The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Words: Bishop Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), 1868.
Source: Phillips Brooks, Christmas Songs and Easter Carols (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1903), except for the second verse.

Music: "St. Louis," Lewis Henry Redner (1831-1908), 1868.
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"Forest Green" by Ralph Vaughn Williams in The English Hymnal (1906), page 24.
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Meter: 86 86 76 86

O Little Town Of Bethlehem - Notes On The Carol

The links to Brooks and Redner open in new windows at an external site, the excellent Cyberhymnal.

1. O little town of Bethlehem,
    How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
    The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
    The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are met in thee to-night.

2. O morning stars, together
    Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
    And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary
    And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep the Angels keep
    Their watch of wondering love.

3. How silently, how silently,
    The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
    The blessings of His Heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
    But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
    The dear Christ enters in.

4. Where children pure and happy
    Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
    Son of the Mother mild;1
Where Charity stands watching
    And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
    And Christmas comes once more.

5. O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in,
    Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels,
    The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Emmanuel!

Footnote

1. Initially: Son of the Undefiled. For an explanation of this substitution, see the discussion in Notes On The Carol (link opens in a new window). Return

Editor's Note:

Verse 4 originally appeared in the program from the first performance in 1868, but did not appear in early hymn books. This situation is discussed in detail in the Notes page for this carol. The first appearance that I've found of all five verses was in the monthly magazine Children's Work for Children, Vol. II, No. 1. (The Woman's Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA., January 1877), pp. 15-16.

In the first publication in The Church Porch (below), the second verse was different that originally written:

2. For Christ is born of Mary,
    And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
    Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together,
    Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King,
    And peace to men on earth!

Sheet Music to "St. Louis" by Louis Redner from William R. Huntington, ed., The Church Porch (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1874), No. 43.
St_Louis-Redner-Church_Porch-43-1874.jpg

This is the earliest publication that I'm aware of. Privately produced sheet music appeared before this.
Redner was Organist at Trinity Church, Boston, where Rev. Brooks was serving at this time.

Sheet Music by A. P. Howard published by Oliver Ditson and Company (Boston, New York and Philadelphia, 1880).
Source was the Library of Congress, which has 18 pages of links to sheet music to this carol.
This is the oldest sheet music that I've found.
O_Little_Town-APHoward-1880-1.jpg
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Sheet Music by C. H. Whittier published by Oliver Ditson & Company (Boston, New York and Philadelphia, 1885).
O_Little_Town-Whittier-Ditson-1885.jpg

Whittier was Assistant Organist at Trinity Church, Boston, where Rev. Brooks was serving at this time.

Sheet Music "Ephratah" by Uzziah C. Burnap (1834-1900) from The Hymnal, The General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1895), #178.
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Sheet Music: Ephrata-178-O Little Town-Hymnal-1895.jpg

Sheet Music to "Nativity" by Emma L. Minke from Book of Worship (Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1899), #220.
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Sheet Music

Sheet Music from I. H. Meredith, Grant Colfax Tullar and J. W. Lerman, Sunday School Hymns No. 1. New York: Tullar-Meredith Co., 1903, #249; Chorus by I. H. M.
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Sheet Music

Sheet Music to "Bethlehem" by Sir Joseph Barnby (1838-1896), The Methodist Hymnal (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1905), p. 91.
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Sheet Music

Sheet Music to "Forest Green" (e.g., "The Ploughboy's Dream"), an English folk song used by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) in The English Hymnal, 1906, page 24.
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Sheet Music
According to the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols, Mr. Vaughan Williams collected these words to the tune of the "The Ploughboy's Dream" from Mr. Garman of Forest Green, hence tune's name. An arrangement based on this setting was performed during the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols in 2001, 2004 and 2007. It is widely recorded including renditions by the Choir of King's College and the Choir of St. John's. This version is the one most frequently heard in the United Kingdom (Redner's "St. Louis" is the version heard most frequently in the United States.)

