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Hark the history of holiday music

Vanessa Sheldon

Next time you hear the joyful tune “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” you may be surprised to know that neither the author of the words nor the composer of the music would be pleased.

The popular Christmas carol was written by Charles Wesley in 1789 as a solemn, religious hymn. A century later, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a strictly secular, lively cantata commemorating Johann Gutenberg, who invented the printing press.

It was only after both Wesley and Mendelssohn were dead that Dr. William Cummings adapted the music to fit the lyrics.

Vanessa Sheldon, a music instructor and harpist, will share this and other historical nuggets about popular and classical holiday music in her “Holiday Music” class offered through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute sponsored by UCR Extension at the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences, 39000 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, Thursdays beginning Oct. 27 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Osher members pay a fee of $40 per quarter, which entitles them to a $15 per class fee to attend college-level classes on a variety of subjects including history and the arts. Non members pay $30 per class. Classes also are conducted at the UCR Extension Center in Riverside and the Esplanade Arts Centerin the San JacintoValley.

While many Christmas carols like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” have different authors and composers, typically the two collaborate.  Other carols are adaptations of existing music with different lyrics or vice versa.

“A lot of the pieces we’ve come to love have surprisingly different origins,” Sheldon said.

She wants her students to learn to appreciate the music not only for its entertainment value but for the rich and fascinating history behind it.

Sheldon, who started playing the harp when she was 9, just released her second solo CD called “Gold2Ivory.”

“I’m excited about this one,” Sheldon said. “It’s a blend of classical, a little bit of jazz and one of my own compositions.”

For further information about the “Holiday Music” class and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute go to or call (951) 827-7139. To enroll, call (951) 827-4105 or (760) 834-0997.

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