History of Hymns: "Angels, We Have Heard on High"


By C. Michael Hawn and Jeanne Larson Williams, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas

French crèche

French crèche

“Angels We Have Heard on High”
Traditional French Carol
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 238

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

The French people love to sing at Christmas! Chants de Noël (Christmas Carols) from France may be found in most English-language hymnals. In Luke 2:14 we find the canticle of the angel’s song—one of the most famous and frequently sung of the Christmas canticles. The refrain of “Angels we have heard on high” is taken directly from this verse.

Reflecting a common theme found throughout the history of Christian hymnody, a cosmic chorus resounds in the first stanza. The chorus begins in heaven with the angels. Then the “mountains in reply” echo back in response—antiphonally, symbolizing the participation of earth.

The entire hymn is a traditional French carol that originated as early as the eighteenth century, and was published in North America in Nouveau recueil de cantiques (New Hymnal) for the Diocese of Quebec in 1819. Several versions, or translations, of the text can be found, but they all stem from the same source and are inspired by Luke 2:6-20.

The original hymn appeared in French – “Les anges dans nos campagnes” – in eight stanzas arranged in a dialogue form alternating between the shepherds (Bergers) in stanzas one, three, and six, and the women (Femmes de Bethlehem) in stanzas two, four, and seven. All sing together in stanzas five and eight.

The carol first entered into Methodist hymnals in 1935 in an anonymous version from the play, The Nativity. It uses the text, “Hearken all! what holy singing now is sounding from the sky!”  The melody is the same, but the harmonization was modified in the 1966 Methodist Hymnal by the well-known anthem composer Austin C. Lovelace (1919-2010). The 1966 Methodist Hymnal also changed the text to “Angels we have heard on high” because of the popularity of the text used in anthems at the time.

The English translation by James Chadwick (1813-1882), Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, was taken from Crown of Jesus (1862), subtitled, “a complete Catholic manual of devotion, doctrine, and instruction.” The carol was found in the section headed “The Twelve Mysteries of the Sacred Infancy” with the title “Christmas Hymn,” reduced to four stanzas in English.

The original text is changed in the 1966 Methodist Hymnal, and the 1989 The United Methodist Hymnalcontinues the changes with one exception: stanza three changes “him” to “Christ” for inclusive language reasons. 

"Angels we have heard on high” is a song of invitation from Christians to others to come celebrate Christ’s birth with them. The carol begins in a festive spirit, but then, in the second stanza, asks why there is a celebration.  In the third stanza, an invitation to is given to join the celebration.  The fourth stanza concludes the carol with the observation of Christ’s birth and the Christian’s joyful response.

“Angels we have heard on high” is a perfect song to accompany the French tradition of the crèche. Handmade nativity scenes are not only common in homes, but also in town squares. Little clay figures, traditionally made in the south of France, are called “santons” (“little saints”).  Fine craftsmanship characterizes the production of these figures, and they are a source of local pride for the communities that produce them. It is interesting that “crèche” is also the French term for a nursery for young children during the day.

French crèche

This tradition is particularly strong in Provence, the south of France, with a crèche that includes the Holy Family, the Magi, the shepherds, and the animals, along with additional local figures, such as the mayor, the little drummer boy, or a peasant dressed in traditional attire. In some villages, people dress as the shepherds and join in a procession to the church. Children often contribute to domestic crèches by bringing small stones, moss, and evergreens to complete the scene. Then everyone sings carols!

The tune has also undergone some changes. Austin C. Lovelace harmonized the French carol in 1964. The 1935 Methodist Hymnal uses an earlier harmonization, which is anonymous.  Technically, this is a macaronic carol because it uses two languages: the local vernacular and Latin. The carol uses the effect of a refrain and is one of the few texts that congregations sing regularly in Latin: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”  It is unusual for congregations to sing a long melisma (many notes on one syllable) and enjoy it.  The melisma on the refrain adds to the joyful, celebratory feel of the entire hymn.