O Little Town of Bethlehem

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“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a popular Christmas carol. The text was written by Phillips Brooks (1835_1893), an Episcopal priest, Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia. He was inspired by visiting the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church and his organist, Lewis Redner, added the music. Redner’s tune, simply titled “St. Louis”, is the tune used most often for this carol in the U.S. but in the British Commonwealth, and sometimes in the U.S. (especially in the Episcopal Church), the English hymn tune “Forest Green” is used instead. “Forest Green” was adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams from an English folk ballad called “The Ploughboy’s Dream” which he had collected from a Mr. Garman of Forest Green, Surrey in 1903.

Adapted into a hymn tune, it was first published in the English Hymnal of 1906.

Another version by H. Walford Davies, called “Wengen” (or sometimes just “Christmas carol”), is usually performed only by choirs rather than as a congregational hymn. This is because the first two verses are for treble voices with organ accompaniment, with only the final verse as a chorale/refrain harmony. This setting includes a recitative from the Gospel of Luke at the beginning, and cuts verses 2 and 4 of the original 5-verse carol. This version is traditionally used at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Kings College, Cambridge.

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