O Little Town of Bethlehem, 1903. Peter C. Lutkin, 1858-1931. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: M2085.L87 O55 1903
O Little Town of Bethlehem was published by the Clayton F. Summy Company in 1903 and dedicated to Lutkin's second son, Caryl Cecil Lutkin. Tragically, Caryl died of diphtheria four days before Peter Lutkin was to conduct the first performance in Evanston, Illinois, of the newly formed Northwestern University A Cappella Choir.
Phillips Brooks, an Episcopalian minister who preached in Philadelphia and Boston in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote the text of O Little Town of Bethlehem. While serving at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, Brooks visited the Holy Land on December 24, 1865, and attended a Christmas Eve Service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Brooks was so moved by the experience that he was inspired to write this five-stanza hymn.
Lutkin set Brooks's text for alto solo, mixed choir, and organ. The piece is harmonically uncomplicated with smoothly voiced progressions through secondary dominants. The setting is rhythmically interesting as the meter shifts several times between quadruple and triple meter to suit the changes in the text. The accompaniment alternates between a broken-chord texture beneath the melodically lyric segments and a chordal texture to complement homophonic choral statements. Lutkin introduces two surprising shifts from duple to a joyful triple meter first to express praise and secondly for the final text, "We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell: O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel."