Like a lot of other musicians this time of year, I’m practicing for an upcoming Christmas Music Program. I’m glad to be a part of it. I love playing for big events. The only disappointment is the congregational hymn I’ve been asked to play—Once In Royal David’s City.
It’s not that I don’t like the hymn. In fact, after playing it on the organ the last five Christmases it’s made it onto My Top 13 LDS Christmas Hymns list. (Yes, I know. There are only 14 LDS Christmas hymns.) Actually, I think the hymn could probably make it up into My Top Five list if weren’t for three factors.
Between the eighth note runs in the pedal line and the fingering gymnastics required to keep a legato line, Once In Royal David’s City is a very demanding hymn! But that’s what often happens with musically interesting pieces.
Once In Royal David’s City is a Christmas carol originally written as poem by Cecil Frances Alexander as a way to teach children about Christ’s birth and life on earth. I have found several verses beyond the three that appear in the LDS hymnal. One of these omitted verses is so meaningful to me. It speaks to the child in me who needs to be reassured that Christ understands, I mean really, truly understands what it’s like to feel small and insignificant.
For He is our childhood’s pattern,
Day by day, like us He grew
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew
And He feeleth for our sadness
And He shareth in our gladness
Theologically I am committed to my religion. Musically, though, I think mainstream christianity is pretty cool. For example, since 1919, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the King’s College Chapel Cambridge has begun its Christmas Eve service with Once in Royal David’s City as the Processional hymn. In the video below, the first verse is sung by a boy chorister of the Choir of King’s Chapel as a solo. The second verse is sung by the choir, and the congregation joins in the third verse.
When was the last time you heard those kind of acoustics in an LDS church building? How many members of your ward’s Deacon Quorum could put it out there like that boy did? And the organ? Wow! For me, it all adds up to a wonderful musical experience.
Looking at the obstacles involved may make the hymn seem like too much of a challenge. But rather than dismiss playing the hymn altogether, I have realized there are some options for getting it closer to My Top Five list.
The difficulty factor can be worked around by finding another arrangement. Easy Organ Hymn Settings by Don Cook offers a reasonable alternative for the early-intermediate level organist. An intermediate level arrangement in Three-Stave Hymn Accompaniments, also by Don Cook, simplifies the pedal by putting the bass runs in the left hand while retaining the 4-part harmony. And for those who want to tackle the hymnal version, Carol Dean (firstname.lastname@example.org) has created fingering/pedaling suggestions to assist ward organists in learning effective, efficient playing technique.
As far as the text, many open-minded bishops will permit additional verses (doctrinally correct, of course!) to be sung in sacrament meeting. The non-hymnal verse(s) could be printed in the bulletin for congregational singing, or could be sung as an interlude by a soloist.
The last issue—ambience—is a little more problematic. Can you picture an LDS Sacrament Meeting being held in a beautiful gothic cathedral, with all the pageantry, candles, and glorious acoustics? Me neither. Which is why Once In Royal David’s City remains almost my favorite Christmas hymn.