Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Sweet Rejoicing" with CONCORA's "Christmas Through the Ages"

Next week, CONCORA has its last two rehearsals for its holiday concert, “Christmas Through the Ages,” which we will present in Hartford, Hampton, and Norfolk, Connecticut, on these dates:

Sunday, December 11, 2011, 4:00 p.m.
Center Church, 60 Gold Street, Hartford, Connecticut
Snow date: Monday, December 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Information: or 860-293-0567

Friday, December 16, 8:00 p.m.
Hampton Congregational Church, 163 Main Street, Hampton, Connecticut
Information: or 860-293-0567

Thursday, December 22, 8:00 p.m.
Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, Route 44, Norfolk, Connecticut
Information, Tickets, and Directions: or 866-666-6306

We’re singing one of my favorite carol arrangements, the setting by Robert Pearsall of In Dulci Jubilo. Here’s an expanded program note for this selection.


According to his autobiography, the words of “In dulci jubilo” (In Sweet Jubilation) were revealed in 1328 to the German mystic Heinrich Seuse (ca.1295-1366, called “Suso” in English) by angels who invited Seuse to dance with them as they chanted the verses.

Seuse’s biography (which he writes in the third person, referring to himself as the “Servitor”) records the following:

Now, on the night before the feast of All Angels, it seemed to him in a vision that he heard angelic strains and sweet heavenly melody; and this filled him with such gladness that he forgot all his sufferings. Then one of the angels said to him:--Behold, with what joy thou dost hear us sing the song of eternity; even so, with like joy, do we hear thee sing the song of the venerable Eternal Wisdom. He added further:--This is a portion of the song which the dear elect saints will sing joyously at the last day, when they shall see themselves confirmed in the everlasting bliss of eternity. At another time, on the same festival, after he had spent many hours in contemplating the joys of the angels, and daybreak was at hand, there came to him a youth, who bore himself as though he were a heavenly musician sent to him by God; and with the youth there came many other noble youths, in manner and bearing like the first, save only that he seemed to have some preeminence above the rest, as if he were a prince-angel. Now this same angel came up to the Servitor right blithely, and said that God had sent them down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew the Servitor by the hand into the dance, and the youth began a joyous ditty about the infant Jesus, which runs thus: “In dulci jubilo,” &c. When the Servitor heard the dear Name of Jesus sounding thus sweetly, he became so blithesome in heart and feeling, that the very memory of his sufferings vanished. It was a joy to him to see how exceeding loftily and freely they bounded in the dance. The leader of the song knew right well how to guide them, and he sang first, and they sang after him in the jubilee of their hearts. Thrice the leader repeated the burden of the song, “Ergo merito,” &c. This dance was not of a kind like those which are danced in this world; but it was a heavenly movement, swelling up and falling back again into the wild abyss of God’s hiddenness. These and the like heavenly consolations were granted to him innumerable times during these years, but especially at the times when he was encompassed with great sufferings, and they made it all the easier for him to bear them. [source cited below]

The words that were “revealed” to Seuse are as follows:

1. In dulci jubilo [in sweet jubilation]
Let us our homage show:
Our heart’s joy reclineth
[Leit] in praesepio; [lies in a cradle]
And like a bright star shineth
Matris in gremio, [in his mother’s lap]
Alpha es et O[mega]!

2. O Jesu parvule, [O tiny Jesus]
My heart is sore for Thee!
Hear me, I beseech Thee,
O puer optime; [O best of infants]
My praying let it reach Thee,
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 tenderness of the Son!]
Deeply were we stained
Per nostra crimina [by our sins]
But Thou hast for us gained
Coelorum gaudia [the joy of heaven]
O, that we were there!

4. Ubi sunt gaudia [where are joys]
Where, if that they be not there?
There, are angels singing
Nova cantica, [new songs]
There, the bells are ringing
In regis curia. [in the King’s court]
O, that we were there!

This is a macaronic text; that is, it includes more that one language. The carol was originally in a combination of Latin and German; theGerman has been translated to English, but the Latin remains.

So much for the words. The tune also has a long history.

Its first known appearance was in a manuscript dating from around 1400, though it may be even older, if the stories about Seuse’s use of “an old folk tune” are to be believed. In any case, it was a well-known and popular tune in the 14th and 15th centuries. Three of its verses were printed in a 1533 Lutheran hymnal (Joseph Klug’s Geistliches Lieder); a fourth verse (“O patris caritas!”), which was included in Valentin Babst’s 1545 hymnal (also called Geistliches Lieder), is thought to have been written by Martin Luther. The earliest English version was probably "In dulci jubilo, Now let us sing with mirth and joie," published in John Wedderburn's Gude and Godlie Ballatis (c1540).

The carol (in a Swedish-Latin macaronic translation) was later published in the Piae Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum (“Devout ecclesiastical and scholastic songs of the old bishops”), printed in Finland around 1582. This collection of 74 Latin hymns, carols, and folk songs was intended for use by the pupils of Vyborg’s Cathedral School. Piae Cantiones preserved many fine examples of medieval text and music that had been gathered from across the Continent (only about half are of Finnish origin).

Here is an image of the page of Piae Cantiones that contains "In dulci jubilo" (it starts halfway down the left-hand page):

In a delightful symmetry, many of the tunes and texts from this collection subsequently made their way back across Europe in the ensuing centuries; many, like In dulci jubilo, are still enjoyed today.

Five hundred years after Seuse “received” his verses from the angels, English composer Robert L. Pearsall (1795-1856) created the sweet arrangement on CONCORA’s program. Pearsall’s setting includes a descending counter-motif which calls to mind the jubilant sounds of church-bells ringing. Listen for the “bells” pealing through the last verse (“There the bells are ringing”) and coming to rest in the final few measures.

It's a beautiful arrangement, a perfect expression of "sweet rejoicing."

Do come to the concert to hear this, and other songs of "Christmas Through the Ages."

You can read all my posts about CONCORA’s Christmas programs here:


Suso’s Vita, his memoir or autobiography, may be read here:
The story of “In dulci jubilo” may be found in Chapter VII, “How one, who had begun well, was drawn onward in his search after divine consolation.”

Much more detail on the history of this carol may be found here:

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