Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'On This Day Earth Shall Ring'

History of Hymns: 'On This Day Earth Shall Ring'

By Joshua Taylor

Jane joseph with background
Jane Marian Joseph

“On This Day Earth Shall Ring”
Medieval Carol, tr. Jane Marian Joseph,
The United Methodist Hymnal, 248

On this day earth shall ring
with the 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!

Historically informed performance (HIP) is the practice of looking at all available sources and evidence to produce a musical performance as closely related to the original as possible. In terms of congregational song, what is the historically informed practice for a hymn such as the traditional macaronic hymn, “On This Day Earth Shall Ring” or as it is known in Latin, “Personet hodie”. A macaronic hymn is a hymn in two languages – Latin and the vernacular. For example, “Angels We Have Heard on High” (The UM Hymnal,. 238) is a macaronic carol with its Latin refrain and vernacular (originally French) stanzas.

Taken from the collection Piae Cantiones (1582) compiled by Finnish musician Theodoric Petri (ca. 1560-ca. 1630), “On This Day Earth Shall Ring” has a complex history that illustrates the ways that congregational song often moves from its original context to a unique life (and sound) beyond its original historical moorings.

As Carl Daw (b. 1944) notes in his companion to Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal:

This Christmas carol is perhaps best understood as a late outgrowth of the Gothic Revival movement that influenced so many aspects of church life in the 19th century. The English text probably dates from 1916-1917, though it was not published until 1924. It is really a paraphrase rather than a translation of a Latin carol, “Personet hodie voces puerulae” (Let children’s voices resound today), found in the collection Piae Cantiones (Daw, 2016, p. 147).

Jane Marian Joseph (1894-1929), a conductor and student of noted English composer and tune arranger Gustav Holst (1874-1934), provided an English translation that has become the standard paraphrase of the original Latin text that accompanied the 1582 melody. However, Marian Joseph’s translation takes some poetic liberty through the inclusion of the macaronic (mixture of languages) refrain at the end of each stanza. “Ideo, Gloria in excelsis Deo,” which translates as “therefore [we sing], ‘Glory to God in the highest,’” seems to have been included for the purpose of adding to the antique flavor of the hymn (Daw, 2016, p. 147). George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934) indicates in his 1910 edition of the Piae Cantiones that the hymn is “a parody of an older cantio in four stanzas dedicated to St. Nicholas” (Watson, 2013, n.p.). Like, IN DULCI JUBILO (“Good Christian Friends, Rejoice”), another example of a macaronic carol, “On This Day Earth Shall Ring” joins other Christmas carols that were popularized toward the close of the Middle Ages (Eskew & McElrath, 1990, p. 95).

Conflating salient points from Matthew 1-2 and Luke 2, the English-language stanzas lyrically unfold the nativity narrative, although out of the traditional order. Stanza 1 exults in the birth of Christ. Stanza 2 offers a theological interpretation of Christ’s birth: “His the doom, ours the mirth,” followed by a description of the stable in which Christ was born. Stanza 3 incorporates the wise men into the scene, who, following the star, bear gifts. Finally, in stanza 4, the angels join and sing their song, the words of which are part of the refrain.

The English paraphrase follows the original Latin poetry in its general arc. Stanza 1 in Latin includes a reference to Christ being born of a virgin (“de virgineo ventre procreatus”). Stanza 2 captures the general meaning of the original Latin with its description of the stable and theological meaning of the birth as the one from on high who saves us from hell (“Rector supernorum, perdidit spolia princeps infernorum”). Stanza 3, devoted to the arrival of the Magi who are seeking out the child, details specifically the three gifts (“Aurum, thus et myrrham”) in the Latin verse. In stanza 4, the Latin begins by priests who join equally with children and sing with the angels about the coming of Christ into the world. A lovely antithesis concludes the Latin stanza as the praise reaches from the foundations [of the earth] to God in the highest (“Laudes tibi fundo. Ideo gloria in excelsis Deo”). The final Latin phrase of this stanza becomes the refrain in Marian Joseph’s macaronic version.

Like the text, the tune has also been edited and adapted from its original form. Today’s popular setting for mixed voices, keyboard, and handbells was adapted by Gustav Holst and first appeared as a hymn in the Pilgrim Hymnal, 1958 (Young, 1993, p. 543). The tune, from a Swedish source, along with DIVINUM MYSTERIUM (“Of the Father’s love begotten”), IN DUCLI JUBILO (“Good Christian Friends, Rejoice”) and TEMPUS ADEST FLORIDUM (“Good King Wenceslas”) are just a few of the tunes from Petri’s collection that have captured the imagination of hymnal compilers and text writers through the centuries.

J. Richard Watson, general editor of the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, writes specifically of the considerable influence these tunes had in Great Britain:

[The] influence [of the Piae Cantiones] began in Britain when John Mason Neale (1818-1866) and Thomas Helmore (1811-1890) published Carols for Christmastide (1853) and Carols for Eastertide (1854), containing many translations or adaptations from it, including ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out’ for the tune of ‘Tempus adest floridum’. Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), the editor of Oxford Book of Carols, was a later enthusiast for Piae Cantiones, using nine of its tunes, with others found elsewhere, but also taken from Piae Cantiones, such as ‘Unto us a boy is born’ (‘Puer nobis nascitur’) and ‘Joseph dearest, Joseph mine’ (to the tune of ‘Resonet in laudibus’). (Watson, 2013, n.p.).

Oxford Movement editors Neale and Helmore, taking a scholarly approach, revived, edited, and promoted medieval carols during the late nineteenth century. The texts of the Piae Cantiones provided a significant amount of source material (Eskew & McElrath, 158).

Included in many denominational hymnals, “On This Day Earth Shall Ring” has become a standard in the Christmas repertoire. With stanzas especially suitable for young voices, “Personet hodie” provides a medieval, Latin processional hymn for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation (Young, 1993, p. 543). British hymnologist Erik Routley describes the significance of a processional in the Church of England:

. . . [A] procession [is] movement [that is] significant as well as symbolic. It is well that the act of procession [in the church] should symbolize the movement of the church through history, with a touch of the “church militant” in its gay colours and flying banners. But if the procession goes somewhere, and is not simply a movement from here to there and back again, it has more significance, and comes nearer to the medieval spirit . . .. in being not infrequently something like a carnival (Routley, 1958, p. 108).

It is perhaps this spirit that Jane Marian Joseph’s paraphrase, combined with Gustav Holst’s arrangement of this medieval tune, seeks to capture.

Further Reading and Sources

Carl P. Daw, Jr. Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

Harry Eskew & Hugh T. McElrath. Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology (Nashville: Church Street Press, 1990).

Erik Routley, The English Carol (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1958).

J. Richard Watson. “Personent hodie.”The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed April 30, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/p/personent-hodie.

J. Richard Watson. “Piae Cantiones.”The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed April 30, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/p/piae-cantiones.

Carlton R. Young. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Joshua Taylor, formerly served as the Director of Worship and Music at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. He and his wife are currently as directors of music for the Iona Abbey on the island of Iona, Scotland. Joshua is a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music program at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, where he studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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