16 November 2018

100 Years of Nine Lessons and Carols

It's one of those things which has been around so long that we take it for granted and imagine that it's always been there.

Christmas in our family has never been Christmas until we've heard the annual live broadcast from King's College Cambridge Chapel in Cambridge of the Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols.  Memories flood back of Mum busily making mince pies and preparing the turkey in the kitchen of our London home to the accompaniment of King's carols; of sitting in my isolated house in North Wales with the fire crackling in the grate, listening to King's before heading into Bangor for our own cathedral carols; of sitting in my car looking out over Lough Foyle in Ireland as I filled the time between services at the cathedral where I was Organist and Master of the Choristers, not daring to travel home over the border since the BBC FM signal once you had crossed into Donegal was always a bit ropey; of lying in my bed in Sarawak, sweating like a pig in the humidity of an equatorial night, ear pressed to my shortwave radio trying to catch King's which goes out there at around midnight; and particularly of the telephone calls immediately after the broadcast service to my father and to my choir friends and colleagues to discuss the finer points of what each year's service has brought.

I have not always liked what I have heard, but as a tradition and as a moving indicator of stability in an often unsettled world, I treat the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's as something almost sacrosanct.  This year it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Receiving the two-CD anniversary set for review was something I never would have dreamt as a young boy in the late 1950s experiencing the King's magic for the first time, and determining from what I heard to become a cathedral choirmaster myself.  I know now I could never have done it better (or even anything like as well) as the Willcockses, the Ledgers or the Cleoburys of this world, but decades of experience as a critic has allowed me to listen to this objectively, even if, emotionally, it remains an unimpeachable treasure.

Here's my review published this week from MusicWeb International, from whom the disc is available for sale.

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This is a notable year for King’s College Chapel Choir, Cambridge.  It marks their final Christmas under their long-serving director, Stephen Cleobury, who retires next year after 37 years in post, it sees the 90th anniversary of the first BBC broadcast of the Christmas Eve service from the chapel (a worldwide broadcast which has made the chapel choir not just internationally famous but the yardstick against which almost all other choirs are measured), and it celebrates the centenary of the first ever service of Nine Lessons and Carols devised by Eric Milner-White for annual use in the college chapel.  It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that this year also marks the centenary of the ending of the First World War, and the fact that the first King’s carol service was in the month following the signing of the Armistice is no mere coincidence.  As Timothy Day’s fascinating booklet essay on the history of the service makes plain, Milner-White “was fired by his love of this place [and] the horror he had experienced in the trenches”.  Day goes on to illustrate just how vital the annual service has become in creating a sense of unity and hope even in times of great international upheaval, and how iconic, and vital to national identity, the annual broadcast of the service has become.

Although one must assume that many of the BBC broadcasts have long been lost – do there exist anywhere copies of the broadcast made under the directorship of A H Mann (I’d love to sample his “Dickensian drama and vehemence, with pianississimos and fortississimos all over the place”, as Day enticingly describes his style of  conducting), and while I believe a 1954 recording under Mann’s successor, Boris Ord (“with ‘t’s’ and ‘d’s’ synchronised with unerring precision”) is in the possession of the BBC, are there any others? - one assumes most of the broadcasts made between 1957 and 1982 under David Willcocks and Philip Ledger survive.  The first of this pair of CDs has rooted out carols broadcast from King’s in 1958, 1963, 1978 and 1980, as well as seven of the broadcasts from Cleobury’s term in office (1985, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2007 and 2017).  For those of us brought up in the Willcocks era, the fact that just five carols from his broadcasts are included (Ledger is even less well represented, with a mere three from his era) is a disappointment; but perhaps now that the vault has been unlocked, we might have access to more of this priceless archive in the years ahead.

