What Sweeter Music • Carols for Christmas

What Sweeter Music

  1. What sweeter music - John Rutter (b. 1945)
  2. Infant holy, Infant lowly - Polish carol arr. David Willcocks (b. 1919)
  3. Adam lay ybounden - Boris Ord (1897-1961)
  4. A Boy was born in Bethlehem - Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) 
  5. The blessed son of God - Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
  6. No sad thought his soul affright - Vaughan Williams 
  7. All this time - William Walton (1902-1983)
  8. While the shepherds were watching - Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960)
  9. What cheer? - Walton
  10. Sussex Carol - English traditional arr. Willcocks
  11. Blessed be that maid Mary - English traditional tune arr. Willcocks 
  12. In dulci jubilo - Old German tune arr. R. L. Pearsall (1795-1856)
  13. A Christmas Carol - Hungarian traditional tune arr. Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
  14. O magnum mysterium - Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
  15. In the bleak mid-winter - Harold Darke (1888-1976)

Program Notes

What Sweeter Music

John Rutter is one of several highly successful living composers whose styles meld contemporary and traditional harmonies in a way that is at once accessible and memorable. He studied at Clare College, Cambridge, and later became its Director of Music before leaving to pursue his composing and conducting careers. He formed the Cambridge Singers, a professional chamber choir, and has composed a significantly extensive catalogue of works.  

Infant holy, Infant lowly
Sussex Carol
Blessed be that maid Mary

The English choral tradition has thrived within the artistically fertile confines of England’s greatest cathedrals and college chapels. Their choirs have handed down the repertory and performance styles of generations past; the most famous of these choirs is, of course, that of King’s College, Cambridge. David Willcocks was an organ scholar at King’s College in 1939-40, and later, in 1957, was appointed organist and choirmaster at there. His dozens and dozens of recordings with the choir are still considered to be benchmark standards. Several of his arrangements of traditional carols are presented on this recording. 

Adam lay ybounden

Boris Ord had been an organ scholar at Corpus Christi College (in Cambridge), and spent just one year away from the university in 1927 at the Cologne Opera before accepting the position as choirmaster at King’s in 1928. In the thirty-eight years under his direction, the King’s College Choir became known around the world as the very best of its genre. He published just one composition: Adam lay ybounden.  

A Boy was born in Bethlehem
The blessed son of God
No sad thought his soul affright
All this time
What cheer?

Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and William Walton were each prolific composers of music that, although meant for liturgical use, typically sounded anything but sacred. All three wrote in styles—each one thoroughly unique and pervasive throughout their works—that transcended the sacred or profane nature of their chosen texts. Vaughan Williams’ characteristic waves of parallel chromaticism, Britten’s use of close dissonance, and Walton’s distinctive rhythmic energy are abundant in their works on this recording.  

While the shepherds were watching

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, first educated at Cambridge, studied composition with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. Primarily a composer of exquisite songs, he wrote an ample quantity of music for choirs, of which While the shepherds were watching is among the most well known.  

In dulci jubilo

Robert Lucas Pearsall was a barrister by profession, but had an intense and ultimately overwhelming interest in heraldry, history, genealogy, painting, and music. He composed madrigals in the Renaissance idiom of Thomas Morley, but extended the stylistic parameters to great success.  

A Christmas Carol

Zoltán Kodály brings an innate native style and sonority to his arrangement of A Christmas Carol, a setting of a traditional Hungarian tune. Chromaticism imposed on repetitive parallel intervals and ambiguous meters create a mood of reverent mystery. 

O magnum mysterium

Morten Lauridsen, born in 1943 in Colfax, Washington, is Chair of the Composition Department at the University of Southern California School of Music in Los Angeles, a faculty he joined in 1967 following his studies in advanced composition with Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens. He has emerged as one of America’s finest and most-beloved composers. His music has garnered a permanent place in the standard vocal repertoire, and is performed regularly by choruses and vocal artists through the world.  

In the bleak mid-winter

In the bleak mid-winter is a poem by Christina Rosetti, the daughter of Gabriele Rosetti, a political exile who became a professor of Italian at King’s College, London. The author of several volumes of poetry and devotional texts, she wrote these words in response to a request for a Christmas poem from Scribner’s Monthly magazine. Gustav Holst’s setting is well known to many, but there are problems in confining Rosetti’s free rhythm to the restraints of a hymn-tune. Harold Darke, a British organist, filled in for Boris Ord at Cambridge while he was serving in the armed forces. He subsequently became a Fellow at King’s, and was well respected as an organist (although it is said that his performances of Bach were not at all elucidated by modern advancements in performance practice). His setting of the poem is ultimately more successful, as its phrase lengths more willingly accommodate the text. 

