O Little Town of Bethlehem

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"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
Author's manuscript of first stanza
Published c. 1868
Form Christmas carol
Writer Phillips Brooks
Composer Lewis Redner ("St Louis"), Ralph Vaughan Williams ("Forest Green"), Henry Walford Davies ("Wengen" and "Christmas Carol")
Language English

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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 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, added the music. Redner's tune, simply titled "St. Louis", is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States.[1]

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.[2][3][4] Adapted into a hymn tune, it was first published in the English Hymnal of 1906.

Two versions also exist by H. Walford Davies, called "Wengen", and "Christmas carol".[5][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 Kings College, Cambridge.[8]

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

Renditions by Popular Singers[edit]


  1. ^ Louis F. Benson, "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Studies Of Familiar Hymns, First Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1924)
  2. ^ Vaughan Williams' Manuscript of "The Ploughboy's Dream" at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Full English collection, accessed 30 March 2014
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ "O Little Town of Bethlehem (Vaughan Williams)" English hymn.
  5. ^ http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dw.asp?dc=W3446_GBAJY0110304&vw=dc
  6. ^ http://mander-organs-forum.invisionzone.com/index.php?/topic/3764-walford-davies-tune-for-o-little-town/
  7. ^ Hymns Ancient and Modern (London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1922)
  8. ^ Order of Service, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols 1999, King's College Cambridge 1999.

External links[edit]