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O Little Town of Bethlehem

(US Versions: Phillips Brooks/Lewis Henry Redner/Uzziah Christopher Burnap)
(English Versions: Phillips Brooks/Traditional/Ralph Vaughan Williams/H. Walford Davies)

In 1868 the Episcopalian priest, Phillips Brooks, wrote a poem following an inspirational visit to Bethlehem he had made in 1865.  The organist of his church, Lewis Redner, added the tune to it literally overnight for the following day’s Christmas Sunday school service and the popular Christmas carol was born.  The Rev. Dr. Huntingdon who had his church in Worcester, Massachusetts, asked if he could publish the hymn in his The Church Porch, and it was he who entitled the music “Saint Louis” as it had so far remained un-named.  Originally there were four verses but Phillips Brookes decided to omit the last one in 1868 and so is never heard.  This version is the one that will still be heard for the most part throughout the United States, although Uzziah Christopher Burnap also added his own music called “Ephratah” to it, which is occasionally also used.

In 1906 in England however, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took the carol and made his own adaptation of it with the music he called “Forest Green”, which had been adapted by him from an English folk tune called “The Ploughboy’s Dream” that he had collected from a Mr. Garman in 1903 in Forest Green, England.  This music is also used for the carol “The Newborn King Who Comes Today”.

The composer H. Walford Davies made a further English version, which was for use by choirs rather than a congregation.  This version, which mainly uses treble voices and organ, has been used at the King’s College, Cambridge, in their Nine Lessons and Carols service and by the Choir of Durham Cathedral.  The Choir at King’s College, Cambridge, as well as the choirs of Winchester Cathedral and St. John’s College, Cambridge, Cathedral have also covered the version by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In the world of popular music the Lewis Redner version has been recorded by Dolly Parton and Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and the American 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)