Adeste Fideles!  Try it!

By: Father Scott Mower, pastor of the Parish of the Ascension of the Lord, Kittery.