The origins of this traditional African-American spiritual likely predate the Civil War. Since its first publishing in 1899 it has become prevalent in the hymnals of nearly every American Christian denomination. Its simple lyrics and haunting melody hardly fail to strike a personal and intimate chord within Christians as they sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
This arrangement was set to fill a particular need. When the search for an arrangement of sacred tuba material suitable for the considerable talents of our church’s player produced little fruit, creating a brand new arrangement became the obvious solution. Thus, necessity and inspiration came together to produce this piece in just a few days. It makes three statements of the melody in contrasting harmonic settings, opening with polytonal language reflecting the grotesqueness and irony of man crucifying his God. The burial stanza is portrayed in a minor key with a dirge-like pulse. For the resurrection, the music moves to a major key while swelling to a climax. It closes with a nebulous tonal center and omits the final melodic phrase to leave the listener contemplating how these events often cause our hearts to tremble, tremble, tremble.
What Child We Sing? blends the melodies of GREENSLEEVES and NOEL NOUVELET into a new work for orchestra that explores the clash of transcendence meeting imminence at Christ’s incarnation. Soft and ethereal whispers of strings and winds meet violent thunders of brass and percussion in contemplation of the awesome majesty of the Eternal Son wrapped in the harmless, delicate flesh of a newborn babe.
What Child We Sing? fits perfectly in the Advent or Christmas seasons with its strong exposition of traditional Christmas carols and would be suitable as a prelude, offertory, or reflective music in either liturgical or unstructured service. It has sufficient artistic metric to be suitable for the concert stage as well, although it is not at all difficult, being suitable for intermediate or higher level musicians. “