Cecil Alexander was an Anglican schoolteacher and poet born in Ireland in 1818. Among the most well-known of her 200 hymns is “There is a Green Hill Far Away,” first published without music in her 1848 book Hymns for Little Children—the proceeds of which were used to fund a school for deaf and mute children. Alexander’s writing was praised by many of her contemporaries including Lord Tennyson and French composer Charles Gounod who called it “the most perfect hymn in the English language.”
Most often sung during Passiontide (the last two weeks of lent), the hymn can still be found in hundreds of different hymnbooks. There are three main tunes that have become associated with the hymn. The original by William Horsley, published in 1844 and named after him (HORSLEY), is still in use today, particularly in Europe. The setting by gospel composer George Stebbins in 1878 titled GREEN HILL became the most widely sung in the United States. A third, called MEDITATION, by John Gower was published in 1891 and may be more recognizable as the tune for “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
As the story goes, one of her godsons complained that he had a hard time understanding the Catechism. In response, she wrote a set of twelve hymns—one for each article of the Apostle’s Creed. “There is a Green Hill Far Away” was based on the fourth article which states that Christ “suffered under Pontinus Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” (Of that set of twelve, two others have also remained popular through the present day: “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “Once in Royal David’s City.)
Some say the hymn was inspired by a green hill Alexander would often pass by on her way home. Others say it was written at the bedside of a sick young person. Regardless, the structure of the hymn makes it clear that it was intended to teach, with the first verse summarizing the story of the crucifixion, the next three verses explaining the doctrine and the significance of the event, and the fifth stanza expressing what the reader should do as a result.
It was this ability to say so much with so little that drew me to the hymn. And as an arranger, I feel like the simplicity of the text makes it easy to set to music and gives me room to be creative while still keeping that text in focus. The arrangement’s most unique feature—its setting in 5/4 time—takes some getting used to, but it creates some really fantastic opportunities for expression by creating this natural push and pull in every measure.
My arrangement of this hymn was originally commissioned by Randy Booth for the Brigham Young University Young Ambassadors, a Broadway-style performing group composed of approximately 20 singer dancers with a backup band and stage crew. Each year they would go on tour for several weeks, but instead of performing a show on Sunday, they would go to a local church and sing arrangements of hymns. And so, this arrangement was a part of their repertoire for several years and was sung all over the world on three different continents.
Then a few years later it was recorded by a group of BYU Singers Alumni with Dr. Ron Staehli conducting, and from that recording a lot of choral groups began performing it and today it’s now one of my most popular works. I’ve always wanted to perform the piece with orchestra and so this past year I decided to make a new recording with studio musicians from Nashville and Indianapolis and release it as a single along with the new orchestration.
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