Sheet Music "St. Louis" by Louis H. Redner, 1868, from Henry Sloane Coffin and Ambrose White Vernon, eds., Hymns of the Kingdom of God. New York: The A. S. Barnes Company, 1910, #46, p. 82.
Sheet Music

Music: "St. Louis," Lewis Henry Redner from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol # 599
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Sheet Music

Sheet Music by A. F. M. Custance from Hutchins, Carol # 298
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Sheet Music

Sheet Music by J. Booth From Hutchins, Carol # 322
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Sheet Music

Sheet Music from Rev. Edgar Pettman, ed., The Westminster Carol Book (London: Houghton & Co., 1899), No. 26, p. 34.
Sheet Music

Sheet music "Wengen" by Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941) from Hymns Ancient and Modern (London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1922), #642, pp. 746-7.
Sheet Music
Page One
Page Two

Note: To be sung in unison. The last line of each verse is repeated.

Sheet Music "Christmas Carol" by Sir Henry Walford Davies from Carey Bonner, ed., The Sunday School Hymnary: A Twentieth Century Hymnal for Young People (London: Sunday School Union, 1905), #192, pp. 202-203.
Christmas_Carol-Davies-O_Little_Town-1905-202.jpg

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This setting by Davies was written expressly for "O Little Town." See, New Oxford Book of Carols (NOBC), # 101, Setting III. There are also two arrangements in Carols for Choirs 3 (1978) that are substantially similar. An arrangement is also found in Erik Routley's "University Christmas Book" (1961, #14). An arrangement based on this setting was performed during the "Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols" in 1999 and 2003. Recordings include Truro Cathedral Choir in "When He Is King - Music for Christmas" and St. Albans Cathedral Choir in "St. Albans Nowell - Music for Christmas."

Sheet Music "of Cornish origin" from Ralph Dunstan, The Cornish Song Book (London: Reid Bros., Ltd., 1929), p. 99.
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Sheet Music
Dr. Dunstan notes: "Wm Sandys, 1792-1874, inserted "the most popular Carols of the West of England," and their tunes, in his Collection [See: Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern]. It is quite possible that this particular beautiful melody is of Cornish origin. The words here given are American."

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See A Garritan Community Christmas for an MP3:
O' Little Town of Bethlehem, Stefan Kristinsson

See also O Little Town of Bethlehem (Link opens in a new window at Sally DeFord Music)

Additional musical setting include:

Sir George C. Martin, in The Book of Common Praise (Oxford University Press, 1909), suggests "Carol" by Richard S. Willis as an alternative tune to the lyrics of "O Little Town Of Bethlehem." This tune is usually associated in the United States with "It Came Upon The Midnight Clear:" MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF.

There is also a contemporary arrangement of this carol by Carl Rütti (1949 - ). It is found in a medley, "Three Carols," on his CD "Sermon On The Mount," performed by the Escorial Choir under the direction of by Christopher Duarte (2001). In the liner notes, Rütti writes

"The Three Carols were initiated in 1996 by my friend Stephen Jackson (conductor of the BBC Symphony Chorus) for a Carol concert by the Wooburn Singers, to whom they are also dedicated. They were originally written for brass quintet and choir. I picked three texts out of the enormous choice of traditional Carols which could form three parts: Andante - Adagio - Presto."

I Wonder as I Wander is the Andante, O Little Town of Bethlehem is the Adagio, and Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day is the Presto.

Rütti grew up in Zug, Switzerland and received Soloist Diplomas in both piano and organ studies at the Zürich Conservatory in 1975. He has written large a capella works for English choir singing, some of which have been recorded and broadcast by the BBC Singers. Several CDs of his music have been released. As of 2002, he was a piano teacher at the Zürich Conservatory and organist at St. Peter and St. Paul in Oberageri.

Ron Clancy, author of the Christmas Classics series of Christmas carol books, has now created a number of "The Story Behind The Music" YouTube videos recounting the histories of several Christmas carols. Three were released in late July 2009, including O Little Town of Bethlehem. Other videos were released through December, 2009.

The Story Behind the Music of
O Little Town of Bethlehem

For links to all of Clancy's carol videos, go to
Christmas Classics Videos

I do not have any financial or other relationship with Ron Clancy, The Christmas Classics, or YouTube.

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