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Once in Royal David's City

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Miss Cecil Humphreys published her Hymns for Little Children in 1848, the same year she became Mrs. Cecil Alexander.  Thanks to the immediate popularity of her hymns such as this one and her other well-known one – All Things Bright and Beautiful – she used profits from her published hymnals to help build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and support the Derry Home for Fallen Women. 

Only a year after its initial publication, English organist Henry John Gauntlett discovered the poem.  A prolific church musician who composed over 1,000 hymn tunes, he set Once in Royal David's City to a tune known as IRBY, and this pairing of text and music became so popular that it quickly ceased being sung to any other tune. 

With the aim of explaining the mystery of the Incarnation, “Miss Cecil” writes a vivid text; shattering perceptions of the picturesque Nativity with the realities of the lowly stable, and the weak and dependent baby.  But the narrative she paints relates to the entire youth of Christ and not just his birth.

In 1880, the Archbishop of Canterbury created The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for a Christmas Eve service (purportedly to keep the pubs empty that night.)  The best-known version of this is broadcast annually from King's College, Cambridge, and ever since 1919 the Processional Hymn has been Once in Royal David's City.  In their arrangement, the first verse is sung unaccompanied by a young boy soloist, and it's a great honor each year to be the boy chosen to be “a voice heard literally around the world.”

This carol was the first recording that the King's College Choir made in 1948, exactly 100 years after its first publication.  Among others who have recorded it are folk/country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Petula Clark, Jethro Tull, and Sufjan Stevens.