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Volume 14, Issue 4: Musica

Dancing With Angels

Duck Schuler

What could be more festive than the ten thousand points of light that illuminate Doug Jones's house at Christmas? (Like the Thomas Kinkade subdivision, it is reported to have been seen from space.) Not much, but the quintessential Christmas carol "In dulci jubilo" comes close. The origins of this carol are unknown, but one fourteenth-century writer reported that the angels sang it to the mystic Heinrich Suso (d. 1366) [distant forebear of John Philip], who, upon hearing the music, took up dancing with the angels. That's one of the best how-I-thought-of-this-tune-stories that I have ever read. But it does give us insight into the writer's estimation of the tune. How else could we get such delightful words and music? Six hundred fifty years later it continues to delight us.

The text mixes medieval German with Latin: it is half in the language of the church and half in everyday language, a fitting blend of the sacred and the mundane. The earliest existing manuscript of this text is found in Leipzig and dates around 1400.
In dulci jubilo In sweet jubilation
Singet und sit vro. Sing and be joyful.
Aller unser wonne All our delight
Layt in presepio Lies in the manger
Sy leuchtet vor die sonne He shines as the sun
Matris in gremio On his mother's lap
Qui alpha es et O. You Who are Alpha and Omega.
A Scottish priest and champion archer named John Wedderburn produced the first English translation in 1540. He had fled Dundee in 1539 after it was discovered that he had written anti-Catholic ballads. He went to Wittenberg and spent the next year translating some of the great Lutheran reformation texts into English. When he returned to Scotland, he published his Gude and Godlie Ballatis (1540), which included a translation of "In dulci jubilo."
In dulci jubilo,
Now let us sing with mirth and jo,
Our hartis consolation
lyis in praesepio
And schynis as the Sone,
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O.
An early twentieth-century translation which retains the mix of English and Latin is found in the Oxford Book of Carols.
1. In dulci jubilo
Now sing with hearts aglow!
Our delight and pleasure
Lies in praesepio,
Like sunshine is our treasure
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O!
2. O Jesu, parvule, [O tiny Jesus]
For thee I long alway;
Comfort my heart's blindness,
O puer optime, [O best of boys]
With all Thy lovingkindness,
O princeps gloriae. [O prince of glory]
Trahe me post te! [Draw me after Thee]
3. O Patris caritas! [O love of the Father]
O Nati lenitas! [O gentleness of the Son]
Deeply were we stainèd
Per nostra crimina; [Through our sins]
But Thou for us hast gainèd
Coelorum gaudia. [The joy of heaven]
O that we were there!
4. Ubi sunt gaudia [Where are joys?]
In any place but there?
There are angels singing
Nova cantica [New songs]
And there the bells are ringing
In Regis curia. [In the King's court]
O that we were there!
The music and text together were first published in printed form in an early Lutheran hymnal, Joseph Klug's Geistliche Lieder (Wittenberg, 1533), shown below. There were only three verses in the original.
Twelve years later the carol appeared with an extra verse inserted between the last two verses. The verse beginning "O Patris caritas!" was likely written by Martin Luther for the exquisitely beautiful hymnal Geistliche Lieder (Leipzig, 1545) published by Valentin Babst.
The music is in the form of A (a a) B (b c) B (b c) C (d e). The first eight notes of the melody are repeated immediately, but the next unit that is repeated is twice as long. These melodic repetitions are written in such a way as not to be tedious but to provide a pleasing coherence. The melody is in a lilting triple meter and sustains an iambic rhythmic character (pretty much) throughout. The rhythm propels the melodic line upward in the opening phrase, the musical equivalent of bouncing higher and higher on a trampoline.
I have provided here a musical setting by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621).1 As Capellmeister and organist at Wolfenbüttel, he composed many works of music in the concertante style popular at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In this style, various choirs of voices and instruments share in the interplay of music; sometimes the choirs sing separately, sometimes together, thus creating a variety of textures and sounds. Musae Sionae, from which this setting is taken, is nine volumes of music designed to provide musical settings of hymns for the church. They range from elaborate, multi-voiced settings to simple two-part settings. Some, like this one, are hymn-like, four-part settings. Praetorius himself set "In dulci jubilo" many times-at least eighty-eight according to one source that I read, which is two settings short of the number of extension cords that Doug Jones uses at Christmas time.
The translation here is by John Mason Neale (1818-1866). His contributions to hymnic literature are extensive and impressive, especially his translations from Latin and Greek authors. One-eighth of the hymns in the ground-breaking hymnal Hymns Ancient and Modern (1859) are by Neale. Unfortunately, in our age of enlightened thinking and inclusive language, this carol is often found as "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice," "Good Christians All, Rejoice," (you can't get any more inclusive than that) or even "Good Christian Folk, Rejoice." Some things just don't need to be done. Neale's translation first appeared in his Carols for Christmastide (1853), a collection of twelve carols intended to introduce church choirs to this ancient music.
Check out the small print at the top of the hymn. It is a rough outline of the story behind the music and the words. Let the names there be a memorial to the remarkable people that the Holy Spirit has used to provide music for the church.

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