Ding Dong! Merrily on High

Ding dong! Merrily on high
In heaven the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riven with angel-singing.
Gloria – Hosanna in excelsis!
Gloria – Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And i-o, i-o, i-o,
By priest and people sungen:
Gloria – Hosanna in excelsis!
Gloria – Hosanna in excelsis!

Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rhyme
Your e’entide song, ye singers.
Gloria – Hosanna in excelsis!
Gloria – Hosanna in excelsis!

The melody associated with this carol is about five hundred years old and was first recorded in a collection of French folk dance tunes published in 1589. The tune is called Branle de l’Official and there are performances of it to be found on YouTube; a branle is a particular type of folk dance. The tune only became associated with the carol in the 20th century, after the First World War.

The words for the carol were written by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934), born in Birkenhead and educated at Harrow School and Cambridge University. He trained for the Anglican clergy and first served as assistant curate at St Barnabas Church in Pimlico, London from 1874 to 1882 when he moved first to a parish in Norfolk, and then to another in Suffolk. He married at St Barnabas in 1889, but Alice died in 1893 and shortly after he returned to St Barnabas. One of the notable things about St Barnabas is that when it was opened in 1850 it was the first church in London in which all the seating was free of charge; prior to then in most churches there were areas of reserved seating that were closed to those who didn’t pay an annual subscription for access.

Woodward was not a firebrand or an adventurous cleric like James Montgomery or Phillips Brooks who wrote the two carols preceding this one, but he wrote hymns throughout his life and published collections in 1893 and 1897. In 1899 he left St Barnabas to work for the the London diocese in matters relating to music publishing by compiling and editing collections of hymns. He edited for publication in 1901 The Cowley Carol Book, and a second volume was published in 1919; other publications included a book of Italian carols, and one of Greek carols. In 1924 he published The Cambridge Carol Book, and it is here that Ding Dong! Merrily on High first appears.

As indicated by the origins of the tune, Woodward often set his words to traditional melodies, and his collaborator in composition was a Cambridge academic, Charles Wood, who shared this interest. One of Wood’s student at Cambridge was Ralph Vaughan Williams who also became preoccupied with collecting original folk tunes, including Forest Green for O Little Town of Bethlehem.

So the tune is oldish even though the words are newish. But don’t you like the way Woodward invents “old” words to make the carol sound old too?

E’en so here below, below, / Let steeple bells be swungen, / And i-o, i-o, i-o, / By priest and people sungen. Swungen? Sungen? Isn’t that inspired brilliance? It might be one of the reasons we liked it when we went out carol singing: it was a bit of nonsense, and it it has that protracted, modulating Glooooooooria as a chorus too.

Merry Christmas

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