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Updated 01/24/2020


While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” was written by Nahum Tate. Tate was born in Dublin and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, B.A. 1672. He lacked great talent but wrote much for the stage, adapting other men's work, really successful only in a version of King Lear. Although he collaborated with Dryden on several occasions, he was never fully in step with the intellectual life of his times, and spent most of his life in a futile pursuit of popular favor. Nonetheless, he was appointed poet laureate in 1692 and royal historiographer in 1702. He is now known only for the New Version of the Psalms of David, 1696, which he produced in collaboration with Nicholas Brady. Poverty stricken throughout much of his life, he died in the Mint at Southwark, where he had taken refuge from his creditors, on August 12, 1715.

The tune, “Winchester Old” has been associated with Nahum Tate's Christmas text ever since it was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). Winchester Old is a famous common-meter psalm tune, presumably arranged by George Kirbye (c. 1560 - 1634) from a melody in Christopher Tye's Acts of the Apostles and published in T. Este's The Whole Book of Psalmes (1592) set to Psalm 84. Kirbye was responsible for most of the harmonization in that psalter. Kirbye was an English composer of the late Tudor period and early Jacobean era. He was one of the members of the English Madrigal School, but also composed sacred music.

Little is known of the details of Kirby’s life, though some of his contacts can be inferred. He worked at Rushbrooke Hall near Bury St Edmunds, evidently as a tutor to the daughters of Sir Robert Jermyn. In 1598 he married Anne Saxye, afterwards moving to Bury St Edmunds. Around this time he probably made the acquaintance of John Wilbye, a much more famous madrigalist, who lived and worked only a few miles away, and whose style he sometimes approaches. In 1626 his wife died, and he is known to have been a churchwarden during the next several years until his death.

Kirbye's most significant musical contributions were the psalm settings he wrote for East's psalter in 1592, the madrigals he wrote for the Triumphs of Oriana (1601), the famous collection dedicated to Elizabeth I, and an independent set of madrigals published in 1597.

This rendering of the shepherds' story from Luke 2 is based directly on the account as given in the King James Version of the Bible. Nahum Tate versified it in 1700 and included a few extra details to accentuate some of the facts. While Luke wrote only that Christ was born “in the city of David” (Luke 2:11), Tate emphasized Christ's title “Son of David” in the third stanza – “in David's town … of David's line.” The public ministry of Jesus is also foreshadowed in the fourth stanza; where Luke wrote “Ye shall find the babe” (Luke 2:12), Tate wrote “The heavenly babe you there shall find to human view displayed.”


Lyrics by Nahum Tate

  While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.

"Fear not," said he for mighty dread
had seized their troubled mind
"glad tidings of great joy I bring
to you and all mankind.

"To you, in David's town, this day
is born of David's line
a Savior, who is Christ the Lord;
and this shall be the sign:

"The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all simply wrapped in swaddling clothes
and in a manger laid."

Thus spoke the angel. Suddenly
appeared a shining throng
of angels praising God, who thus
addressed their joyful song:

"All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace;
to those on whom his favor rests
goodwill shall never cease."