Monday, December 16, 2013

#368, in which the mountains in reply echo their joyous strains

#9 "Angels We Have Heard on High" (music and lyrics: traditional French carol, trans. James Chadwick, based on Luke 2:8-20)

The French carol this hymn is based on is called "Les Anges des nos campagnes", which in English could be read as "angels in our countryside," which I rather like because it suggests that rather than the angels singing from on high to us, they make a personal appearance in our own backyard. Alas, the phrase "angels we have heard on high" won out. It's not a bad translation, and from my limited knowledge of French, the two translations are largely the same other than that line, but I like that wrinkle. Maybe I'll sing "angels in our countryside" next time I sing this hymn.

Many people, including myself, are fond of this song because of its most enduring feature: the melismatic chorus of "gloria in excelsis Deo." I imagine that many people, including myself, hadn't heard the word "melismatic" before, so I'll tell you that melisma is the stretching of one syllable over multiple notes in succession. This hymn is one of the most famous uses of melisma in psalmody, and like many of the others, the melismatic word is one of praise. (Think of the other melismatics in the hymnbook; they're mostly words like "gloria" and "alleluia.") The soprano part gently floats over the other three parts of the music, and it's not hard to imagine that the angelic choruses floating o'er the the weary world we sang about yesterday sounded somewhat similar.

We heard about this a few days ago in discussing "Joy to the World," but it's not just the angels who are singing to their King. The mountains sing in reply, and while the easy interpretation is the echoed joyous strains are literal echoes, I think it's no stretch to think that the mountains themselves were singing, however you'd like to look at that. Jesus is the Lord of all Creation. We tend to think of creation as things that walk, talk, and breathe, but remember that we heard "fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy." I don't know that I'm going to go so far as to suggest that the mountains were singing in the same sense as the angels, but I will suggest that so far as it can feel, the earth felt joy at the coming of the newborn king.

We hear angels, mountains, and shepherds prolonging their joyous strains, and in the third verse, we, too, are invited to hear those gladsome tidings which inspire their heavenly song. Listen:

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

The commands are to see and to adore on bended knee, but while we aren't commanded to sing, I think that like the shepherds and the mountains before us, we wouldn't be able to help but let out a melismatic, 16-note "glo-o-o-o-o-ooo-o-o-o-o-ooo-o-o-o-o-ooo-ria" of our own.

Previously in this series

#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

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