In this 200th anniversary of the birth of Mrs C.F. Alexander, author of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, all of us for whom Christmas properly begins when we hear the treble solo of verse one on Christmas Eve should remember her and be thankful.
She was born Cecil Frances Humphreys, ‘Fanny’, to a successful land agent in Dublin in 1818, and she seems to have been genuinely mild, obedient, good as He. From an early age she had an instinctive liking for vicars, rectors, deans, bishops and archbishops, although she was shy and at her most relaxed with children and dogs. She eventually married a Church of Ireland rector of her own, William Alexander, who later became a bishop, and they lived a long, happy life of parenthood and charitable works.
She wrote her book of Hymns for Little Children in 1848, before her marriage, hoping that the simple poetry would be helpful in fixing the understanding of Christian beliefs in children’s minds. One of her heroes, the High Anglican priest and poet John Keble, wrote, in his introduction to the book: ‘Children, and those interested in children, will feel at once whether it suits them or not.’
Well, it certainly did suit them. Mrs Alexander’s hymns express with such unpretentious clarity and perfect scansion the essence of Christianity that anyone who sang them in childhood has the words going round in their head all through adulthood. We see the imagery in our minds and cling to it as the comforting could-be truth. ‘And his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall.’ We name our moment of reaching maturity as the day when it dawned on us that the line ‘without a city wall’, from her hymn ‘There Is a Green Hill Far Away’, doesn’t mean that the green hill didn’t have a city wall.
The only blot on Mrs Alexander’s career, to the modern sensibility, was that she wrote the lines, in ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, ‘The rich man in his castle,/ The poor man at his gate,/ God made them, high or lowly,/ He ordered their estate.’ We were still singing that verse at my school in the early 1970s but it started being omitted in 1975. Her supporters claim that the comma between ‘them’ and ‘high’ is all-important. It wasn’t that God made them high or lowly, but that he made them, whether they were high or lowly. I’m not so sure, because she then makes it quite clear that He ordered their estate.
The tune of ‘Once in Royal’ (the hymn is so well known that we call it by half its first line — a meaningless first half of a subordinate clause) wasn’t written till a year after the lyrics. The composer was Henry J. Gauntlett, a stout organist, friend of Mendelssohn, and composer of more than 1,000 hymn tunes, most of them now forgotten. But ‘Irby’, as it’s called, has rightly survived.
Gauntlett’s harmony was four-square and Victorian. It needed a moment of inspiration from Arthur ‘Daddy’ Mann, director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, from 1876 to 1929, who came up with the stunningly understated opening chords of verse two, which, for some of the 180 million listeners to the King’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols across the globe, are even more spine-tingling than the solo first verse. ‘He came down to Earth from heaven…’ The hymn breaks out into harmony. It blossoms. It was about the only thing Mann composed in his 53 years at King’s — but it was worth waiting for.
Are today’s children singing Mrs Alexander’s hymns? The awful thing is, too many of them are not. At today’s school carol services or concerts, children wearing tinsel hairbands and reindeer jumpers are singing their hearts out to ‘Have you noticed the Christmas trees?/ The mistletoe and the holly wreaths?’ Or ‘Five mince pies in the baker’s shop/ Warm and spicy with sugar on top.’ Or ‘Who’s got a beard that’s long and white?/ Santa’s got a beard that’s long and white.’ On balmy British winter afternoons they’re singing about sleighs with jingle bells, ‘snowin’ and blowin’ up bushels of fun’. If only!
When you banish the Christmas story from ‘Christmas songs’, as they’re called, all you’re left with are the props: the crackers, the presents, the sleighs, the snowman and Santa’s hat. Very tawdry they all look.
What worries me is not only that children are missing out on the spiritual, poetic and musical nourishment of the great hymns, but that the art of children singing high will die out. At the moment, this art is being kept alive by our nation’s 1,400 or so choristers, plus pupils doing classical singing exam grades, who are still being trained to explore their high register. When children are belting out ‘Have you put on your Christmas hat,/Pulled a cracker and said How’s that?’, they’re singing with their speaking register, or ‘music theatre’ register: a much more earthy sound.
In fact, we’re all losing the ability to sing high. ‘Once in Royal’ has come down a tone, from its original key of G to F, in modern hymn books. Thank goodness for David Willcocks’s arrangement that includes a descant for the final verse, which all children love, and which challenges them to sing high. The descant soars up to a top G at the end, the glorious musical effect redeeming what is perhaps the most anticlimactic final line of any hymn, ‘All in white shall wait around.’