Easter 2024

21 December 2015
IRBY - "Once in royal David's city"

As the 2015 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, England drew near (preview) it seemed meet and right to delve a bit deeper into some of the music.

This series began with Richard Causton's The Flight. Below: a look at the Processional Hymn.

There's a famous discussion that happened when Gustav Mahler came to visit Jean Sibelius. The two composers discussed the nature of the symphony itself. Mahler argued for romanticism: for him, the symphony must be all-encompassing. It must be "the world". Sibelius, the modernist, disagreed. For him the symphony was about the "inner logic", the interconnection and interplay of ideas.

These two approaches need not be and, in fact, are not mutually exclusive. Mahler and Sibelius, if pressed, could probably find examples of their preferred creative world view in each other's work.

The discussion these composers had is instructive in naming parts of the particular liturgy that is Lessons and Carols. Given the nature of the subjects of religion, one would expect the catholic (romantic) view of liturgy: it must be "the world". And yet, for liturgy to be protestant (modernist) it must also provide an "inner logic".

“the Anglican Church's ongoing liturgical apotheosis is found in the service of Lessons and Carols”

And there is no greater flowering of the two streams of Catholicism and Protestantism than the Anglican Church.

And the Anglican Church's ongoing liturgical apotheosis is found in the service of Lessons and Carols (a service not found in the Book of Common Prayer!).

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, England on Christmas Eve begins with the processional hymn "Once in royal David's city" sung to the hymn tune IRBY. This tune was written by Henry John Gauntlett, and his original harmonization can be found in green Carols for Choirs 1 (Oxford Univ. Press).

Gauntlett claimed to have composed 10,000 hymn tunes, and this may explain the tune's success. Whether or not he composed precisely that high a number is irrelevant. What we see with the melody of IRBY is the steady hand of a master at work. One could imagine for this hymn tune a scenario similar to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy": draft after draft, revision after revision, until what emerges is as perfectly crafted as the parameters of acoustic science will allow.

Of course when we talk about IRBY we must talk about it's use, since 1919, as the opening hymn at the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. While Gauntlett was able to refine this tune with pen and ink, it's modern performance practices have been forged from the particular alchemy of the stone of a gothic chapel, boys voices, and a small, significant red light from the BBC.

It is in the cool air of King's Chapel that the tune was first paired with its harmonization by Arthur Henry Mann. Mann, the Organist of King's College since 1876, had worked together with the Dean Eric Milner-White to direct the music at the very first service of Lessons and Carols at King's in 1918. The following year, the two settled on "Once in royal David's city" as the opening hymn, and it has remained the opening hymn of the service for the following 96 years.

Like Mann, attendees and listeners to this service first confront the tune itself, unadorned, and sung by a single treble voice. The red light comes on. The director nods. The chosen treble, who only moments before did not know for certain if he would be singing the solo verse, begins the story in the winter light of the chapel as millions around the world hold their breath to listen.

The tune begins on one note (the dominant, the fifth scale degree), rises a bit (to the leading tone), and then resolves just higher than that (to the tonic). The first two notes are readily heard as members of the Dominant (V) chord, especially in the ample acoustic of King's Chapel. In conventional harmony, the V chord always resolves itself to the Tonic (I), as it does here.

“these three notes succinctly resolve our waiting for the Incarnation to arrive”

The question must be asked -- and we at cannot readily find the answer -- when did the excellent custom of presenting this tune unharmonized and sung by a solo treble begin?

It is an understated elegance with which the tune unfolds. As it is St. John himself, later in the service, who "unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation", these three notes succinctly resolve our waiting for the Incarnation to arrive. Together, they are the unequivocal end of Advent.

From it's arrival on the tonic, the rhythm picks up steam. The arrival is weighted so that the first tonic pitch lingers over the next beat, resulting in a succession of five eighth notes and a melodic turn and cadential appoggiatura. The rhythm is repeated exactly in the consequent phrase.

It's the kind of thing that in a very sprightly tempo (and with the right kind of instrumentation) would make for a rather convincing country dance. In a slower tempo, as it must be sung, it becomes quite regal, as befits the word "royal" in the first line.

