Article

History of Hymns: “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”

by C. Michael Hawn

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
Polish carol; trans. by Edith M. G. Reed
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 229

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,
noels ringing,
tidings bringing:
Christ the babe is Lord of all.

For the complete hymn text, see http://www.hymnary.org/text/infant_holy_infant_lowly

The hymn singing traditions in eastern European countries are rich and diverse, but virtually unknown in hymnals published in the United States. We have a large selection of hymns from German sources, for example, through the translations of John Wesley, who was especially interested in Moravian hymns, in the eighteenth century and Catherine Winkworth in the nineteenth century. To a lesser degree, hymns translated from French, Italian, Spanish, and a few from Scandinavian countries are represented as well. During the twentieth century, the lack of good singing translations from eastern European countries was further exacerbated by world wars, the rise of the Third Reich, and the Iron Curtain.

Manuscripts of Polish sacred song date back to at least the thirteenth century in the Catholic Church. Even though these songs may have been initially influenced by the plainsong used in the offices and Mass settings of the Church, local musical variations soon influenced the performance of these. These seem to have developed because regional synods in the Church encouraged the use of Polish, rather than the standard Latin characteristic of the Church in Rome. The use of the vernacular language produces changes in the music to accommodate the natural prosody and rhythm of that language. Throughout the seventeenth century and those that followed, regional hymn collections were published—each with distinct, local musical styles, making it difficult to develop a uniformly known body of congregational song throughout Poland.

Polish hymn scholar Daniel Neises describes some of the general characteristics of Polish sacred song: “Polish religious songs are a distinct repertory of congregational songs composed in the vernacular and in a musical idiom derived from Polish folk music. They are typically strophic, monophonic, and are characterized by asymmetrical time signatures and ambiguous modality which commonly oscillates between major, minor, and modal qualities.”

The little jewel, “Infant holy, infant lowly,” has many of these characteristics. The text was composed in Polish. For original two strophic stanzas of the Polish lyrics, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infant_Holy,_Infant_Lowly.   

Hymnals vary in how they notate the metrical structure of the melody W Żłobie Leży. The United Methodist Hymnal begins with the initial two eighth notes as pick-up notes to the first complete measure. Some other hymnals start the hymn with the two eighth notes on the first strong beat (downbeat) of the initial measure. This perhaps indicates the asymmetrical ambiguity of this tune. The first choice feels more natural in English, but undoubtedly the latter fits Polish prosody better.

It is no accident that one of the few Polish hymns we have in English is a Christmas carol. Daniel Neises continues: “Perhaps the most well-known and beloved part of the Polish religious song repertory is its superb ‘kolędy’, or Christmas carols. These, if any, are the most likely of all Polish hymns to be found in English translations, and are certainly among the finest Christmas songs from any tradition.”

Originally, the term “kolędy” was probably derived from the Latin “calendae” [Kanende], which literally referred to the first day of the month. Slavic uses of the term broadened to include the first day of the year, the winter solstice, Christmas, as well as New Year’s Day. Not all kolędy would be Christian, though the Christian carols are certainly a part of the broader tradition. A kolędy would be sung in conjunction with the visit of the priest to a home and, eventually in Slavic traditions, walking from house to house—in other words, Christmas caroling. The carolers, called kolednicy, perform in neighborhoods between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, carrying a star on a pole and a Nativity scene. Dressed in folk costumes as angels, shepherds, and kings, the carolers enact Nativity plays with a comedic touch, and they sing. The term is more generic now and can refer to singing any Christmas carols in Polish. For example, listen to “Silent Night,” sung in Polish and called a “Poleski Kolędy,” as well as more traditional Polish carols.


Edith Margaret Gellibrand Reed (1885-1933) was a British musician and playwright. Her education included study at the Guildhall of Music in London, and she was also an associate in the Royal College of Organists, where she assisted Percy Scholes (1877-1958), the compiler of the first edition of the influential reference work, The Oxford Companion to Music (1938), in editing educational materials. She also wrote two mystery plays, Christmastide: A Nativity Play (1932) and With Jockey to the Fair: A May-Day Play, published posthumously in 1936, as well as a reference work, Story Lives of the Great Composers (1925).

She is now known for her translation of the Polish carol “W Żłobie Leży” which she found in the hymn collection Spiewniczek Piesni Koscielne (1908), though its origins may be as early as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Her translation was published in the periodical Music and Youth, Volume I, No. 12 (December 1921). From there it spread to hymnals and increased in popularity.

Because the music is stately and in ¾ meter, some have called W Żłobie Leży the first polonaise, one of many Polish dances with folk roots. Polish pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) popularized the polonaise. While this comparison may not be accurate, it is accurate that the general character of W Żłobie Leży would be similar to one of the most important national dances in Poland.

Categories: History of Hymns, Advent and Christmas Music