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Angels We Have Heard On High

EAngels we have heard on high,
Singing sweetly o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply,
Echoing their joyous strains

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Introduction

Apparently, the French people love to sing at Christmas, as this will be the third hymn (if my calculations are correct) originating from that country. You can find numerous Chants de Noël (Christmas Carols) from France in most English-language hymnals. Among them is the well-known Angels We Have Heard On High, with its notoriously lung-taxing refrain.

I cannot count the number of times my sisters and I would belt out this lovely hymn, straining our voices and gasping for breath at the end of the chorus. We created harmonies, changed the tune, switched the style from classical to country to pop to opera, and more. Our high school choir sang an arrangement of the song at one point, and our director told us to act like “500 pounds monks” as we sang.

Enough said, let’s get to the actual discussion of this jubilant Christmas carol!

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Shepherds why this jubilee
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

History of the Hymn

Angels We Have  Heard On High is a traditional French hymn bearing the title “Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes.”

Although some early descriptions state that the original carol was an “old noel from Lorraine,” many contend that it actually dates from either the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. As regards its first printed apearance, some beleive that it was published in North America in Nouveau recueil de cantiques (New Hymnal) for the Diocese of Quebec in 1819. Others point to Abbe Lambillottee’s Choix de cantigues sur des airs nouveaux in 1842, and interviews with elderly French-Canadian singers for a 1907 book by Ernest Myrand found that, while none remembered the carol from their childhood, they did remember it becoming popular in the 1840s.

The carol first entered into Methodist hymnals in 1935 in an anonymous version from the play, The Nativity. The beginning  phrase read, “Hearken all! what holy singing now is sounding from the sky!” The melody is the same as it is today, but the harmonization was modified in the 1966 Methodist Hymnal by the well-known anthem composer Austin C. Lovelace (1919-2010). The 1966 Methodist Hymnal also changed the text to “Angels we have heard on high” because of the popularity of the text used in anthems at the time.

English Translation

The English translation by James Chadwick (1813-1882), Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, was taken from Crown of Jesus (1862), subtitled, “a complete Catholic manual of devotion, doctrine, and instruction.” The carol was found in the section headed “The Twelve Mysteries of the Sacred Infancy” with the title “Christmas Hymn,” and was reduced to four stanzas in English from the eight French ones. Angels We Have Heard On High was first published alongside the English tune in The Holy Family Hymns in 1860. The song became popular in the West Country, with R.R. Chope describing it as “Cornish” and the carol appearing in Pickard-Cambridge”s Collection of Dorset Carols.

The original text changed in the 1966 Methodist Hymnal, and The United Methodist Hymnal in 1989 reprinted that version with one exception: stanza three changes “him” to “Christ” for inclusive language reasons.

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Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the new-born King!

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Musicality of the Hymn

Angels We Have Heard On High possesses a beautiful musical accompaniment. The original tune, with harmonies composed anonymously, which you can find in the 1935 Methodist Hymnal, underwent adjustments when Austin C. Lovelace harmonized the French carol in 1964.

Macaronic Carol

Technically, the song is a macaronic carol because the lyrics are in two different languages: the local vernacular (originally French, translated into English) and Latin. The carol uses the effect of a refrain and is one of the few texts that congregations still sing regularly in Latin: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” The phrase means: “Glory to God in the highest.” Several versions of the text can be found, but they all stem from the same source and are inspired by Luke 2:6-20.

The pairing of the Latin with the local language makes for a delightful merging of the present with the past. Christians of today join Christians of yesterday in commemorating, worshipping, and dialoguing about the Incarnation of Emmanuel.

Lyrics and Song Pattern

Similarly, the structure of the lyrics and the song pattern involves the carolers in a beautiful conversation. The original hymn contained eight stanzas arranged in a dialogue form alternating between the shepherds (Bergers) in stanzas one, three, and six, and the women (Femmes de Bethlehem) in stanzas two, four, and seven. The two groups join together in resounding harmony in stanzas five and eight.

Notably, it is unusual for congregations to sing a long ‘melisma’–many notes strung together on one syllable–and enjoy it. The melisma in Angels We Have Heard On High is an exception to the rule, as it adds a joyful, celebratory feel to the refrain and lifts the entire carol.

