tl;dr: the right version is the longer version.
I have long wondered why in every hymn-tune setting of Joy To The World, the second phrase feels like it’s missing a measure. Here is an example from the 1917 Presbyterian Hymnal
Note the phrase lengths: 4-3-4-4-4.
And yet, most recorded versions I sampled have a full 4-bar second phrase, adding an extra measure on “king.” (the only exception I found was Faith Hill, and even she did it inconsistently, with the shorter version only on verses sung by her backing choir.)
“Joy To The World” (tune name “Antioch”) was composed by Lowell Mason, in 1839. Because he based the melody on portions of Handel’s “Messiah” it is often marked “arranged from Handel” or “based on Handel” but it’s apparently Mason’s tune. Born in 1792, Mason is a towering figure in American music, responsible for some of the first collections of tunes into books and in the 1830’s led the charge to include music as part of public school education. His primary motivation seems to have been to get better music into people’s hands, and his compositions seem to be in service to that goal. Quality, singable music.
Mason composed more than 1600 hymns, his best known being “Joy To The World” and “Nearer, My God, To Thee.”
So the question is, what does Mason’s own publication say on the matter? Thankfully, Mason’s own books have been digitized and are available online. Here is the page from The National Psalmist
(Note his placing of the melody in an inner line, though it was to be sung by the treble voices in a choir.)
The rhythmic values are doubled in this original edition (later hymn writers probably halved them for readability or to fit on a single hymnal page). But he clearly intends the second phrase to be 4-measures long, with a longer “king” held for 3 beats. The smoking gun.
Note the fermata over “king.” I believe that for ease of reading, the hymn writers skipped the tie and added a fermata. Other editions missed the fermata, and voila – a missing measure.
In the end, it’s my opinion that the shorter version, as in the hymn from the first graphic above, is an error. Sing and play it with regular four-bar phrases – not only does it make more musical sense, but it also happens to reflect the composer’s intent!
I reviewed as many choral arrangements as I could online, and it seems most arrangers have settled on the same interpretation. It’s just the hymnal settings that get it consistently mistaken. Unfortunately, many choirs are caroling with hymnals, propagating the error. And the best known choral Christmas recording, “Christmas with the Robert Shaw Chorale,” attempted to be true to what is familiar, making the wrong version much better known. With access to the original editions now readily available online, we now have much more accurate information than Shaw had.
If you are interested in more about Mason, enjoy this biographical sketch taken from the 1929 collection Lowell Mason’s Hymns.