Beloved Christmas Carols: Angels We Have Heard on High

Annunciation of the Shepherds / Benjamin Gervitsz Cuyp, Dutch (1612-1652)

It seems safe to say that no one knows the origin of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It originated in France as “Les anges dans nos campagnes.” I have seen more specific assertions that it came from Languedoc (southern France)–or Lorraine (western France). The tune is very old, or more likely, from the eighteenth century, or maybe even newer than that. It does not appear to have been printed until 1842 in Quebec, specifically in Choix de cantigues sur des airs nouveaux, by Abbe Lambillotée. When elderly French-Canadian singers were interviewed in 1907, they remember it becoming popular in the 1840s and none remembered it from childhood. Nouveau recueil de cantiques (1855) appears to mark the first publication of the words in France.

Whenever and wherever it came from, both the words and music for “Les anges dans nos campagnes” are anonymous. The tune for the verses has a folk-like quality. Even the flowing refrain on “Gloria in excelsis Deo” could have been inspired by hearing melismatic chants in churches or monasteries.

James Chadwick, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle provided the familiar English words and published them in The Holy Family Hymns in 1860. But was that the first English translation? Some claim that honor for James Montgomery’s 1816 hymn text “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” which the British have traditionally sung to the same tune. If manuscript copies existed in England, or if Montgomery visited France and encountered the song there, his hymn might well be a loose paraphrase. On the other hand, I have found no reference to either case.

Here, then, is all that we know for sure about “Angels We Have Heard on High:” The French words and tune appeared in a French Canadian publication in 1842 and became quite popular there. No one has ever claimed that either the words or music originated in Canada. Therefore they must have come from some place in France. There appears to be no documentary evidence to support any of the various stories in circulation about when, where, or how. Nor does there appear to be any that definitively refutes them. Bishop Chadwick found the words and music (most likely in the 1855 French publication) and translated the text into English. His version appeared in 1860 and has remained popular ever since.

Because Chadwick was a Catholic bishop, some Anglicans were leery of accepting his translation. Several variants exist, perhaps not all of them prepared for doctrinal reasons, but Chadwick’s text of “Angels We Have Heard on High” has remained the standard. It is too bad we cannot definitively attribute the beautiful music with its cascading glorias to anyone.

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