Some recommendations for you to listen to include Angels We Have Heard On High by Lindsey Sterling, Josh Groban, Piano Guys, and BYU Noteworthy.

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See him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Theology of the Hymn

In Luke 2:14, we find the canticle of the angel’s song, one of the most famous and frequently sung of the Christmas canticles. The refrain of Angels We Have Heard On High draws directly from this verse.

Angels We Have Heard On High is a song of invitation for all mankind to join with the heavenly hosts and all creation in celebrating Christ’s birth. Reflecting a common theme found throughout the history of Christian hymnody, a cosmic chorus resounds in the first stanza. The chorus begins in heaven with the angels, and the lyrics work to bring a festive spirit to the song. The “mountains in reply” echo back in response—antiphonally, symbolizing the participation of earth, reminding one of Psalm 8 and 19.

But then, in the second stanza, asks why there is a celebration. In the third stanza, an invitation to is given to join the celebration, answering the questions of the previous stanza by revealing Christ in the manger. The fourth stanza concludes the carol with the observation of Christ’s birth and the joyful response of the Christian.

The French Tradition of ‘crèche’

Angels We Have Heard On High is a perfect song to accompany the French tradition of the crèche (nativity scene). A few days before Christmas, the family sets up a nativity scene on a little platform in a corner of the living room. Some families might also decorate a Christmas tree with colorful stars, lights, and tinsel, but the crèche is more important.

You will often find handmade nativity scenes in town squares and elaborate ones in the churches. The little clay figures, traditionally made in the south of France, are called “santons” (“little saints”). Fine craftsmanship characterizes the production of these figures; they are a source of local pride for the communities. Interestingly, “crèche” is also the French term for a nursery for young children during the day.

This tradition is particularly strong in Provence, the south of France, with a crèche that includes the Holy Family, the Magi, the shepherds, and the animals, along with additional local figures, such as the mayor, the little drummer boy, or a peasant dressed in traditional attire. In some villages, people dress as the shepherds and join in a procession to the church.

Children often contribute to domestic crèches by bringing small stones, moss, and evergreen branches to complete the scene. When the candles are lit, the crèche becomes the centerpiece of the Christmas celebration. The children gather around it to sing carols, of which Angels We Have Heard On High is one, every night until Epiphany on January 6.

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Concluding Thoughts

I love this carol primarily because of its insistence that we both respect the sacredness and solemnity of the wondrous miracle of the Incarnation, but its simultaneous invocation for the whole world to rejoice at the fulfilling of God’s promises.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Original French Carol, ‘Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes

Les Anges dans nos campagnes,
Ont entonné l’hymne des cieux ;
Et l’écho de nos montagnes
Redit ce chant mélodieux :
Gloria in excelsis Deo (bis)

Bergers, pour qui cette fête ?
Quel est l’objet de tous ces chants ?
Quel vainqueur ? quelle conquête ?
Mérite ces cris triomphants :
Gloria in excelsis Deo (bis)

Ils annoncent la naissance
Du Libérateur d’Israël ;
Et pleins de reconnaissance,
Chantent, en ce jour solennel :
Gloria in excelsis Deo (bis)

Cherchons tous l’heureux village
Qui l’a vu naître sous ses toits ;
Offrons-lui le tendre hommage,
Et de nos cœurs et de nos voix :
Gloria in excelsis Deo (bis)

Dans l’humilité profonde
Où vous paraissez à nos yeux ;
Pour vous louer, roi du monde,
Nous redirons ce chant joyeux :
Gloria in excelsis Deo (bis)

Toujours remplis du mystère
Qu’opère aujourd’hui votre amour,
Notre devoir sur la terre
Sera de chanter, chaque jour :
Gloria in excelsis Deo (bis)

Déjà les bienheureux Anges,
Les Chérubins, les Séraphins ;
Occupés de vos louanges,
Ont appris à dire aux humains :
Gloria in excelsis Deo (bis)

Dociles à leur exemple,
Seigneur, nous viendrons désormais
Au milieu de votre temple,
Chanter avec eux vos bienfaits.
Gloria in excelsis Deo (bis)

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