Mann's harmonization, found in the orange Carols for Choirs 2 and most hymnals that carry the tune, is heard on the second stanza when the choir enters. It complements the shape of the tune's "unfolding". Harmonized not with a V chord, but with only scale degree three in the bass. This gives more than a hint of the tonic chord for a melody that is about to outline V, but the tonic chord is not heard in root position on a strong beat until the tail end of the consequent phrase phrase. This is a sophisticated harmonization with narrative power.

After this, beginning at the third stanza, the organ and congregation join the festivities.

The words of the hymn work to tell this story beautifully. Cecil Frances Alexander was a story teller of a hymn-writer. See, for instance, her lyric opening "There is a green hill far away / without a city wall". You may also know her work from the hymn "All things bright and beautiful". Alexander, a Victorian hymn-writer, had a particular fondness for the word "little", using it almost as much as the Book of Mormon uses the phrase "and it came to pass". But here, she seems to be at the height of her powers, giving the narrative a "rare clarity and dignity" (J. R. Watson, The English Hymn).

The notes tell a story just as much the words do. The opening pitches of the melody are well-matched to the words' "Once upon a time" aesthetic, but they also have the effect of a more famous set of blue words on a black screen. This story is an epic tale that many are drawn to and love hearing hearing year after year. This story is "the world", or at least a key part of it.

Taken together, the words and the tune of this opening hymn have set the stage for this service for over nine decades. Perhaps there is contained in the implied harmonies of opening melodic motive (V-I) the possibility of a kind of reverse liturgical Shenkarian analysis of the pattern of the whole service: longing and fulfilment; tension and release; sin and redemption.

Like the unexpected beginning to Beethoven's First Symphony (V7-I), in the pattern of lessons we hear a repeated V-I resolution, in different keys, and within a larger scheme.

  1. The First Lesson relates to the Ninth in this scheme. See below.
  2. In the Second Lesson we come in media res ("because thou hast done this thing") to the story of Abraham and Isaac. The cries of Isaac are not heard, but the promise of God is: "in blessing I will bless thee"
  3. Third Lesson: people walked in darkness and they have seen light.
  4. Fourth Lesson: a branch shall grow and peace will come.
  5. Fifth Lesson: a virgin is impregnated.
  6. Sixth Lesson: a pregnant woman gives birth.
  7. Seventh Lesson: shepherds are afraid of angelic visitors, but then they're excited and go "with haste" to Bethlehem
  8. Eighth Lesson: wise men seek the King of the Jews and find him (the sub-plot with Herod is not resolved in this service; that's what Epiphany is for!)
  9. Ninth Lesson: What began in the First Lesson as unresolved is ultimately wrapped up in the Ninth (like a good baseball game). In the First Lesson Adam and Eve do a bad, bad thing, and they are punished for it, but their world has changed. They are separated from God.

    And let's note that in a contemporary world where the concept of sin is mocked, and confession is increasingly ignored, it is helpful that this origin story is preserved in this liturgy at Christmas. Sin is properly understood as separation from God, and Christmas can change this. Through another famous hymn we sing, "cast out our sin and enter in". (See a rather beautiful essay on these things at Sed Angli "Confession and Grace")

    The Ninth Lesson provides the massive crashing resolution of the entire thing, including that niggling part about the apple in the First Lesson ("to them gave he power to become the sons of God"). Christ is the Second Adam. Like the exuberant "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Ninth Lesson is the Incarnation as Easter story. A fitting resolution if there ever was one.

Make no mistake: "O come all ye faithful" after the Ninth Lesson is sung in the same key as "Once in royal David's city" because there is an "inner logic" to this service.

Tracing back before the "Easter" moment we hear in the prologue hymn to John's Gospel, we have Incarnation, the Annunciation, prophecies, covenants, and an apple.

And before that apple, how did it all begin?

Ah, yes. "Once in royal David's city..."

It's not an Amen (IV-I), but it is a very inspired and inspiring place to start (V-I).

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