Thursday, November 26, 2009
'Angels We Have Heard On High'
According to the beloved traditions of the first Christmas, it was the shepherds tending their flocks near Bethlehem to whom the angels first gave the news of the baby Jesus' birth. And so, in medieval times shepherds who found themseles minding their little herds in the wintry mountains of southern France on Christmas Eve remembered the story of that first birth and the angels who sang of it.
They called one to the other, each from his own peak, singing the good news as the angels had sung so long ago, until finally the mountaintops themselves rang with a glorious patchwork of echoing voices.
In this favorite carol, the music probably comes from a 17th or 18th century French noel, as does the text. But the back-and-forth 'Alleluia' refrain is probably based on a much older phrase of music, perhaps a bit of plainsong chant from the Church's earlier days.
The combination of tune and text was not published, so far as we know, until it appeared in a carol colelction in 1855.