…homely children’s hymn into processional of immense spaciousness…*

*Routley, Erik (1959). The English Carol. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 231.

From Wikipedia:

“Once in Royal David’s City is a Christmas carol originally written as a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander. The carol was first published in 1848 in her hymnbook Hymns for Little Children. It was a collection of poems aimed to elucidate parts of the Apostles’ Creed for use in Sunday schools or in the home – “Once in Royal David’s City” told the story of the Nativity of Jesus to illuminate “Born of the Virgin Mary”. Other well-known hymns in the collection included “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (“Maker of Heaven and Earth“) and “There is a Green Hill Far Away” (“Was crucified dead and buried“).

(Alexander was married to the Anglican clergyman William Alexander, who was Archbishop of Armagh. An eloquent preacher and the author of numerous theological works, including Primary Convictions, he is best known as a master of dignified and animated verse. His poems were collected in 1887 under the title of St Augustine’s Holiday and other Poems.)

A year after its publication, the English organist Henry John Gauntlett discovered the poem and set it to music.

Henry John Gauntlett was organist at a number of London churches, including St Olave’sin Tooley Street, Southwark from 1827 to 1846, Christ Church Greyfriars and Union Chapel, Islington from 1852 to 1861. He edited many hymnbooks and wrote over a thousand hymn tunes, although his setting of “Once in Royal David’s City” to the tune Irbyis his most famous.

Since 1919, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the King’s College Chapel, Cambridge has begun its Christmas Eve service, with Dr Arthur Henry Mann‘s arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” as the Processional hymn. Mann was organist at King’s between 1876 and 1929.

In Mann’s arrangement, the first verse is sung by a boy chorister of the college’s choir as a solo. The second verse is sung by the choir, and the congregation joins in the third verse. Excluding the first verse, the hymn is accompanied by the organ.

According to the tradition of the King’s College Choir, the soloist of this hymn is usually chosen right before the performance, when the choirmaster decides whose voice is the strongest on the day, prior to the start of the broadcast.”


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