"Angels We Have Heard on High" is a Christmas carol. The song commemorates the story of the birth of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel of Luke, in which shepherds outside Bethlehem encounter a multitude of angels singing and praising the newborn child.
The words of the song are based on a traditional French carol known as Les Anges dans nos campagnes (literally, "Angels in our countryside") composed by an unknown author in Languedoc, France. That song has received many adjustments or alignments including its most common English version that was translated in 1862 by James Chadwick, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, northeast England. The carol quickly became popular in the West Country, where it was described as 'Cornish' by R.R. Chope, and featured in Pickard-Cambridge's Collection of Dorset Carols.
There is also a Scottish Gaelic translation of the carol which is known as Ainglean chuala sinn gu h-ard (literally, "Angels We Have Heard on High"). This was translated into Gaelic by Iain MacMilan from James Chadwick's English translation.
English Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
CHORUS: Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song? Chorus
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King. Chorus
See Him in a manger laid
Jesus Lord of heaven and earth;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
With us sing our Savior's birth. Chorus
"Angels We Have Heard on High" is most commonly sung to the hymn tune "Gloria", as arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes. Its most memorable feature is its chorus: Gloria in Excelsis Deo! (Latin for "Glory to God in the highest")
Where the sung vowel sound "o" of "Gloria" is fluidly sustained through a lengthy rising and falling melismatic melodic sequence: Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o!
"Gloria in Excelsis Deo" is the first line of the song of the angels in the Gospel according to Luke.
The phrase also appears melismatically in the Latin version of the carol "O Come All Ye Faithful", though somewhat less extended: Glo-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o.
In England, the words of James Montgomery's "Angels from the Realms of Glory" are sung to this tune, except with the "Gloria in excelsis Deo" refrain. It is from this usage that the tune sometimes is known as Iris, the name of Montgomery's newspaper.
In the English version of "O Come All Ye Faithful", that phrase is poetically translated as Glo-ry to Go-od, Glo-ry in the High-est, (or, "Glo-ry to Go-od, In-- the-- High-est"), reducing the melisma to no more than two notes per word.