Thursday, December 15, 2016

The History of Ding Dong! Merrily on High

Ding Dong! Merrily on High is one of the happiest and most spirited Christmas songs, and like many of the traditional carols that are sung today, it was written hundreds of years ago.  The earliest record we have of the song is from 1588, making it at least 428 years old.  However, the piece originally had nothing to do with Christmas -  it was a standard tune used for French dances.  The melody is written (sideways! - see the image below) on page 92 of a book called Orchesographie by Thoinot Arbeau, which was the pen name of Jehan Tabourot (1519-1595).  His choice of pen name was particularly interesting because it is an anagram of his real name (the same letters were placed in a different order).  A facsimile of Orchesographie can be viewed on the Library of Congress website.  

Orchesographie is a very important historical document that provides us with many of the popular melodies of the French Renaissance, and it gives instruction on how to dance to the music.  The book also includes woodcut illustrations of dancers and musicians.  The melody of Ding Dong! Merrily on High has the title Branle de L'Official, and while the book is authored by Arbeau, there is no indication that he wrote the music.  The entire book was translated to English in 1948 by Mary Stewart Evans and is a fascinating glimpse into the world of sixteenth century France.  It is available on Amazon with the title Orchesography: 16th-Century French Dance from Court to Countryside.

The tune circulated through Europe for over 300 years until it was set to a new English text by the Anglican priest George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934), thus creating the Christmas carol Ding Dong! Merrily on High.  The song was first published in 1924 in The Cambridge Carol Book.  The sheet music to Ding Dong! Merrily on High is available at, as are the lyrics to the carol.  It is now ten days until Christmas, and as I write this post, the wind chill temperature is 4 degrees fahrenheit outside.  Performing Ding Dong! Merrily on High is a nice way to warm the day!

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