Text:Once in Royal David's City
Author:Cecil F. Alexander
Arranger and Composer (desc.):David Willcocks
Composer:Henry J. Gauntlett
Media:MIDI file

346. Once in Royal David's City

1 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.

2 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 meek and lowly
lived on earth our Savior holy.

3 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 feels for all our sadness,
and he shares in all our gladness.

4 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 has gone.

5 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:
there his children gather round
bright like stars, with glory crowned.

Text Information
First Line: Once in royal David's city
Title: Once in Royal David's City
Author: Cecil F. Alexander (1848)
Meter: 87 87 77
Language: English
Publication Date: 1987
Topic: Biblical Names & Places: David; Biblical Names & Places: Mary; Family (6 more...)
Tune Information
Name: IRBY
Composer: Henry J. Gauntlett (1849)
Arranger and Composer (desc.): David Willcocks (1970)
Meter: 87 87 77
Key: F Major
Copyright: Alternative arrangement and descant by permission of Oxford University Press.

Text Information:

Scripture References:
st. 1-2 = Luke 2:4-7
st. 4 = Mark 10:14
st. 5 = Rom. 8:34

To help children understand the Apostles' Creed words "who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary," Cecil F. Alexander (b. Redcross, County Wicklow, Ireland, 1818; Londonderry, Ireland, 1895) wrote this text and published it in her Hymns for Little Children (1848). Five of her six stanzas are included; the third stanza is omitted.

A good mingling of the biblical story and Christian theology, the text sets the nativity of Christ into a much larger framework-the history of salvation. Alexander's words enable us to look back and to look forward from this historic event. Stanzas 1 and 2 recall Christ's humble birth. Stanza 3 focuses on Christ's childhood and identity with humanity. Stanzas 4 and 5 look forward to the sharing of Christ's glory with his children.

As a small girl, Cecil Frances Humphries wrote poetry in her school's journal. In 1850 she married Rev. William Alexander, who later became the Anglican primate (chief bishop) of Ireland. She showed her concern for disadvantaged people by traveling 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. 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 Lord's Supper, the Ten Commandments, and prayer, writing in simple language for children. Her more than four hundred hymn texts were published in Verses from the Holy Scripture ( 1846), Hymns for Little Children (1848), and Hymns Descriptive and Devotional (1858).

Liturgical Use:
Christmas Eve or Christmas Day worship services, especially as a glorious processional; anytime during the church year in conjunction with worship services in which this part of the creed or eschatological themes (st. 5) is preached; church school programs.

--Psalter Hymnal Handbook

Tune Information:

Henry J. Gauntlett (PHH 104) composed IRBY for the text and published it in the pamphlet Christmas Carols, Four Numbers (1849) in a unison setting with piano accompaniment. Because of the hymn's traditional use (since 1918) as a processional hymn for the annual lessons and carols festival at King's College, Cambridge, various composers have provided glorious harmonizations for the tune, including the descant setting by David Willcocks (PHH 325) in the Psalter Hymnal and the Arthur Mann setting found in many modern hymnals. In the King's College festival a boy soprano sings the first stanza unaccompanied–a stunningly beautiful effect!

Named after a village in Lincolnshire, England, IRBY is a graceful tune that returns to the tonic in five out of six phrases. It is in rounded bar form (AABA). This hymn is a good candidate for antiphonal singing. Try having the children sing stanzas 1 and 3, the choir or full congregation sing stanzas 2 and 4, and the entire group sing stanza 5 in unison, with the choir singing the descant.

--Psalter Hymnal Handbook

MIDI file: MIDI Preview
(Faith Alive Christian Resources)
More media are available on the text authority and tune authority pages.

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