Once in Royal David's City (Gauntlett, arr Philip Sparke)

The text of this universally popular carol appeared in Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander’s 1848 collection, Hymns for Little Children (which was, incidentally, also the source of All Creatures Great and Small).  Born in 1818, Cecil Alexander she made her name writing children’s hymns and was later married to Archbishop William Alexander, who was the Anglican Primate for Ireland.

The melody was composed in 1849 (although not specifically for Alexander’s text) by the English composer Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876), an exceptionally gifted organist who was, in turn, lawyer, author and organ designer. He had lessons from Wesley and Attwood, a former pupil of Mozart, wanted to appoint him as his assistant at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, but Henry’s father dissuaded him from making music his career and he took up law as a profession.

Moving to London, he continued his work as an organ designer (working closely with William Hill) and it is said he wrote over 10,000 hymns – a figure which seems excessive! He was chosen by Mendelssohn to play the organ for the first performance of Elijah in Birmingham.

Text and tune were actually first married in America in 1849, by one Bill Drennon of the Central Valley Christian School, Visalia, California.

Philip Sparke’s arrangement presents four contrasting verses of the carol, interspersed with a recurring theme, which both opens and closes the work.