Time to Ding-Dong Merrily

One of the things about being an expat is that you sometimes get a very skewed view of matters that you would never have questioned if you had stayed back home. I grew up in Middle England, going around on cold dark December evenings from door to door with my pals singing the old Christmas carols for pennies to the familiar traditional melodies, and never dreamed there could be any alternative (apart from Little Town of Bethlehem to which I knew at least 3 different tunes not including descants). So it was a shock to my true-blue British system to hear Away in a Manger sung by Americans.

“No, no, it goes like this,” I cried, and they gazed at me in amazement.

“Never heard THAT before!” was the response.

Even more incongruous to my ears is the tune that Americans use for It Came upon the Midnight Clear. Our British version thunders from the church organ, and dignified Baroque angels lean gracefully down through the clouds towards the shepherds.

ANGELS main-qimg-4ba9399db7b254d7093b17ec8e365157-c

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Americans sing the same words but their melody is in three-four time. These are Rococo angels waltzing around, maybe even bouncing up and down on carousel horses; certainly not playing golden harps, more likely keyboards with hurdy-gurdy harmonic effects. Yes, it’s a pretty tune, but I can’t take it seriously. Walt Disney should illustrate this, not Michaelangelo.

And look what our transatlantic cousins have done to Angels from the Realms of Glory. Once again, I prepare my full-throated version and after a couple of bars am stopped in my tracks.

“You’re singing Angels We Have Heard On High.”

“No I’m not. I don’t know that one.”

They sing their versions of the two slightly different carols, and I can see that there must have been a mid-Atlantic storm that shifted some of the notes around. Okay, I’m enriched by learning a new carol, and my Christmas angels are still pretty well Johann Sebastian  Bach rather than Johann Strauss.

They also add to my repertoire with a fourth melody for Little Town of Bethlehem, which is still lying pretty still amid its deep and dreamy streets. No waltzing there. But wait! Why am I being so stuffy about three-four time? Next up is the mediaeval carol In dulci jubilo  (Good Christian Men Rejoice): surely these angels must be skipping and lindyhopping, and I can’t blame the Yanks. Even the Putti must be bouncing about to this! I remember that wonderful jaunty rendering by Mike Oldfield – 1970-something, I think – and have to claim that there are some tunes that are immortal, and can stand up to virtually any treatment. Listen to Bach’s arrangement sung by a choir.

I’m off on a tangent now, looking for the origins of this joyful song. Thank you, Wikipedia! This is a great story. And I have learnt a new word: macaronic.

The original song text, a macaronic alternation of Medieval German and Latin, is thought to have been written by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse  circa 1328. According to folklore, Seuse heard angels sing these words and joined them in a dance of worship. In his biography (or perhaps autobiography), it was written:

Now this same angel came up to the Servant (Suso) brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew the Servant by the hand into the dance, and the youth began a joyous song about the infant Jesus …

The tune first appears in Codex 1305, a manuscript in Leipzig University Library dating from c. 1400, although it has been suggested that the melody may have existed in Europe prior to this date. In print, the tune was included in Geistliche Lieder, a 1533 Lutheran hymnal by Joseph Klug. It also appears in Michael Vehe‘s Gesangbuch of 1537. In 1545, another verse was added, possibly by Martin Luther. This was included in Valentin Babst’s Geistliche Lieder, printed in Leipzig. The melody was also popular elsewhere in Europe, and appears in a Swedish/Latin version in the 1582 Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, a collection of sacred and secular medieval songs.

I have left all the links in this excerpt so that anyone with time to spare can also dig deeper down this rabbit hole.

A blessed and joyous Second Sunday in Advent to you all.

6 thoughts on “Time to Ding-Dong Merrily

  1. Yesterday, on the second Advent Sunday, was my youngest daughter’s birthday. She turned 40. She invited friends and family to a brunch in a cafe. All of us had a great time. 🙂 The only Christmas song I’ve heard this year so far, was ‘Jingle Bells’ played by some street musicians. I can’t believe that in two weeks time it is Christmas already!
    Thanks, Cat, reminding me of these old Christmas Carols. 🙂

    • Sounds lovely, Uta. I always feel sorry for those with birthdays in December, especially children. Have to make an extra effort to differentiate from Christmas. I’m on a campaign to maintain a high profile for the good old-fashioned carols – by which I mean Christian carols, not Rudolph or Frosty or the Snowman. Jubilate!

  2. What? Walt Disney did NOT illustrate It Came Upon a Midnight Clear? Oh now you’ve really burst my bubble. How funny. There is much about this season that has always left me confused and somewhat disconnected. I never knew about all these differences between the British vs American songs. But I’m not surprised.

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