O Little Town of Bethlehem

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O Little Town of Bethlehem
Author's manuscript of first stanza
GenreChristmas carol
TextPhillips Brooks
Based onMicah 5:2
Melody"St. Louis" by Lewis Redner,
"Forest Green" by Ralph Vaughan Williams

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" is a Christmas carol. Based on an 1868 text written by Phillips Brooks, the carol is popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but to different tunes: in the United States, to "St. Louis" by Brooks' collaborator, Lewis Redner; and in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Ireland to "Forest Green", a tune collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams and first published in the 1906 English Hymnal.


The text was written by Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), an Episcopal priest, then rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, and later of Trinity Church, Boston. He was inspired by visiting the village of Bethlehem in the Sanjak of Jerusalem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church, and his organist Lewis Redner (1831–1908) added the music.


St Louis[edit]

Redner's tune, simply titled "St. Louis", is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States.[1] Redner recounted the story of his composition:[1]

As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, "Redner, have you ground out that music yet to 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'?" I replied, "No", but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.

My recollection is that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed it on leaflets for sale. Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints' Church, Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porch,[2] and it was he who christened the music "Saint Louis".

\transpose c bes,
\new Staff <<
\clef treble \key g \major {
      \time 4/4 \partial 4     
      \relative g' {
	b4 | b b ais b | d c e, a | g fis8 g a4 d, | b'2. \bar"" \break 
        b4 | b b e d | d c e, a | g fis8 g b4 a | g2. \bar"" \break 
        b4 | b b a g | fis2 fis4 fis | e fis g a | b2. \bar"" \break
        b4 | b b ais b | d c e, e' | d g, b4. a8 | g2. \bar"|."
%\new Lyrics \lyricmode {
\layout { indent = #0 }
\midi { \tempo 4 = 80 }

Forest Green[edit]

In the United Kingdom and the 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.[3][4] Henry Garman was born in 1830 in Sussex, and in the 1901 census was living in Ockley, Surrey; Vaughan Williams' manuscript notes he was a "labourer of Forest Green near Ockley – Surrey. ([aged] about 60?)",[3] although Mr Garman would have been nearer 73 when he recited the tune.[5] The tune has a strophic verse structure and is in the form A–A–B–A. Adapted into a hymn tune harmonised by Vaughan Williams, it was first published in the English Hymnal of 1906 (transcribed below).

<< <<
\new Staff { \clef treble \time 4/2 \partial 2 \key f \major \set Staff.midiInstrument = "church organ" \omit Staff.TimeSignature \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t \override Score.BarNumber  #'transparent = ##t
  \relative c' 
  \repeat unfold 2 { << { c2 | f f f g | a4\(( g) a( bes)\) c2 \breathe \bar"||" a | bes a4( f) g2 g f1. \breathe \bar"||" \break } \\
  { c2 | c d c d4( e) | f2 f e d | d f f e | f1. } >> }
  \relative c' {
  << { f4( a) | c2. d4 c( bes) a( g) | f( g a bes) c2 \breathe \bar"||" c, | f a g f | c1 \breathe \bar"||" \break
  c1 | f2 f f g | a4( g) a( bes) c2 \breathe \bar"||" a | bes a4( f) g2 g | f1. \bar"|." } \\
  { f2 | e2. d4 e2 c | c( f) e c | c c bes a4( bes) | c1
  c1 | c2 d c d4( e) | f2 f e d | d f f e | f1. } >> }
%%\new Lyrics \lyricsmode { put lyrics here if you insist }
\new Staff { \clef bass \key f \major \set Staff.midiInstrument = "church organ" \omit Staff.TimeSignature
  \relative c'
  \repeat unfold 2 { << { g2 | a bes c bes | c f, g f | bes c d c4( bes) | a1. } \\
  { e2 | f bes a g | f d c d | g, a bes c | f1. } >> }
  \relative c' {
  << { a2 | a2. f4 c'2 c4( bes) | a2( f) g e | f f d4( e) f2 | e1
  f2( g) | a bes c bes | c f, g f | bes c4( a) c2 c4( bes) | a1. } \\
  { d,2 | a2. bes4 c2 d4( e) | f2( d) c c4( bes) | a2 f bes d | c1
  d2( e) | f bes a g | f d c d | g, a4( d) c2 c | <f f,>1. } >> }
>> >>
\layout { indent = #0 }
\midi { \tempo 2 = 80 }

Other versions[edit]

Two versions also exist by Henry Walford Davies, called "Wengen", or "Christmas Carol".[6] "Wengen" was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1922,[7] meanwhile "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 often performed at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols in King's College, Cambridge.[8]

William Rhys-Herbert included a new hymn-tune and harmonization as part of his 1909 cantata, Bethany.

The song has been included in many of the Christmas albums recorded by numerous singers in the modern era.

"Little Town" is an arrangement of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by English singer-songwriter Chris Eaton. It was first recorded and released by English singer Cliff Richard in 1982 who had a Christmas hit with it in the UK. In the US, the better known version is by American CCM artist Amy Grant, released on her 1983 Christmas album.[9] A new tune for O little Town of Bethlehem called "Enmore" by the composer Philip Trumble was first published in 1987 [10] Philip Trumble's was also published in the 2022 publication Christmas Praise [11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Louis F. Benson, "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Studies Of Familiar Hymns, First Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1924), 11.
  2. ^ William Reed Huntington (ed.) The Church Porch: A Service Book and Hymnal for Sunday Schools (E. P. Dutton, 1882)
  3. ^ a b Vaughan Williams' Manuscript of "The Ploughboy's Dream" at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Full English collection, accessed 30 March 2014
  4. ^ Byron Adams, Robin Wells, "Hymn Tunes from Folk Songs" in Vaughan Williams Essays, Volume 3; Volume 44, (Ashgate Publishing, 2003), ISBN 978-1-85928-387-5 p. 111
  5. ^ Mark Browse, "O Little Town", hymntunes.blogspot.co.uk, 12 July 2015
  6. ^ "Christmas Carol", Davies, Hyperion Records
  7. ^ Hymns Ancient and Modern (London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1922)
  8. ^ Order of Service Archived 2010-11-01 at the Wayback Machine, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols 1999, King's College Cambridge 1999.
  9. ^ Mayaab, Philips. "From Mainstream to CCM: Cliff Richard's Story". ccmclassic.com. New Hope Management. Retrieved 29 September 2019.
  11. ^ "Praise!". www.praise.org.uk.
  12. ^ ISBN 9781739156305

External links[edit]