The celestial vocal ensemble, Quire of Voyces, under the direction of founder Nathan Kreitzer, will present this year’s installment of their continuing seasonal program “The Mysteries of Christmas,” 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday Dec. 17-18, in St. Anthony’s Chapel of the Garden Street Academy, 2300 Garden St.

This year’s concert is an Advent Calendar of a cappella music, and the program will consist of “Once in Royal David’s City” by Cecil Frances Alexander and Henry J. Gauntlett (arr. Stephen Dombek); “Make We Joy Now in this Fest” by Matthew Culloton (b.1976); “O Nata Lux” by Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585); “O Radiant Dawn” by Sir James Loy MacMillan, CBE (b. 1959); “Quem Pastores Laudavere” by James Bassi (b. 1961); “Lully, Lulla, Lullay” by Philip W. J. Stopford (b. 1977); “Noel Nouvelet by Sofia Soderberg (b. 1972), “Season of Light” by  Jacob “Jake” Narverud (b.1986), “Un Flambeau Jeanneatte, Isabelle” by Stephen Hatfield (b.1956); “I Heard the Bells” by  Stephen Dombek (b. 1953); “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “In dulci jubilo” by Matthew Culloton; and “Silent Night” by Franz Xaver Gruber & Joseph Mohr (arr. by Sir Malcolm Sargent).

If ever a songlist was self-explanatory, it is this one. The following pedantic ramble was inspired by the first tune on the program:

“Once in Royal David’s City” is a Christmas carol, I suppose, but it was written like a hymn. That’s probably why I like it so much. It’s stately, with a kind of slow, almost Gregorian, majesty.

The woman who wrote the words, Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), also wrote  “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away.” She was, you might say, supremely tapped-in to Victorian Christianity and its musical channels. 

Nevertheless, while Mrs. Alexander and Henry Gauntlett are credited with writing “Once in Royal David’s City,” it is not as if they sat down at the piano and hammered out the hymn together, like a couple of Tin-Pan Alley tunesmiths.

Indeed, it is unlikely they ever met. Alexander, born in Dublin and married to the Bishop of Armagh (himself a poet), was influenced by John Keble and the Oxford Movement, a reactionary association of Church of England members that was so High-Church many of the group later converted to Roman Catholicism (including John Henry Newman, author of the famous sermon, “Second Spring,” who became a cardinal). 

Alexander remained in the Church of Ireland, for obvious reasons (Catholic bishops don’t have wives), but her sympathies were decidedly Roman. She published “Once in Royal David’s City” in book of poems and carols in 1848.

A year later, the English organist was leafing through the collection and was so taken with the poem that he set it to music. He didn’t write the music to fit the poem, but used a hymn called “Irby” that he had already written, and fit Alexander’s words into it (he wrote more than a thousand hymn tunes in his career). I don’t know why he called the tune “Irby.”

As I discovered a few months ago, when researching my favorite hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” this is a common practice among hymn writers.

The words of “Eternal Father” were written in 1860 by William Whiting, an Anglican churchman, and it was published the following year in the first edition of the hyper-influential hymnal, “Hymns Ancient & Modern,” where it was read by Rev. John B. Dykes, another Anglican clergyman, who composed the tune “Melita” to carry the hymn.

Dykes was a well-known hymnist, with nearly three hundred hymn tunes to his credit, many of them still in use today.

“‘Melita,'” as Wikipedia reminds us, “is an archaic term for Malta, an ancient seafaring nation which was then a colony of the British Empire, and is now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. It was the site of a shipwreck, mentioned in Acts of the Apostles (chapters 27–28), involving the Apostle Paul.”

Nor is the practice of writing new words to an old tune confined to the making of hymns. The great Scottish noblewoman, Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne (1766-1845), wrote the most popular song about Prince Charles Stuart (Bonny Prince Charlie), “Will Ye no come back again?” as well as the greatest: “Charlie’s Landing.” (She is sometimes credited with writing “Charlie is My Darlin'” but this is doubtful).

For “Will Ye no come back again?” — also known as “Bonnie Charlie” — she is believed to have used a melody by the legendary Scottish fiddler, Niel Gow (1727-1807); for “Charlie’s Landing,” she used an ancient air, “When Wild Wars.”

Of the mainline Protestant denominations, only the Lutherans (Bach) and Anglicans (Purcell, Handel) have produced a substantial body of large-scale religious works, and those more or less dried up after the eighteenth century.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, a late bloomer — son of an Anglican vicar, grand-nephew of Charles Darwin — added several big works in the twentieth century, including his “Magnificat,” “Mass in g-minor,” the oratorio “Sancta Civitas,” and the Christmas cantata “Hodie.” (Reading “The Origin of the Species” as a young boy, he asked his mother about it, and she said: “The Bible says that God made the world in six days. Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.”)

In nineteenth century America, where the dominant churches were Calvinist, there was very little religious music produced, since John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) — although he stated that music was “one of God’s greatest gifts to Man” — thought that music did not belong in Church, since it distracted from the Word.

I believe the Calvinists have gotten over this, since I have attended many Presbyterian services during which there was a choir singing hymns. In any case the main religious music produced in America was in the form of hymns and carols.

American composers like Virgil Thomson and George Whitfield Chadwick often employed hymn tunes in secular compositions, and the hymn form is the basis of much of our poetry (R.W. Emerson, H.W. Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Edward Arlington Robinson).

Tickets to the Mysteries of Christmas are $20 general admission; $15 student/senior. They can be purchased by phone at 805-965-5935 or at the door and at Chaucer’s Books until Dec. 16.