Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (25): ‘Once
in royal David’s city’ (No 177)

Part of the Nativity scene inside the main doors of Sorrento’s cathedral is on display all year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

We have come to the end of the Advent season for this year, and Christmas Eve has arrived. At carol services in cathedrals and churches throughout the Anglican Communion this afternoon, a shared tradition in many places on Christmas Eve is singing ‘Once in royal David’s city,’ often with a boy chorister singing the opening stanza as an unaccompanied solo.

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I have been looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning [24 December 2014], as I come to the end of these reflections, predictably chosen for my Advent hymn today ‘Once in royal David’s city,’ which is No 177 in the Irish Church Hymnal and No 34 in the New English Hymnal.

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) took her position as an Anglican bishop’s wife very seriously. She accompanied her husband throughout his Ireland travels, taking a special interest in children.

She wrote a number of poems and hymns for children, and was the author of more than 400 hymns, including ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful.’ Her most famous collection was published in 1848, Hymns for Little Children. This collection included ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ A year later, the English composer and organist Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) found her poem and set it to music with the tune, ‘Irby,’ named after a village on the Wirral Peninsula. Gauntlett is said to have composed the music for more than 10,000 hymns; however, as this would mean he wrote three hymns a day for 30 years, this figure is doubtful.

Gauntlett has been described as the “Father of Church Music,” for he was the creator of the school of four-part hymn tunes, although it is debatable whether he deserves this accolade. He was admired by Mendelssohn, who wrote of him: “His literary attainments, his knowledge of the history of music, his acquaintance with acoustical law, his marvellous memory, his philosophical turn of mind as well as practical experience —these render him one of the most remarkable professors of the age.”

Cecil Frances Humphreys was born in 1823, the second daughter of the late Major John Humphreys, of Miltown House, near Strabane, Co Tyrone. As a small girl, she wrote poetry in her school journal.

In 1850, she married the Revd Dr William Alexander, who later became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe in the Church of Ireland, and then Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. She showed her concern for disadvantaged people by travelling many miles each day to visit the sick and the poor, providing food, warm clothes, and medical supplies. She and her sister also founded a school for the deaf.

Mrs Alexander was strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement and by John Keble’s Christian Year. Her first book of poetry, Verses for Seasons, was a “Christian Year” for children. She wrote hymns based on the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Eucharist, the Ten Commandments, and prayer, writing in simple language for children. Her more than 400 hymn texts were published in Verses from the Holy Scripture (1846), Hymns for Little Children (1848), and Hymns Descriptive and Devotional (1858). She also contributed to the Lyra Anglicana, the SPCK Psalms and Hymns, Hymns Ancient and Modern, and other collections.

Some of her narrative hymns are rather heavy, perhaps even dull. But a large number remain popular and well-loved, including ‘All things bright and beautiful’ (ICH, No 25), ‘Once in royal David’s city’ (No 177), ‘There is a green hill far away’ (244) and ‘Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult’ (No 335).

This morning’s hymn was one of a series of hymns written to provide simple explanations of clauses in the Apostles’ Creed, with this hymn based on the words “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”

Stanzas 1 and 2 describe the birth of Christ in simple terms. The city, of course, is Bethlehem, his birthplace and the birthplace of his ancestor, King David. As we all know, Mary and Joseph were there to be counted in the census, which, as in our day, determined the tax distribution and burden of many communities, and was a real hardship for the poor who had to travel across difficult terrain.

Stanzas 3 and 4 look at Christ’s childhood as a pattern and example for children in living their lives.

Stanzas 4 and 5 proclaim the divinity of Christ and point to his heavenly glory, which is in sharp contrast to the humble circumstances of his birth. The Christ Child who was born in humility and poverty is not only our pattern and example but also our Redeemer, seated in glory at God’s right hand in heaven.

Over the years, many changes have been made to the wording of this hymn. Some alterations changed the original “lowly maiden” to “lowly mother” concerned that the word “maiden” might imply the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. However the original words have been restored in the fifth edition of the Irish Church Hymnal.

Since 1918, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the Chapel of King’s College, 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 and Director of Music at King’s from 1876 until his death in 1929. In his arrangement, the first verse is sung by a boy chorister of the Choir of King’s Chapel 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. This carol was the first recording that the King’s College Choir under Boris Ord made for EMI in 1948.

This carol has had the distinction of being is one of only two carols or hymns that are sung annually at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve in King’s College ... ‘Hark! the herald-angels sing’ (ICH, No 160).

Now, every year without fail, at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, this is the opening carol from the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, and it is broadcast live from Cambridge on the BBC Radio 4. The opening words are always the same: “And now from the Chapel of King Henry VIII, King’s College Cambridge, a service of Nine Lessons and Carols.”

The boys of the choir are all capable of opening, but the choirmaster only chooses the choirboy shortly before the broadcast and it is considered a great honour. For many, this carol is a reminder that Love and goodness are rare and wonderful gifts, and for man too to hear it live on BBC Radio 4 marks the true start of Christmas.

We used this carol in a similar way at the opening of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Monday evening [22 December 2014].



 Once in royal David’s city, by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander

Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed;
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, and mean, and lowly
lived on earth our Saviour holy.

And through all his wondrous childhood
he would honour and obey,
love and watch the lowly maiden
in whose gentle arms he lay;
Christian children all must be
kind, obedient, good as he.

For he is our childhood’s pattern,
day by day like us he grew;
he was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew;
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love,
for that child so dear and gentle
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned
all in white shall wait around.

Series concluded.

Tomorrow: Carols and Hymns for Christmas (1): ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ (No 162)

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