Texts & Translations


What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol, for to sing  
The birth of this our heavenly King?  
Awake the voice! Awake the string!  

Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honour to this day  
That sees December turned to May.  

Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?  
Or smell like a meadow newly-shorn  
Thus, on the sudden? Come and see  
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:  

‘Tis he is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and lustre, public mirth,  
To heaven, and the under-earth.  

We see him come, and know him ours,
Who, with his sunshine and his showers,  
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.  

The darling of the world is come,  
And fit it is, we find a room  
To welcome him, to welcome him.  

         The nobler part,
Of all the house here, is the heart,  
Which we will give him; and bequeath  
This holly, and this ivy wreath,  
To do him honour; who’s our King,  
And Lord of all this reveling. 

(What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol, for to sing  
The birth of this our heavenly King?)  

Robert Herrick (1591-1675)


Infant holy,
Infant lowly,  
      For his bed a cattle stall;  
Oxen lowing,  
Little knowing  
      Christ the Babe is Lord of all.  
Swift are winging  
Angels singing,  
Nowells ringing,  
Tidings bringing,  
      Christ the Babe is Lord of all.  

Flocks were sleeping,
Shepherds keeping  
      Vigil till the morning new;  
Saw the glory,  
Heard the story,  
      Tidings of a gospel true.  
Thus rejoicing,  
Free from sorrow,  
Praises voicing,  
Greet the morrow, 
      Christ the Babe was born for you!  

Polish carol, translated by Edith M. Reed


Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond;  
Four thousand winter  
Thought he not too long.  

And all was for an apple,  
An apple that he took,  
As clerkes finden  
Written in their book.  

Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,  
Ne had never our lady  
Abeen heavené queen.  

Blessed be the time
That apple taken was,  
Therefore we moun singen,  
     Deo gracias!  

Words anon. 15th century


A boy was born in Bethlehem;
Rejoice for that, Jerusalem!  
He let himself a servant be,  
That all mankind he might set free:  
Then praise the Word of God who came  
To dwell within a human frame:  

Anon. 16th century German; translated by Percy Dearmer  


The blessed son of God only
In a crib full poor did lie;  
With our poor flesh and our poor blood  
Was clothed that everlasting good.  

The Lord Christ Jesu, God’s son dear,
Was a guest and a stranger here;  
Us for to bring from misery,  
That we might live eternally.  

All this did he for us freely,
For to declare his great mercy;  
All Christendom be merry therefore,  
And give him thanks for evermore.  

Miles Coverdale; after Martin Luther


No sad thought his soul affright,
Sleep it is that maketh night;  
Let no murmur nor rude wind  
To his slumbers prove unkind:  
But a quire of angels make   
His dreams of heav’n, and let him wake  
To as many joys as can  
In this world befall a man.  

Promise fills the sky with light,
Stars and angels dance in flight;  
Joy of heav’n shall now unbind  
Chains of evil from mankind,  
Love and joy their power shall break,  
And for a newborn prince’s sake;  
Never since the world began  
Such a light such dark did span.  

Verse 1. Anon. / Verse 2. Ursula Vaughan Williams  


All this time this song is best:
‘Verbum caro factum est.’  

This night there is a child yborn
That sprang out of Jesse’s thorn;  
We must sing and say thereforn,  
All this time this song is best:  
‘Verbum caro factum est.’  

Jesus is the childes name,
And Mary mild is his dame;  
All our sorrow shall turn to game:  
All this time this song is best:  
‘Verbum caro factum est.’  

It fell upon high midnight:
The stares shone both fair and bright;  
The angels sang with all their might,  
All this time this song is best:  
‘Verbum caro factum est.’  

Now kneel we down on our knee,
And pray we to the Trinity  
Our help, our succour for to be;  
All this time this song is best:  
‘Verbum caro factum est.’  

Anon. 16th century


While the shepherds were watching, were watching their sheep,
An angel came to them and woke them from sleep,  
His message was simple, as simple as they,  
But oh, what good tidings he gave them that day.  
      Now sing Glory to God, goodwill towards men,  
      And peace to you all on the earth. Amen.  

Not to rulers and princes was God’s word revealed,
But to rough-and-tumble shepherds who were out in the field,  
Who huddled in sheepskins over fires of bleak thorn,  
Until they were told God’s Son had been born.  
      Now sing Glory to God...  

Not in a bright palace was young Jesus found,
But in a dim stable with straw on the ground,  
His cradle a manger, and Mary’s soft breast  
Was the gentle warm pillow where he took his rest  
      Now sing Glory to God...  

To these simple shepherds, to the thief on the tree
God spoke in his mercy and he set us all free;  
And his was the carol, the day Christ was born,  
That rang from a night-sky as bright as the dawn.  
      Now sing Glory to God...  

