(Anonymous/John Thomas MacFarland/James Ramsey Murray)
(Other settings and versions: William J. Kirkpatrick/Harold Darke/J. Spilman/John Tavener)
This popular and timeless Christmas carol has its first two verses written by an anonymous author and therefore the exact date of it is not known. Many believed that Martin Luther may have been the author but this has long since been disproved and it is quite possibly because when James Ramsey Murray originally published it he entitled it “Luther’s Cradle Hymn”.
It is quite probable that it hails from the United States from 1885 when it appeared in the Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families. The tune that accompanied this version is “Cradle Song” by William J. Kirkpatrick and is still used in England to this day. It is thought that John Thomas MacFarland wrote the third verse in 1904 but this has also been up for speculation, although it is widely accepted. That same year James Ramsey Murray wrote the music “Mueller” which is the tune many associate with the carol, and it appeared in print in Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses: For Use in Kindergarten and Home. Another well-published tune that is used is the adaptation of Robert Burns’ “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” that was written by the American composer Jonathon Edward Spilman in 1838, nearly 50 years prior to the carol being written in the form we know it now. In 1914 the composer Harold Darke wrote “Cradle Hymn” which has also been used for the carol and it has been stated that there is a tradition in Moravia where choirs of trombones perform it.
There are at least 40 versions of music for the carol and the latest setting for it was written by John Tavener in 2004 and appeared at King’s College, Cambridge, in their Nine Lessons and Carols service. Recorded by many choirs and popular artists, it can be heard on albums by Nat King Cole, Joan Osbourne, Linda Ronstadt, Celtic Women and John Rutter & The Cambridge Singers among many others, and the composer Leroy Anderson included it in his Suite of Carols for String Orchestra.
Leroy Anderson and His Orchestra recordings
Decca B0003552-02 (CD: A Leroy Anderson Christmas)
Cambridge Singers and City of London Sinfonia recordings
Collegium 106 (CD: Christmas Night. Carols of The Nativity)
Conductor – John Rutter
Choir of St. John’s, Cambridge recordings
London 421 022 (CD: Christmas Weekend -16 Favourite Carols)
Robert DeCormier Singers and Ensemble recordings
Arabesque 6526 (A Victorian Christmas)
Conductor – Robert DeCormier
Paul Hill Chorale recordings
CRC 2258 (CD: A Paul Hill Chorale Christmas)
Kings College Choir, Cambridge recordings
London 444 848 (CD: Noel – Christmas at Kings)
Conductor – Sir David Willcocks
Robert Shaw Chorale recordings
RCA 6429 – 2 – RG (CD: A Festival of Carols)
(Arrangers – Robert Shaw/Alice Parker)