The familiar and easy-to-sing Joy to the World enjoys its stature as the most published Christmas hymn in North American church history, and a favourite at Christmas celebrations. It’s simple, catchy but rhythmically dynamic melody perfectly frames its simple but potent lyrics.
But despite being one of the most recognizable and beloved Christmas hymns, no one seems to be able to nail down just exactly who composed the music, nor its precise journey to our modern day hymnals!
While hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), is the uncontested lyricist, his 1719 poetic translation of Psalm 98 forming the text, the melody appears to have enjoyed a bit of a relay race, passed, as it were, from one composer to another, each recognizing its spark of greatness and seeking its final form.
Hints of Handel’s Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates and Comfort Ye, from Messiah, adorned the apparently anonymous basic melody (whether coincidentally or quoted remains unknown), with tweaks here and there from other composers emerging around the same time as Lowell Mason’s 1836 version entitled “Antioch”, which he set to Watts’ lyrics. Mason’s version, which completed the opening descent to the lower tonic, and with its final minor tweaks in 1848, would complete the quest and essentially become what we know today as Joy to the World.
But the story doesn’t end there!
The opening phrase of Joy to the World is a fascinating illustration of how melody is formed.
Listen to these two audio samples and see if you can identify what makes them different:
If you thought the first example sounded like a descending scale, and the second one is Joy to the World, you’re right! The first example is simply a descending C major scale.
But did you notice that the second example, Joy to the World, is also a C major descending scale? Listen again, and see if you can hear the scale. The first one, while musical in the sense that all the notes of a major scale are consecutively present, is not a melody on its own. The second one becomes a melody, even though it is using all the same notes in the same order. This is what happens when rhythm takes on pitch! By varying the lengths of the descending notes a melody was formed!
Add to this the descending picture formed by the opening words, Joy to the world, the Lord is come, (the Son of God descended from heaven to earth), and a powerful bond between word, music and worship is forged! The longest note in the descent occurs on the dominant, begging the melody down to the tonic. Then, the sequential rise from the dominant back up to the tonic, which follows in the next phrase, transports the worshipper’s thoughts from earth back up to the heavenly King (Let earth receive her King), deepening the bond. The joy continues as the listener is drawn into subsequent scalar passages and sequences.
But could it be that an even more fundamental musical bond is happening? Could it be that the music sound wave, with its inherent major scale (minus the implied 4th degree, as we discovered last time) is a powerful magnet pulling us into Joy to the World?
Another mystery to ponder, even as I ponder the mystery of Christmas itself.