Christmas: The Story Behind “Angels We Have Heard on High”

Hi, friends. We covered the significance of angels in the Bible and in the Christmas story specifically last week, and here is the first hymn post!

The_Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds_1663_Abraham_Hondius
The Annunciation to the Shepherds by Abraham Hondius, 1663.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” was written in 1862 by James Chadwick, an Anglo-Irish Roman Catholic who served as Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle. He modeled the song after a French Christmas carol called “Les Anges dans nos Compagnes,” which translates to “The Angels in our Countryside.” Though the English version derives from the French version, the lyrics of the English version differ enough from the French version for the song to be considered its own work.

The hymn is usually sung to a tune called “Gloria” arranged by American organist Edward Shippen Barnes. “Gloria in excelsis Deo” means “Glory to God in the highest” in Latin; the angels proclaim these words when they visit the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke.

The first instance of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” appearing in a Christian hymn came a long time ago. Psalmi idiotici, “private psalms” written in imitation of the Biblical psalms, were popular in the second and third century CE. “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is the first line of one of those “private psalms” written in Latin. The hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is still used in Mass. [Catholics, feel free to chime in here, since I’m a Protestant.]

marco-bonomo-89638-unsplash

The way the word “Gloria” is sung in “Angels We Have Heard on High” is melismatic (a $2 word for holding one syllable and hitting several notes–“Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ria!”). This effect enhances the idea of what a host of celestial beings singing might sound like, and it adds to the sense of merriment in the carol.

The line “And the mountains in reply/ Echoing their joyous strains” reminds me of Psalm 98:

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the Earth,
    burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:4-9, NIV)

Lyrics

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

Refrain:
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 songs?

Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing
Come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King

See Him in a manger laid
Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid
With us sing our Savior’s birth

Here’s a fun version of the hymn with a cute video from a cool contemporary Christian group.

This is a version of the original “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” which has a haunting beauty.

Thanks for reading! Do you love this carol? What are your favorite Christmas songs? Let me know in the comments.

21 comments

  1. Love your $2 word “melismatic” ; i first heard the word melisma a couple years ago. One would think that taking piano lessons and being in band at school for 7 years i would have heard every musical term.
    Love the GLORIA chorus which does , i think, sound like angels praising God. Funny side-note, a former pastor corrected the choir’s pronunciation of excelsis — we were told it was pronounced ex-shell-sis which to me sounded like “eggshell-sis”. ha ha! Think of that every time we sing it.
    Beautiful carol !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was behind on your posts. I read the opening sentences and was like, wait, what? We’ve been exploring angels over here?!? So I’ve just caught up. Great writing and fascinating subject matter, for sure.

    Have you ever read Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness series? Makes you think about angels and demons in a whole new way. Probably fictional, but still, interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s