We will all have our minor quibbles about the historical balance or the inclusion/exclusion of certain favourites; while it is good to hear the 1985 broadcast of the premiere of Judith Weir’s excellent Illuminare, Jerusalem there is no shortage of commercial recordings of it sung by the King’s choir, one wonders at the inclusion of Bach’s Passion Chorale to the words “How Shall I Fitly Meet thee?”, against which it would not only have been good to have an “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in any of the various versions broadcast over the years.  And given that this year also marks the bicentenary of the composition of “Silent Night”, it would have been appropriate to have one of the many versions of that popular carol sung by King’s over the years.  But such quibbles should not cloud the sense of sheer delight which courses through everyone’s veins at this generous mining of the archive. 

In the Willcocks era the choir had a wonderfully smooth and richly blended quality (Day rightly describes it as “other-worldly”), perhaps emphasised in these BBC broadcasts; which also serve to remind us of the general ill-health of a nation where smoking was still the norm – it is a long time since I have heard so much unrestrained coughing from a congregation, even in the depths of an East Anglian winter.  It is good to hear the Willcocks descant and re-harmonisations of the last two verses of “O Come All Ye Faithful” sounding fresh and committed from his 1963 broadcast, as well as his glittering arrangement of the Sussex Carol from the same year (the organist, unattributed on the recording itself, would have been, if my memory serves me correctly, none other than Andrew Davis who has gone on to somewhat greater things on the conductor’s rostrum).  From the Willcocks broadcasts, we also have Boris Ord’s “Adam Lay yBounden”, a carol which has been something of a fixture in the annual broadcasts ever since.

Philip Ledger created a sound with rather more edge than Willcocks, and that is beautifully demonstrated in a neat, manicured performance of In Dulci Jubilo, taken from the 1980 broadcast.  His own musical arrangements are restricted to his descant to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (from the 1978 service, and something which has never really broken out from under the shadow of Willcocks’ famous one) and his rollicking arrangement of “I saw Three Ships”, which is included in the second disc of this two-disc set, not taken from BBC broadcasts but recorded mostly in July of this year.

The initial impression from the Cleobury broadcasts was just how feminine the boys sound – in “The Holly and the Ivy”, taken from the 1994 broadcast, the treble soloists sound remarkably like female undergraduates.  But perhaps the most obvious changes documented by this disc is the expansion of the carol repertory through commissions.  In addition to the Judith Weir premiere, we hear specially commissioned carols from Thomas Adès (The Fayrfax Carol, 1997), Bob Chilcott (The Shepherd’s Carol, 2001), John Rutter (Dormi Jesu, 2007), Arvo Pärt (Bogoróditse Djévo, 2007), Michael Berkeley (This Endernight) and Huw Watkins (Carol Eliseus).  In addition, new carols by Carl Rütti (his superlative version of “I Wonder as I Wander” taken from the 2000 broadcast), James Whitbourn (The Magi’s Dream), John Joubert (There Is No Rose) and Richard Elfyn Jones (Adam’s Fall) pay testament to the focus on contemporary Christmas music which has been such a major feature of the King’s legacy in the Cleobury years.  On a personal note, I’m delighted that they have included the jovial arrangement of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” by my former organ teacher, Martin Neary, as well as “Can I not Syng with Hoy” composed in 1972 by that veritable and venerable living legend amongst British organists, Francis Jackson.

There are some duplications between carols taken from the BBC broadcasts and those included on the newly-recorded second disc.  These mostly are in different arrangements – Simon Preston’s virtuoso (for the organist) “I Saw Three Ships” (slightly chaotic in the 1994 broadcast) is countered by Philip Ledger’s on the second disc, while Cleobury closes the second disc with his own descant to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.  But to have Willcocks’ “O Come All Ye Faithful” twice, in performances made over half a century apart, only goes to show just how iconic this has become, and also how significant has been King’s College Cambridge’s contribution to the core repertory of Christmas music.  Without King’s, Christmas just would not be the same, and this wonderful treasure trove of outstanding singing and superlative music making merely scratches the surface of what is a major musical legacy.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your thorough review. Your love of the King's College Christmas Eve services shines throughout your writing.