AMONG TCW’s well-informed, thoughtful and witty readers are some in America. Take a bow, Audre Myers, and the rest of you. I have chosen today’s carol in your honour as it is much better known across the Atlantic than in Britain, yet it has its roots in England.
The words of Joy to the World were written by an English clergyman, Isaac Watts, and published in 1719. Unusually for a carol, it is based not on the New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus, but on a psalm, No 98, which is more about Christ’s second coming than the first.
Watts was an extraordinary man. He was born in Southampton in 1674 while his father was in prison for his nonconformist sympathies, in other words his refusal to embrace the established Church of England. (His father was released and went on to have seven more children.) Isaac was learning Latin by the age of four, Greek at nine, French (which he took up to converse with his refugee neighbours) at 11, and Hebrew at 13. Several wealthy townspeople offered to pay for his university education at Oxford or Cambridge, but these institutions would not admit nonconformists and Isaac refused to give up his beliefs. Instead he went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington (now part of north London) in 1690.
After graduating, Watts took work as a private tutor and lived with the nonconformist Hartopp family in Stoke Newington. Through them, he became acquainted with their immediate neighbours Sir Thomas Abney and his wife Mary. At their request he moved in with them and stayed with the household for the rest of his life, another 36 years. By the time of his death in 1748, at the age of 74, he had written 750 hymns, many based on the Psalms, and as a result is recognised as the ‘Father of English Hymnody’. His other works include Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and Our God Our Help in Ages Past (changed by John Wesley to O God Our Help in Ages Past).
It was the Founding Father Benjamin Franklin who first published Watts’s hymns in America in 1729, and they soon became popular. But it was more than a hundred years before Joy to the World was set to the melody which is usually sung today. This tune is often credited to Handel, but it is more of a pastiche of Handel phrases put together by an American musician, Lowell Mason, the composer of more than 1,600 hymn tunes. He published his arrangement of Handel’s melodic fragments in Occasional Psalms and Hymn Tunes (1836) and named the tune Antioch.
Joy to the World has been recorded by so many artists that it would probably be easier to list those who haven’t. Among the star names are Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey.
Here it is in an arrangement by the English composer John Rutter performed at the First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. A true transatlantic partnership.