12 Days of Christmas Carols- Angels We Have Heard on High

341px-Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds_miniatureNow we’re to the song that those herald angels actually sung.  Well, ok, they may not have actually “sung” in Luke 2, but they might as well have.  “Angels We Have Heard on High,” while in Latin, contains the correct words of “Glory to God in the highest.”   Though it existed earlier in France (no one seems to be quite sure when it was written), it made its way into English hymnody through the 1862 translation by James Chadwick.  What’s interesting about this is that it is a Roman Catholic origin.  Chadwick was an Irish immigrant to England who became Bishop of Newcastle.  He took a popular French carol, changing it a little (a stanza seems to have been left out, but I’m not sure when or how that occurred), and made it into the song we love today.  The tune, however, is Protestant, making this song a truly ecumenical creation.  Edward S. Barnes was an organist who made his way from fancy Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in New York and Philadelphia to finally settling at 1st Pres. in Santa Monica, CA.  He put “Angels” to the famous tune “Gloria” in 1937, giving us that great chorus.

A few words about that chorus.  First, I can almost never make it through a whole “gloria” without taking a breath.  I’ve tried to fix this by breathing after the initial “Glo” and before all the o-o-o-o-O’s, but I’m still not very good at it.  It might just be a matter of lung power and vocal strength.  Perhaps some of you readers can help me out.  Whatever the solution, this is definitely a carol that is aided by musical accompaniment.  Invariably folks try this one with the little kids, on the spur of the moment, and it usually doesn’t work out so well.  It’s fun and endearing, but a little hard on the ears.  Best to get some strong singers and a piano going as well.

Secondly, there’s bound to be some squabbling over the pronunciation of “in excelsis.”  I grew up singing it with an “s” sound, as in excel-sis, which I think is in keeping, more or less, with classical Latin.  Ecclesiastical Latin would have it as a “ch” sound, in-ex-chelsis.  With this being a relatively late Catholic hymn, the Ecclesiastical is almost certainly correct, but as we’ve seen with so many other hymns, things get changed all the time.  So just have fun with it.

And finally, it probably is a good idea to tell folks what the chorus means from time to time.  It’s simply “Glory to God in the highest,” and most of them already know it, but still, some folks go their whole lives without ever asking.

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.

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

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! 

Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

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

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! 

2 thoughts on “12 Days of Christmas Carols- Angels We Have Heard on High

  1. Not that it matters at all, but classical Latin as I learned it would pronounce the C with a hard ‘K’ sound– ex-KEL-sees.

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