Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December, 2008)

Most of the songs in this column are fairly old -- nineteenth century or earlier. But it's a rare song that can be traced back before the seventeenth century.

I thought, just this once, that I'd really blow past that barrier. At least it gives me something to do for Christmas!

We don't know how old this song is, but it's old enough that it's in Latin, which should tell you something. The original is from the Piae Cantiones, a book of religious songs compiled by "Theodoricus Petrus" of Finland in 1582. The melody is said to be even older --a German tune from c. 1360. The modern setting is said to be by Gustav Holst, but no one seems to know just what Holst did except set it in a suitable key for the performers working with him.

A web site listed various lyrics that had been set to this tune. There were at least four of them (they listed more, but some seemed to be related translations of the Latin words). Clearly it has been a very popular tune! Rather than give a full translation of all the Latin lyrics, I've just tossed in a collection of assorted verses for you to pick and choose.

Note the bass run at the end of the printed music. This isn't necessary for the song — but it sounds great.


Complete Lyrics:
Personent hodie
Voces puerulae,
Laudantes iocunde
Qui nobis est natus,
Summo Deo datus,
Et de vir- vir- vir-,
Et de vir- vir- vir-,
Et de virgineo
ventre procreatus.

In mundo nascitur,
Pannis involvitur,
Praesepi ponitur
Stabulo brutorum,
Rector supernorum.
Perdidit spolia
princeps infernorum.

Magi tres venerunt;
Munera offerunt;
Parvulum inquirunt,
Stellulam sequendo,
Ipsum adorendo.
Aurum, thus, et myrrham
Ei offerendo.

Omnes clericuli,
Pariter pueri,
Cantent ut angeli:
"Advenisti mundo:
Laudes tibi fundo."
Ideo, gloria, in excelsis deo.

On this day earth shall ring
With a song children sing
To the Lord, Christ our king,
Born on earth to save us,
Him the Father gave us,
Ideo, gloria, in excelsis deo.

His the dule*, ours the mirth
When he came down to earth
Bethlehem saw his birth,
Ox and ass beside him
From the cold would hide him.
Ideo, gloria, in excelsis deo.

Sing aloud on this day,
Children all raise the lay
Cheerfully we and they
Hasten to adore thee.
Sent from highest glory.
For us born on this morn
Of the Virgin Mary.

Magi three traveling,
Their gifts offering,
A star following
In the east was shining
Their pathways guiding
Frankincense, gold, and myrrh
Were the gifts they offered.

* Some people sing this "doom." I prefer the Scots word "dule," meaning "grief, burden, sorrow." "Doom," in the period the song was written, was a fairly neutral word meaning "fate." It's a weak word where a strong one is called for.

Correction, 12/25/2011: "Magi tres venerunt" was "Magi ires venerunt," due to Lyle's faulty proofreading. Thanks to Professor Andrew Wilson of Oxford University  for pointing out this error.
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