Sweet Was The Song

  • Arranger: Stephen Smith 
  • Publisher: manuscript - contact via Elektra Women's Choir
  • Canadian Composition: Yes
  • Duration: 4:15

Program Notes:

Stephen Smith, commissioned by Elektra to write a new work for Elektra and tenor soloist Ben Heppner together, looked for source material in Mennonite hymns, a nod to Ben’s Mennonite background. He found “Sweet Was The Song” in an 18th-century Mennonite collection, an original melody to words from the 16th century (William Ballet’s Lute Book). “Balulalow” is a Scottish equivalent to “Lully, lullay”, or “lullaby”.

Conductor Notes:

SSAA, tenor soloist, piano

The story is told by the tenor voice in a low tessitura, with the choir providing a gentle, rich texture behind him, also using the lower end of their usual range. If your children’s choir has comfortable low alto notes (As and Gs), it would certainly be do-able. This is classic Stephen Smith, by which I mean the architecture of the piece is balanced and satisfying, the vocal lines all a pleasure to sing, and the overall effect effortless and successful.

I was confused about how much of this was an arrangement of existing material and how much was original by Stephen Smith. This is the response I got from him!

“That is correct, except that (to be precise), the only words I altered were in the “Lute Book” verses (1 and 2); I left the “Baloo Lammy” verse (v. 3) as it is customarily sung. Still, putting “(alt.)” at the end of the list of text sources makes it applicable to either or both of them, I suppose, which is probably why I wrote it that way on the score.

As for the melody, I tweaked it a bit, using elements from the original refrain to create the first two refrains of my version, which differ slightly from one another; then for my third (Alleluia) refrain, I kind of let loose and made up new stuff. The coda (bb. 77-end) cycles back through the two earlier versions of the refrain. (Once upon a time I emailed you a scan of the original tune, as published in Alice Parker’s hymnal. If you can scare up the email with that attachment, you could see exactly where and how I went astray!) In any case, if one allows that alterations to the melody could be part of the “arrangement,” then I don’t think they really require any further explanation, do they? “


This lists any discs, concerts or collections where this piece is included.




Sweet was the song the Virgin sang,
When she to Bethlem Juda came
And was delivered of a son,
Jesus the Christ by name:
Balulalow, Balulalow.

“Sweet babe”, sang she, “my son,
and yet a saviour born,
who hast vouch-saf’d from on high
to visit us that were forlorn.”
Balulalow, Balulalow.

Sleep gently, child, and know no fear:
Thy Mother mild doth watch Thee here;
The cattle too, within their stall,
And angel hosts, thy guardians all.
Alleluia, Alleluia.

Balulalow, Balulalow.


Tune: 18th-century Mennonite collection, an original melody
Text: William Ballet’s Lute Book and Scottish traditional