Carol of the Day for 2nd January 2022

by Alderley Edge Methodist Church  |  Posted at 20:45pm on 2nd January 2022

Carol for January 2nd: Once in royal David's city

Many thanks to Barbara Williams for today's reflection


It is the morning of Christmas Eve as I write this, and I am reminded of a few years ago, early on a cold and frosty morning, when I collected my ticket for the afternoon Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the lodge at King’s College, Cambridge. What an unforgettable, spine-tingling day that was, beyond my wildest dreams to be given the privilege of actually being in the chapel, and part of the live broadcast at 3 o’clock.


The first verse of the opening carol, the start of the real Christmas for many people, is sung by a single treble selected by the conductor, Stephen Cleobury in those days, later Sir, but now sadly deceased, only minutes before the recording light is switched on.  “Once in Royal David’s city” rang out in the silence of the chapel and the magic began.


The first carol service at King’s in 1918 began with the carol “Up good Christen Folk” but it only had the opening slot for just the one year, and in 1919, “Once in Royal” was given the honour and has retained that position since, being an iconic part of the service.


The carol itself in its almost sentimental and wide-eyed tenderness is typical of the 19th century. Written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, a very successful writer of her generation and author of “Hymns for Little Children” published in 1848, a volume of devotional verses that proved to be very popular by the end of the century. It was intended to introduce children to Christian values, and the story of Christ’s birth, in simple, direct language. The emphasis is on Christ as a baby, a fragile helpless infant, hence it is thought the reason for a single voice opening the service, in its purity and frailty, but not a sign of weakness in the quality of the voice chosen.


The first two verses are a narrative of the Nativity, the third verse an outline of Jesus’ behaviour and an instruction to a Christian child to follow his example.  The last verse tells us that we shall not see Him in a lowly stable, but set at God’s right hand in heaven.


Mrs Alexander, the wife of the Bishop of Armagh, also wrote the words of “There is a green hill far away” and “All things bright and beautiful” among others. There is a window dedicated to her in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry.


The English organist Henry John Gauntlett came across the poem and set it to music, making the carol, it is said, possibly greater than the words merited. Its popularity was assured by the director of music at King’s from 1876 until 1929, Arthur Henry Mann. He was the one who introduced it to the service, using the single treble for the first verse, and slightly changing Gauntlett’s harmonies. His harmonisation has also retained its place.


Gauntlett wrote over 1000 hymn tunes, but Irby, the one composed for “Once in Royal” is possibly the most well-known. This carol was the first recording that King’s College Choir made for EMI in 1948 under their then conductor, Boris Ord.

We can now enjoy a wondrous descant to the final verse written by Sir David Willcocks, director of music at King’s from 1957 to 1974.