History isn’t just dry dates and statistics. History is human. History can be a great source of strength and affirmation, an aide to navigation, especially in dark and dangerous times. And the words and music we love that have stood the test of time mean still more when we know their story.
- David McCullough, American historian and author
ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID’S CITY
Cecil Frances Alexander took her position as an Anglican bishop’s wife very seriously. She accompanied her husband throughout his Ireland travels, scolding the wicked and praising the good, and most of all working with the youngsters, for whom she wrote a number of little poems and hymns. Her most famous collection was published in 1848 – Hymns for Little Children – and it was here that "Once in Royal David’s City" first appeared. A year later, H. J. Gauntlett discovered Mrs. Alexander’s poem and set it to music. The city, of course, is Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus and of His ancestor King David.
Since 1918, this carol has had the distinction of being played as the processional hymn during the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve at King's College, Cambridge, and is one of only two carols or hymns which had the distinction of being played annually (the other is Hark The Herald Angels Sing). Erik Routley writes that the remarkable harmonization of the version played at King's was by their organist in 1919, Dr. Arthur Henry Mann. Routley said, "with subtle art that arrangement turns the homely children's hymn into a processional of immense spaciousness."
This hymn is based on the words of the Creed, "Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary."
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