In Dulci Jubilo is one of my favourite Christmas carols – and also the best example of one of my favourite words, “macaronic”, meaning a hymn that combines Latin with a vernacular language.
This old article from Credenda Agenda provides some fascinating background on the carol, starting with its reported origins:
The origins of this carol are unknown, but one fourteenth-century writer reported that the angels sang it to the mystic Heinrich Suso (d. 1366), who, upon hearing the music, took up dancing with the angels. That’s one of the best how-I-thought-of-this-tune-stories that I have ever read. But it does give us insight into the writer’s estimation of the tune. How else could we get such delightful words and music? Six hundred fifty years later it continues to delight us.
The carol was originally written in Latin and German, and the earliest manuscript dates from 1400:
In dulci jubilo [In sweet jubilation]
Singet und sit vro. [Sing and be joyful.]
Aller unser wonne [All our delight]
Layt in presepio [Lies in the manger]
Sy leuchtet vor die sonne [He shines as the sun]
Matris in gremio [On his mother’s lap]
Qui alpha es et O. [You Who are Alpha and Omega.]
I love the earthy and concrete language of this: “Sing and be joyful” is so much more, well, joyful than “Let us our homage shew”.
The first printing of words and music together are found in a 1533 Lutheran hymnal, and had three verses: verses 1, 2 and 4 in our modern version. Our verse 3 appeared twelve years later, in 1545, in another Lutheran hymnal. This verse was probably written by Martin Luther, and at the very least it certainly reflects both his theology and his ability to express that theology in simple, direct but attractive words.
Here is Luther’s verse, in the Latin/German original. The square brackets give the English translation of the Latin lines, and J.M. Neale’s English version of the German lines:
O Patris caritas! [O love of the Father]
O Nati lenitas! [O gentleness of the Son]
Wir wären all verloren [Deeply were we stainèd]
Per nostra crimina; [Through our sins]
so hat er uns erworben [But Thou for us hast gainèd]
Coelorum gaudia. [The joy of heaven]
Eia wären wir da! [O that we were there!]
Which gives both us and the angels plenty to dance about!