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A carol a day: Once in Royal David’s City


This is the first in this year’s series of Christmas carols, with some new songs and some repeats. This was first published on December 3, 2018. 

WE start with Once in Royal David’s City because it is often used at the beginning of carol services, with the first verse sung unaccompanied by a solo treble. Many will have seen and heard it performed by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, at the start of their annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast live on Radio 4. The soloist is one of the 16 choristers aged nine to 13, but he is not told until ten seconds before the service begins that he is the choice. The theory is that this avoids last-minute nerves, though I would have thought the result would be 16 boys having nerves for weeks instead of one. It also features at the start of the televised Carols from King’s which is recorded earlier in December, but I have not been able to discover if the same procedure is observed about the soloist.

The words of Once in Royal David’s City were written in 1848 by Dublin-born Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, who must be one of the most popular hymn and carol writers with All Things Bright and Beautiful and There is a Green Hill Far Away to her name.

It was set to music the following year by the English organist and noted hymn composer Henry John Gauntlett. The tune is called Irby.

This is the 2016 Carols from King’s.

This is a lovely arrangement by John Rutter, performed by the orchestra and singers of Clare College, Cambridge.

This comment was left by paul parmenter in 2018:

If I can introduce a slightly irreverent note, the mention of this particular carol brings back memories of a rather unfortunate, if comical, episode from my childhood at primary school.

For our Christmas service in front of all the parents at our local church, Once in Royal David’s City was to be our first processional carol. Our headmaster conceived the idea that once all the parents were seated inside, the children would then enter the church in groups, each group singing a verse of the carol in turn as they solemnly walked down the aisle to take their places at the front.

As the saying goes, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Each verse was just long enough to allow each group of children the time to complete their entry into the church. We rehearsed it until we had it all off pat. The head was very pleased with us, but not half as pleased as he was with himself for dreaming up the plan.

Except cometh the day, it sadly went a little bit wrong. I think the problem started when somebody gave a signal to the organist before the first group of children were ready. It was bitterly cold, and the children were still milling around outside trying to keep warm. I was in the final group, which if memory serves would have been the fourth. I remember the shock wave that passed through us all when we heard the start of the tune being played inside while the first group of children were still being organised.

Cue chaos. Some children hurried to the church door and started singing, trying to catch up with the music. Others held back, waiting for instructions from the teachers, who were rushing around trying to reform the group and get everyone together and singing in unison. But to no avail. Those who had got into the church and started singing then realised that they were not all together, and some stopped or turned back. Others ran to catch up, but not knowing if they were supposed to be singing or not. I think one or two kids had also just frozen in fear.

By this time, the first verse should have been completed and the second group should have been starting to sing and enter the church; but they had been left behind while the first group was still half in and half out, some singing with others lost as to what they were supposed to be doing.

The panic then spread into the other groups, and everything went from bad to worse. Voices that had been robust and joyful during rehearsal, became muted and discordant as their owners found themselves in the wrong place singing the wrong verse at the wrong time. I remember the dismay as our group realised that we were supposed to be entering the church singing our verse, but we were now a full group and a half behind; those already in the church were singing our verse while we were still stuck outside. By the time my group got into the church, the organist had finished all the verses. We never had a chance to sing a single word. We just trooped in, shuffled past our bewildered parents and sat down at the front alongside the other pale, frightened young faces in stony silence.

I don’t recall seeing the headmaster at any point. Maybe he had thought discretion was the better part of valour, and had swiftly distanced himself from the shambles as it unfolded.

BTW, I still like the carol.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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