A Closer Look at Two Common Carols

Timothy and Lou Ann Shafer

New Horizons: December 2023

Long Live the True King

Also in this issue

Long Live the True King

Rejoicing in the Mystery

A Conversation with Rosaria Butterfield

When we sing the familiar old carols each year, we often pass by words and phrases with a comfortable lack of understanding that we don’t even notice. Sometimes the texts have idioms from another era, sometimes lofty poetic language, sometimes confusing word order and punctuation. Other times, however, it’s our own comfortability with the familiar words that obscures the meaning of the text.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” (TPH 318)

That was the case for me [Timothy] with “Angels We Have Heard on High,” until I sat down to examine exactly what it was that I was singing about. The carol is written by James Chadwick, based on Luke 2:8–17, and set to an anonymously composed French tune called Gloria. The text as presented in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal consists of three verses separated by a repeating chorus. I tried my hand at paraphrasing the verses in more plainspoken English. The first two verses seem to be from a narrator’s perspective:

We heard angels from heaven singing sweetly over the fields, and we also heard the mountains answering back with echoes of the angels’ joyful melodies.

Shepherds, what event are you celebrating, and why are you singing such a long and happy melody? Tell me about the good news that inspires you to sing this heavenly song.

The third verse seems to be the response from the shepherds:

Come to Bethlehem to see the one whose birth the angels are singing about! Come and bow before Christ the Lord and worship him!

The verses are set to a simple tune that hovers on the third note of the scale (often said to be the “sweetest” note of the scale). In fact, the hovering on one note is so prominent as to almost be speechlike as the narrator sets forth his observations and questions. In contrasting response to each of the restrained speechlike verses of the narrator, at the chorus we sing in communion with the heavenly host an ornate, yet lisping echo of that prolonged, joyous strain heard on the night of Christ’s birth.

The chorus consists of a unique combination of text and music in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. The text, of course, is Gloria in excelsis Deo, meaning “Glory to God in the highest,” and it is set to the beautiful and rapidly cascading sequence of soprano pitches, supported by independent alto, tenor, and bass parts. The text of the chorus is unique because it is a Latin phrase for the congregation to sing, and the musical setting is unique because it contains highly decorative melismas—a single word or a syllable of text that is prolonged by singing it to many notes.

Here, in this single chorus, we have a textual/musical depiction of the multitude of the heavenly host in the prolonged praising of God. The chorus’s phrase is from a language that remains the principal source of numerous languages spoken on earth to this day. Musically, the assignment of so many notes (in this case fifteen!) to the first syllable of the Latin word gloria is a beautifully vivid way of amplifying and magnifying the word glory, thus giving God prolonged and extended glory in the assembly.

In their reforms of the Catholic church, both Calvin and Luther rightly sought to bring singing back to the congregation by translating the psalms to the vernacular and setting syllables of text to a minimal number of notes. No doubt the Reformers were correct in seeking to protect their congregations’ abilities to sing with understanding. However, we are each responsible, with the help of the Spirit, for preparing our own hearts and minds as we bring a sacrifice of praise to the Lord’s worship. Knowing what we are singing about often requires preparation and study so that we may follow the apostle Paul’s admonition to sing not only with our spirit, but also with understanding (1 Cor. 14:15).

“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (TPH 314)

Have you ever chuckled at sentences with questionable comma placement? Slow children crossing. We went caroling with our dogs, grandma and grandpa. I find inspiration in cooking my family, and reading. All three sentences demonstrate that commas matter! So, too, for the carol at hand. Is it “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” or “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”?

Both uses of the comma in this first line of text are common. Interestingly, the first published version of the lyrics, from a broadside circa 1700, includes no comma. (A broadside was a sheet of paper printed on one side that featured news, proclamations, advertisements, or ballads or carols of the day.) 

But we can reach a little further back into history to help us interpret the first line. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “rest you merry” first appeared in the Middle Ages and was a common expression of good wishes that meant “remain happy, contented, or pleased.” Over time, it was changed by addition: “God rest you merry,” meaning, “may God keep you contented or joyful.” This very phrase was used in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act V, Scene I, when William says, “God rest ye merry, sir.” By the late eighteenth century, the phrase had long since fallen out of the vernacular. However, the carol was very popular, especially in London. In 1843, Charles Dickens referenced it in A Christmas Carol: “God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!”

The text of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” is based on Luke 2 and was first published around 1700 but was probably written in the sixteenth century; its author is anonymous. Stanzas 1 and 3 echo each other in exhortations to not be dismayed or afraid because Christ saves the sinner who trusts in him from Satan’s power. Hallelujah! This seems to solve the dilemma of the comma, as the opening text serves as a prayer for continued joy: God rest you merry, gentlemen.

Stanzas 2 and 4 continue the narrative: the angel brings glad tidings, and the shepherds rejoice and go to Bethlehem to see the Son of God.

The refrain perfectly encapsulates all four stanzas: these are “tidings of comfort and joy”!

In the nineteenth century, there were two tunes in common usage for the text: London (the tune found in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal) and Cornwall. The London tune, which is in a minor key, appears to descend from an English folk song from circa 1650; it first appeared in print in 1846. The Cornwall tune, which is in a major key, first appeared in print in 1833. The London tune was far more popular.

The form of the music is interesting. The first two lines are exactly the same. The third phrase is different. Then there is a refrain, which is different still. Although this song does not have very much melodic repetition, it is still easy to sing due to the memorable opening of lines 1 and 2 with repeated notes and a big leap, and then moving by step. A crisp tempo will enhance these aspects of the melody.

Although the London tune of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” was not composed for the text, the marriage of the two makes a wonderful setting, bringing tidings of comfort and joy. God rest you merry!   

The authors are members of Resurrection OPC in State College, Pennsylvania. Timothy Shafer served as musicologist and Lou Ann Shafer as music editor for the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. New Horizons, December 2023.

New Horizons: December 2023

Long Live the True King

Also in this issue

Long Live the True King

Rejoicing in the Mystery

A Conversation with Rosaria Butterfield

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