It has been far too long since I last posted. 2020 has been that sort of year. A number of posts have been on my mind, but no time to write. No time now either, but with the academic term over it is time for something different, even if only for the moment.
I have mentioned in passing (in another holiday post, actually) the philological principle of lectio difficilior potior—the idea that between two variant readings, the odder one is more likely to be original. All things being equal (and they never really are), a copyist is likelier to smooth off rather than sharpen a rough edge in a text. A reader is even more likely to do this. I have watched my children, while in the early stages of learning to read, guess the wrong word from the context. (Just yesterday it was my six-year-old misreading “And the bread on his chin was as white as the snow.” Not that that isn’t the odder reading...) Almost daily I become aware of something I’ve misread—and who can guess the number of things I misread but never become aware of? (Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” again....)
Surely in such cases, the misreading does little or no damage. I’m thinking of situations where our brains just fill in the details of what we know should be there. Here, for example:
|SOURCE: I've seen this optical illusion many times. I took this image from|
If you’ve seen it before, you know the trick of the redundant the. That is certainly the odder reading, and exactly the sort of thing that would get “fixed” in transmission. Indeed, it is useful to think of textual transmission as a big game of Telephone. And some texts go from being written to being spoken /performed (and thus heard or misheard) to being written again... those changes of medium only increase the likelihood of corrupting the text. The phenomenon interests me; indeed it has been a focus of my posts on a number of occasions. (For another holiday example, there’s this one.)
But this situation isn’t quite Telephone. We don’t just pass on a message and rid ourselves of it. The messages stay with us—in the version we received, anyway. And we further corrupt them. Or maybe we think of it in the way Bernard Woolley used to conjugate such irregularities on Yes, Minister:
As I type, I learn that this has been called emotive conjugation and seems to be the invention of Bertrand Russell. #props
I have attempted to justify such improvements before, although not denying that what I (and others) do is corrupting, no matter what motives we might have. And there are all sorts of motives, and maybe not enough of a paper trail to sort out what happened when.
I ran across such an example this week. This seems to be the original text (i.e., music and lyrics) of the American Christmas song “Up on the Housetop”—although that is neither the title nor (quite) its original first line:
|SOURCE: Chapel Gems for Sunday Schools / selected from "Our Song Birds" for 1866..., page scan from https://archive.org/details/chapelgemsforsun1866root/page/108/mode/2up |
It appeared in print before this in an October issue of “Our Song Birds,” but I have not located that source.
My suspicion is that the above was printed from a stereo of the original typesetting.
The song is by Benjamin Russell Hanby (1833-67). It is not a favorite of mine—neither text nor tune—but I will admit that crowdsourcing (after the manner of Telephone) wrought considerable improvement. Whether it was wearing off the rough edges or not, I’m not sure; but the melody (and consequently the harmony) as generally heard today is at least more interesting than the original. Look at the chorus as originally printed: it gets off on the wrong foot. Too much tonic stalls the musical progress, right at the moment where it needs to be anywhere else. (I also object to the third “click!” in b. 14, which lands us on the tonic too soon. Can’t he wait two bars?) And the melody throughout tends to repeat notes, where the version generally heard today is more interesting because of the neighbor and passing tones that liven things up. I wonder if Hanby had thought of the tune before the words, and then—facing more syllables than he had planned—just divided the 8ths into reiterated 16ths without rewriting the melody for the new rhythm.
But music like this is not music we learn from reading it off the page. We hear it sung to us and we pick it up via oral transmission. Or at least that is what happened to me. I learned it in elementary school music classes, and we certainly were not looking at musical notation, still less the original print. Like so many popular airs, the existence of “Up on the housetop” does not depend on a literate tradition. I had only heard three of these verses before—and even then with a slightly different text. I’m quite sure that I had never encountered the corporal punishment of the ratan switches for Lazy Jim, or the beneficence of Rover’s extra bone. But I remember that as I child I thought I was singing “Up on the housetop reindeer paws,” which would make perfect sense—if only reindeer had paws instead of hooves. It’s a good example of my little brain in search of an easier reading—which I now recognize as the game of textual Telephone we play unwittingly throughout our lives.
I have not had time to locate the earliest source (music or lyrics) to present the text more as we know them today. I wonder how long it took to plane off the rough edges? I see that the 1868 “expanded” edition of Chapel Gems for Sunday Schools drops this number altogether. Hanby was dead by that time. Even so, “gems” is wishful thinking for the contents of these volumes, but they make an interesting read today. I recommend perusing Hanby’s “Crowding awfully,” M. B. C. Slade’s “Was it right?” and the—astonishing—“Little Zulu Band” by “Paulina” (i.e., Sophia Taylor Griswold, who was apparently also responsible for some of the stanzas of “Up on the Housetop”).
