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December 1: Good King Wenceslas December 1, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Music, Teaching.
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“Good King Wenceslas”? What sort of carol is that?

It’s an odd carol, to be sure. It’s not even a Christmas carol, strictly speaking; the song refers to “on the Feast of Stephen”, in other words December 26 or Boxing Day. The words were written to celebrate Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (the title of “king” was conferred upon him only after his death) and patron saint of the Czech Republic, famous for his generosity towards the poor. (Wenceslaus’ own feast day is the 28th of December). The lyrics make no reference to Christmas per se, other than the general idea of giving to those less fortunate during a festive season. And the tune was not even written for the Wenceslaus carol, but was taken from a much older Latin springtime secular carol (“Tempus adest floridum”)!

So why pick such an odd, obscure carol to kick off the festive season, you may ask?

Good King Wenceslas was the first carol I ever learned to play on the piano, over 20 years ago. I had just started lessons a few weeks before, as far as I can recall (though my sense of time in childhood memories is rather fuzzy). It was a simple arrangement of the tune, divided between the hands, and for me it sticks out because it was the first piece I ever played to use a black note, a B-flat. I played it at the Christmas masterclass…my first piano performance ever.

I played it again today for a young beginner student, the same age I had been when I started piano and with the same mix of intelligence, intense curiosity and quick flares of frustration. I had written out the first two lines of “Jingle Bells” for him to try and – though the music was easier than other songs he’d learned – he seemed ready to give up without trying after only hearing me play it. “How can you do it so fast?” he demanded. “I’ll never be able to play it.”

“How long do you think I’ve been playing?” I asked him. “Seven years?” he guessed. I grinned and told him to guess again. “Twenty-four” was his next guess. “That’s pretty well right,” I told him. “Now, do you think I sounded like this at your age? At your age I was just starting piano and I couldn’t play very fast at all. I probably played slower than you do! Now, this was the first carol that I learned.”

I played the first two lines of “Good King Wenceslas” extremely slowly and hesitatingly. His face started to brighten. “And,” I told him, “if I tried to play Jingle Bells, I would probably have sounded like this!” Again I parodied my own unsure beginner playing (and believe me, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I had been as unsure and slow as any beginner student). That did the trick. Suddenly he was grinning and ready to try again.

In the song “Good King Wenceslas” the page, who feels he can “go no longer” though the cold wind and bitter night, treads in his master’s footsteps, which are miraculously warmed by his holy power as a saint. I often find much the same happens in learning a discipline such as music, but with a difference. Often it will only discourage a pupil if a teacher appears to be superhuman, if their own mastery of the instrument came without effort, intuitively…miraculously. And such a teacher often finds teaching difficult or even impossible; how can one sympathize with a struggling student when one never had to struggle? Often, counter to what we might expect, it’s our own fallibility, humanness rather than superhuman mastery, that gives the student a chance to breathe – and to learn.

This is a recording of “Good King Wenceslas” done by the Irish Rovers…a wonderful mix of traditional and world music. Enjoy!

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.

“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.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Thro’ the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

“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.”

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.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

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