Royal Sheep Dance Around the Manger

Royal Sheep Dance Around the Manger

Hymn #205 — “Once in Royal David’s City”

Text: Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)
Music: Henry J. Gauntlett (1805-1876)
Tune name: IRBY

Royal Sheep Dance Around the Manger.jpg

We always talk about Jesus’ birth as a quiet, Silent Night. A reverent scene with sweet little animals quietly gazing in wonder and the special baby and mother.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a ‘reverent scene’ of any kind when barnyard animals are involved.

But I’m not exactly keen on barnyard animals, so maybe that’s my problem.

It seems more likely that Mary and Joseph were camped out in what must have been a filthy, noisy, smelly hole in the side of a hill with animal droppings all over.

Not exactly the kind of place you’d want to give birth…

Of course it was still beautiful, I’m sure. Child birth is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Suddenly there’s another person in the room where there wasn’t before. It’s incredibly fascinating. And that this baby was the Only Begotten… well, you know how special that is.

I like this hymn because it seems to combine a sweet little children’s song with the rustling and noise of a cave full of animals.

There’s the tune, and then there’s all the hustle and bustle of moving parts and stomping hoofs around it.

The tune of the first 4 bars is repeated exactly in the second 4 bars. But the harmony is different, which I always appreciate.

The first 4 bars begin with a stepping bass that gives the seen a regal feel. The tenors accompany the moving eighth notes in 6ths. And the bass line leaps down as the tune leaps up to the “lowly cattle shed.”

The second 4 bars begins with the bass up on the top of the staff and stepping down as the tune restarts. It’s a nice contrast with the start of the first 4 bars. There’s a bit of chromatic harmony in the alto with the B-natural, and the phrase ends as it did the first time.

Now we leap way up to a high D to begin both of the last 4 bar phrases.

The bass line gets the sheep going and we have a bit of a shin-dig in the cave. The bass line runs right up the scale, almost to the top in a string of straight eighth notes. It happens a second time and the altos join in the fun, followed by the soprano and tenor reversing the stepping eighth-note motion down to the final cadence.

The tempo marking says “Reverently,” but I think it feels a lot more like “Bucolicly,” or “Rusticly,” or “Countrified.”

And why not? Yes, it was a special, unique, earth tilting moment. But it was also a backwater, in the fields, rustic kind of moment.

It’s a lovely Christmas song and very worthy of our hymnal.

That’s all for today. Have a good one!


Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

Since 1919, this carol has been the processional hymn at Lessons & Carols services at King’s College, Cambridge, and many similarly-patterned services in churches across the world. Traditionally, a boy soprano sings the first verse as a solo. We can actually see the influence of the King’s College, Cambridge tradition of Lessons and Carols on this hymn. Before several recordings of Lessons and Carols were released in the mid-twentieth century, this hymn was little-known and little-performed. After the recordings, the hymn gained immediate and wide acceptance and popularity.

The text was first published in Hymns for Little Children (London, 1848). This publication contained thirteen hymns written by Cecil Alexander to explain phrases of the Apostles Creed. (Additional texts we are familiar with from this collection include “There is a Green Hill Far Away” and “He is Risen!) “Once in Royal David’s City” is a commentary of the third article of the creed which says “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” Our hymnal contains three of the six commonly used verses.

This outstanding text is always set to Dr. Hanry Gauntlett’s tune and was included with this text in a pamphlet Christmas Carols or Lays and Legends of the Nativity (London, 1850). The standard setting used at King’s College and many hymnals (but not ours) is by Dr. Arthur Henry Mann, a one-time organist at King’s College.

If “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is Christmas to me and many because of the David Willcock’s harmonization, this hymn is close on its tail for making Christmas. Again, David Willcocks’ setting of the Mann arrangement is most often used as the setting for the opening of Lessons & Carols. It is a tremendous harmonization and descant of the sixth verse and should also be universally used when this hymn is sung. Of a personal note, I am especially excited that my oldest son will be singing the opening soprano solo from the church balcony for our Lessons & Carols this Sunday!

A good tempo for this stately hymn is about 86 beats per minute. That moves the hymn along nicely without rushing or dragging. I would begin with a solid registration and build through the verses till I have a very full registration for the final verse.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, 4’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, Flute 8’, String 8’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, Subbass 16’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Principal 2’ (probably added earlier), Mixture
Swell: Principal 2’ (probably added earlier), Hautbois 8’ (probably added earlier), Mixture, Trumpet 8’
Pedal: Principal 4’ (probably added earlier), Heavy Reed 16’