I won’t dwell on it here, but for another good example of crowdsourcing eroding the rough edges to positive effect look at the original (1857) version of “Jingle Bells,” or—as titled originally—The One-Horse Open Sleigh. The verse melody is more-or-less as it is known today, but James Pierpont’s part-song chorus exists without the familiar tune we sing now:
|SOURCE: scan of first edition (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1857) from ISMLP #166827, p. 3 (detail)|
What got me thinking about this topic was the Advent hymn “Lo! he comes with clouds descending.” Hymns—both the lyrics and the tunes associated with them—have suffered all sorts of indignities, subject to the whims of editors of hymnals, whose qualifications vary considerably, and who are ultimately dependent on the quality of source material they have in front of them—which may be nothing more than prior badly-edited hymnals. Thus it is not unusual to find all sorts of variants in hymnals—some prompted by doctrinal concerns, some musical, some practical. (“We don’t have room for a fifth stanza on this page.”)
Songs of Praise Discussed—a commentary volume on the 1925 hymnal Songs of Praise—remarks: “Few hymns are more universal in Anglo-Saxon use than this.” Well, times change. It goes on: “... Yet no hymn has been more altered and none so intolerable in its original form.” [p. 42] You had me at ‘intolerable’. The lyric is remarkable, even in the version most (I think) printed today—a sublime and terrifying eschatological text by Charles Wesley. Here is Wesley’s second stanza:
Every eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shall the true Messiah see.
Modern parishioners who go to church expecting Advent to be a prelude to Christmas are at this point doubtless wondering what happened to “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.” Wesley was actually reworking ( = improving/modifying/corrupting) a lyric by the Moravian/Methodist evangelist John Cennick, whose original was even more strident. Wesley was so impressed with Cennick’s verses that he retained the same peculiar metrical structure and rhyme scheme, but Cennick’s pacing is different—so that in his second stanza the punch is delayed until the very last syllable:
Now his merits by the harpers,
Thro’ the eternal deeps resounds!
Now resplendent shine his nail-prints,
Every eye shall see his wounds!
They who pierced him,
Shall at his appearing wail.
Cennick’s first stanza had memorably concluded “Welcome, welcome, bleeding Lamb!” This was, remember, the “intolerable” original mentioned in Songs of Praise Discussed: “We can see from this why 19th-century intelligence revolted against 18th-century religion, and why we have not yet recovered from the resulting agnosticism” [p. 42].
Throughout, Wesley’s text treats the same ideas that Cennick had traversed, although with perhaps more awe than fear. As the game of hymnological Telephone proceeded, hymnals opted for one or the other or even a patchwork version combining bits of Cennick and Wesley—or, more latterly, toning it down however possible. (Even in Songs of Praise, Wesley's “With what rapture / Gaze we on those glorious scars” has become “Praise we him for all his scars.” As J. R. Watson remarks, “Modern rewritings err on the side of control, and take the stuffing out of the hymn” [p. 199].)
This text—whatever it is—has been associated with a number of hymn-tunes, but one of the earliest tunes persists with it even now. Even so, the rough edges have been worn down with use—as is clear when examining the variants in these early prints. Although it has two different tune-names here (OLIVERS’ and HELMSLEY—the latter name has stuck), it is clearly the same tune.
|SOURCE: (l.) composite of scans of pp. 104 and 105 of the tune portion (Sacred Melodys) of Charles Wesley’s Select Hymns with Tunes Annext (3rd ed., 1770; the tune appeared already in the second edition of 1765), from https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/s/Wesley-1770-SelectHymnswithTunesAnnext-3rdEd.pdf; (r.) Scan of p. 16 of Martin Madan’s A Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes Never Published Before (1769), from https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/s/Madan-CollectionofHymns-1769-6thEd.pdf.|
This tune shows up in American usage pretty early (here is an example from 1849), all the while with the edges still being worn down. Indeed it is interesting to compare the array of appearances of this tune in the holdings of Hymnary.org. From these I observe a moment of standardization--as if in the game of Telephone someone shouted aloud what they wanted everyone to hear, thus affecting all subsequent transmission. That was The English Hymnal (1906), where Ralph Vaughan Williams penned a harmonization that increasingly has become a default for the tune.
I was astonished, though, to see that he didn’t leave it alone after that. When the expanded version of Songs of Praise appeared in 1931, RVW produced a fourth-verse descant overtop the existing harmonization. It’s a much busier descant than the norm, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it sung:
|SOURCE: Songs of Praise: Enlarged Edition (1931), detail of pp. 68–69|
This extra bit seems to have languished in obscurity within the covers of that book. Maybe once the rough places had been worn smooth, no one has had the appetite for making it crooked again.