Advent Carol for December 18: Once In Royal David’s City

My favourite anecdote about Christmas carols is one I heard on Radio Four one Christmas and I can’t remember whether I’ve told it here before, but in case I haven’t, and even if I have, here it is.

As you may know, the first verse is usually sung unaccompanied by a soloist, as it is here. At our family carols we used to rotate this role, with varyingly amusing results, until my cousin married a professional mezzo soprano, at which point it became clear nobody else was in the running any more (she usually tries to get out of it, but we never let her).

Anyway, the story told by a man on the radio who was probably, but not definitely, a choirmaster, was of a female soprano who was tasked with the solo, and who made the unfortunate mistake of starting off to the tune of Hark The Herald Angels Sing, which is similar enough to the tune of Once In Royal David’s City that she was able to stick with it, all unknowing, until she got to the line

Mary was that mother mild
Jesus Christ her little child

which she sang to the tune of

With th’angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

With the result that the only way out was to get to the end of the verse by singing

La la la la la la la
La la la la la la la

To the tune of

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born King!”

(It’s funnier if you sing it, which he did.)

Apparently the choir had spotted the error and gamely jumped in and sang the second verse to the correct tune, and all was well.

So I will always be fond of Once In Royal David’s City for that reason, and because it’s always been (at least, since 1919) the song that starts the Christmas Eve service from King’s, so it’s special, and because it was originally written for children to sing, so it’s also sweet and comprehensible. It dates from the mid-19th century and is the work of Cecil Alexander (a woman, and I’ve always liked Cecil as a woman’s name too, if I had a baby girl she might be a Cecil) who is also known for All Things Bright And Beautiful, but you can’t have it all.

More and just as good to follow this evening.

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