Next in my History of a Song series is Ding Dong Merrily On High. An orchestral version of this song plays on a Christmas TV show that I like, so off I went to learn more about it.

It turns out that this is song is similar to Greensleeves aka What Child Is This?, in the sense that it too began as a secular song during the Renaissance and was turned into a Christmas carol centuries later.

At its inception, Ding Dong Merrily On High was called Branle de l’Official. Who is the composer of Branle? Well, we’re not sure. What we know for sure is that in 1588, a composer by the name of Jehan Tabourot, using the pen name Thoinot Arbeau, published an important volume called Orchésographie, which was a book of social dances complete with woodcuts showing in detail as to how the dances were to be performed. And there is a dance that was choreographed for Branle, that was included in the book. Thus we don’t know for sure if Tabourot was the composer, or if he is just responsible for including the Branle song and dance in his book.

In this scan of an 1815 copy of the book available at Library of Congress, we can see how Tabourot helpfully described the dance step for each note of the music.

And this, my friends, is how historians and choreographers today are able to re-create dances from the Renaissance with such certainty.

Here is a 2010 video showing costumed dancers performing Branle de l’Official. The video cuts off at 0:44, but by then you will probably be so bored (with the dance, not the music) that you are glad it is over.

Which is to say, I don’t hate the dance but do have to laugh at what passed for dancing in the 1500s. But I just finished watching World of Dance season 3, the million-dollar competition.

And so the song remained unchanged for more than 300 years, until George Ratcliffe Woodward added English lyrics and called it a Christmas carol. He, along with composer Charles Wood, published it in a songbook called The Cambridge Carol-Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter, And Other Seasons. And it looked like this:

Where you can see that the word “Gloria” stretches out over 5 measures and I’m-not-counting-how-many notes.

Here are a couple versions where you realize just how challenging (some reviewers say “fun”) this is to sing well:

I think I prefer instrumental versions of this song, which put the focus on horns or bells.

What do you think? 

(Image credit: http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/)

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