Lewis Redner

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Lewis Redner falls into a class of composers known for a single work associated with Christmas, a single work so popular as to eclipse the fame of its creator. Like Katherine K. Davis and John Henry Hopkins,…
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Lewis Redner falls into a class of composers known for a single work associated with Christmas, a single work so popular as to eclipse the fame of its creator. Like Katherine K. Davis and John Henry Hopkins, Jr., composers of, respectively, "The Little Drummer Boy" and We Three Kings of Orient Are," Redner is viewed as a largely marginal figure in American music, despite the popularity of his Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Many will assert, of course, that although Redner wrote other music -- largely forgotten fare -- he was obviously not an outstanding composer and thus deserves his lesser status. Perhaps so. The apparently modest Redner himself would probably not have objected to such an assessment, as he was an organist first and composer second. Redner's lone hit, however, will undoubtedly keep his name from falling into total obscurity, as well as continue to serve as inspiration to other lesser composers.

Lewis Henry Redner was born in Philadelphia on December 15, 1831. Relatively little is known about his life: it seems he was a talented keyboard player in his youth, and eventually began playing the organ for services in the Episcopal Church.

Redner's primary occupation in his adult years, however, was not musician but real estate agent. On the side, he was chief organist at four churches during his career. The most enduring and important of these posts was at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, where he served for 19 years.

It was during his stint there, in 1868, that Redner wrote his famous tune, which turned out to be the product of a last-minute scramble. The rector of Holy Trinity, Rev. Phillips Brooks, had written a poem for children about his then-recent Middle Eastern trip to Bethlehem and asked Redner to compose a tune for it for that year's Christmas service. Redner apparently stumbled in his initial efforts, but finally penned the famous melody on Christmas Eve. Incidentally, the tune to the famous carol is generally known as St. Louis. ("O Little Town of Bethlehem" is sung in the U.K. to the tune Forest Green in an adaptation by Ralph Vaughan Williams.)

Redner also worked with the church's Sunday school program and seems to have devoted much of his life to religious worship in general. He was never married. Redner died in Atlantic City, NJ, on August 29, 1908.