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While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

(Traditional English/Anonymous/Nahum Tate)
(UK music – Winchester Old – Christopher Tye/George Kirbye)
(US music – George Frideric Handel arranged by Lowell Mason)

This Christmas carol  is a traditional English carol that has the lyrics attributed to the Irish Poet Laureate Nahum Tate at some time around the end of the 17th and start of the 18th century.  It first appeared in the supplement of the 1696 New Version of the Psalms of David as “Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” which was published in 1700 and was the only hymn permitted to to be sung by the Anglican Church after that date.  It remains the only hymn from that publication that is still sung to this day.

It was later published in 1822 by Davies Gilbert and in 1833 by William B. Sandys and even though many tunes are used for the hymn the most popular and well known music used in the UK is “Winchester” or “Winchester Old” as it is now known.  It first appeared in The Whole Book of Psalmes published in a psalter by Estes in 1592, where the music was a 1553 arrangement of an anonymous work from Chapter VIII of the Acts of the Apostles by the composer Christopher Tye.  It is thought that this arrangement was redone by the madrigalist George Kirbye for Estes and the tune and hymn were later published in a further arrangement in 1861’s Hymns Ancient and Modern by William Henry Monk.

In the United States the most commonly used music used is a variation of an aria from the opera Siroe by George Frideric Handel called “Christmas” which was arranged by Lowell Mason in 1821.  “Old Winchester” is still sometimes used as an alternative.

Many other music versions for the hymn exist, such as “Sherburne” published in 1785 by the composer Daniel Read, “Martyrdom” by Hugh Wilson in 1800 and “Cranbrook” written by the shoe-maker Thomas Clark in Canterbury in 1805, “Shackelford” by Frederick Henry Cheeswright in 1889 and “Jackson’s Tune” by the organist Robert Jackson in 1903 along with several other tunes. Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote a setting for the hymn in 1883.

The carol has been recorded numerous times on by artists and ensemble that include the Ambrosian Singers, The American Boychoir, The Bach Choir, BBC Chorus, Max Bygraves, Canterbury Choir, Chas & Dave, the City of Prague Philharmonic,  the Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Michael Crawford, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, Arturo Delmoni, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, 101 Strings, King’s College Choir, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Louvin Brothers, Mantovani, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The St. Thomas Choir, Harry Secombe, The Sixteen, Connie Smith, The Spinners, the Taverner Consort, Rick Wakeman, the Westminster Abbey Choir and Joemy Wilson along with too many others to mention.

King’s College Choir, Cambridge recordings
London 444 848 (CD: Noel – Christmas at Kings)
Conductor – Sir David Willcocks