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Henry John Gauntlett

The words to this song were written by Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander, a prolific creator of hymn texts; one of her more famous efforts was All Creatures Great and Small. Composer and organist (and lawyer and much else) Henry John Gauntlett set her words to music in 1849. He was even more prolific in his work with hymns, inspiring the exaggerated claim that he composed 10,000 of them. The melody Gauntlett used for Once in Royal David's City may have been based upon an existing traditional one, possibly of British origin. It is attractive in its simple character, the first three notes of each thematic phrase rising and seeming to push for an ascendant character, an angelic tone. The theme eventually forms a sort of arched shape, though its bright, almost ecstatic second subject has a mostly descending contour. While there is a fair amount of repetition in Gauntlett's strophic treatment throughout the six verses, it is attractive still and will appeal especially to children, the audience aimed for in Alexander's text, which tells of the birth of Christ and of his childhood.