Benedict Ellis


What cheer? Good cheer!
Be merry and glad this good New Year!  

‘Lift up your hearts and be glad
In Christ’s birth’, the angel bade,  
Say each to other, if any be sad:  
‘What cheer?’  

Now the King of heav’n his birth hath take,
Joy and mirth we ought to make;  
Say each to other for his sake:  
‘What cheer?’  

I tell you all with heart so free:
Right welcome, welcome, ye be to me;  
Be glad and merry, for charity!  
What cheer? Good cheer!  
Be merry and glad this good New Year!  

from Richard Hill’s Commonplace Book (16th century)


On Christmas night all Christians sing,
To hear the news the angels bring,  
News of great joy, news of great mirth,  
News of our merciful King’s birth.  

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,  
When from our sin he set us free,  
All for to gain our liberty?  

When sin departs before his grace,
Then life and health come in its place;  
Angels and men with joy may sing,  
All for to see the new-born King.  

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:  
‘Glory to God and peace to men,  
Now and for evermore. Amen’.  



Blessed be that maid Mary;
Born he was of her body;  
Very God ere time began,  
Born in time the Son of Man.  
     Eya! Jesus hodie 
     Natus est de virgine.  

In a manger of an ass
Jesu lay and lulled was;  
Born to die upon the tree  
Pro peccante homine.  
     Eya! Jesus hodie 
     Natus est de virgine.  

Sweet and blissful was the song
Chanted of the angel throng,  
“Peace on earth”, Alleluya.  
In excelsis Gloria.  
     Eya! Jesus hodie 
     Natus est de virgine.  

Fare three kings from far-off land,
Incense, gold and myrrh in hand; 
In Bethlem the Babe they see,  
Stelle ducti lumine.  
     Eya! Jesus hodie 
     Natus est de virgine.  

Make we merry on this fest,
In quo Christus natus est;  
On this child I pray you call,  
To assoil and save us all.  
     Eya! Jesus hodie 
     Natus est de virgine.  

G. R. Woodward


In dulci jubilo
Let us our homage shew;
Our heart’s joy reclineth
In præsepio
And like a bright star shineth
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O.

O Jesu parvule!
I yearn for thee alway!
Hear me, I beseech thee,
O Puer optime!
My prayer let it reach thee,
O Princeps gloriæ!
Trahe me post te!

O Patris caritas,
O Nati lenitas!
Deeply were we stained
Per nostra crimina;
But thou has for us gained
Cœlorum gaudia.
O that we were there!

Ubi sunt gaudia, where,
If that they be not there?
There are angels singing,
Nova cantica
There the bells are ringing
In Regis curia:
O that we were there!

Anonymous German, circa 1570, translated by Reginald Jacques


All men draw near,
Christmas is here,
All the welkin rings.
Tell the story,
Sing all glory
To the King of kings.

He who of old
Prophets foretold,
Now is come to birth,
Come one and all
To the ox stall:
He brings peace on earth!

See where the star,
Gleaming afar,
Guides us through the dark,
God’s holy dove
Brings back in love
Sinners to his ark.

Tell the story
Of his glory,
Christ by all adored.
Songs upraising,
Praise him, praise him,
All men praise the Lord.

Babe all holy,
Whom all lowly
Ox and ass adore,
Bless our cattle,
Bless our harvest,
Bless each house and store.

Jesu, hear us,
Christ, be near us,
Make us holy all,
With joyful praise
Fill all our days,
Hear us when we call.

Clement F. Rogers


O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent
Dominum natum
jacentem in præsepio!
Beata virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum. Alleluia!

(O great mystery
and wondrous sacrament
that animals should see
the new-born Lord
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord Christ, Alleluia!)

Matins Responsory for Christmas Day


In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain:
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak midwinter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God almighty
Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air:
But only his mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him—
Give my heart.

Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)

The Musicians





Michelle Clair
Christine Earl
Elisabeth Engan
Ruth Escher
Andrea Fullington
Susan Judy


Suzanne Elder Wallace
Elisabeth Eliassen
Paul Flight
Linda Liebschutz
Jason Snyder
Amelia Triest
Suzanne Elder Wallace

Edward Betts
Corey Head
Daniel Hutchings
Andrew Morgan
Mark Mueller
John Rouse

Hugh Davies
Jeff Fields
Thomas Hart
Tim Krol
Chad Runyon

Additional Information

Recording Engineers: David Tayler and Hanneke van Proosdij

Producers: Jeffrey Thomas, David Tayler, Steven Lehning

Cover Art: Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1455-1510) / The National Gallery, London.

Organ by Th. Frobenius & Sønner, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1989

  Recorded September/October, 2002 at St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, CA

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