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A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols - The Centenary Service

King's College Choir Cambridge, Sir Stephen Cleobury (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: King's College, Cambridge
Recording details: December 2018
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: November 2019
Total duration: 81 minutes 53 seconds

A moment of pure magic as the light fails on a midwinter’s day and the still, small voice of a solo treble is heard … this is a cherishable document of one of this country’s timeless musical traditions on its centenary.


‘One senses throughout a judicious maintenance of familiar pillars … balanced with new elements such as the annual commissioned carol … and repertoire ranging from Medieval to composers from other traditions such as Arvo Pärt … the choir is generally in superb form, disciplined yet clearly relishing the music … superbly engineered, the recording vividly conjures the chapel’s unique acoustic’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘A very handsome memorial, with the refined, honeyed choir and atmospheric chapel acoustic in fine fettle, and a pleasing commissioned carol by Judith Weir, O mercy divine, accompanied solely by Guy Johnston’s fast-moving cello’ (The Times)

Reflections on 100 years of Lessons & Carols

The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry
As we prepared to celebrate the centenary of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Chapel in December 2018, I found my thoughts drifting back to the very first such service in 1918. War had recently ended and people were still living with its consequences. There were not yet any war memorials around the country, nor was there a Cenotaph in Whitehall. War was not being remembered so much as still experienced. The First Eastern General Hospital in Cambridge, on the site now occupied by the University Library, was still busy dealing with the wounded, and institutions like King’s College were counting the cost and perhaps coming to a deeper of appreciation of the actual scale of loss than would have been possible while battles were still raging.

Eric Milner-White, Chaplain of King’s before the war, padre in the trenches during it, and now Dean, would have been grieving the loss of many old friends. He may also have been brooding on the two huge pastoral frustrations he suffered while offering Christian ministry to the troops. First, the prohibition on praying for the dead, and second, the assumption that the Book of Common Prayer provided an adequate liturgy for every conceivable occasion. An aesthete and pastor rather than a theologian or bishop-in-waiting, Milner-White took the opportunity of the comparative freedom of King’s to deal with these frustrations. He introduced on All Souls Day (2 November) a requiem mass for the fallen, and, on Christmas Eve, ‘A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’. The format had been pioneered by the Bishop of Truro since 1880 and was exported from there to many other places. Indeed in 1884 A R Mowbray & Co published an order of service for twopence. It was entitled ‘Nine Lessons with Carols’ and subtitled ‘Festal Service for Christmas Eve’. It was published again in 1911; clearly it was popular long before it was at King’s.

So Milner-White wasn’t exactly going out on a limb when he sought to introduce it. But it is well known that A H Mann, who since 1876 had been Organist (the title for the Director of Music in those days), was against the idea. After all, a suitably festive Evensong had always been sung on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, the introit at this Evensong was Once in royal David’s city, with the first verse sung by the boys alone, and the men adding the harmony in the second. Nevertheless, the Dean prevailed and also added a few words of his own—the Bidding Prayer—to set the scene for the reading of lessons and the singing of the carols that would come between them.

The service was open to the public. Indeed, one of its purposes was to express ‘the goodwill between University and Town’ and so the Mayor’s Chaplain and a Free Church Minister were among the lesson readers. Another of King Henry VI’s institutions was to be involved as well: the Provost of Eton, who at that time was M R James, writer of ghost-stories, was invited to read a lesson. James had been Provost of King’s when war broke out, and Milner-White was Chaplain, and it was James who invited Milner-White to be Dean.

In 1918 eight carols were sung by the choir alone and there were six congregational hymns. The Magnificat, a nod in the direction of Evensong, was also sung, in a metrical form arranged by Charles Wood. It was never repeated at this service. In 2018 there were 15 carols, five congregational hymns and, of course, nine lessons.

Looking through the order of service for 1918 clarifies that the readings, often held to be sacrosanct and unchanging, have indeed changed over the years. Perhaps even more surprising is that the service did not begin with Once in royal David’s city. That hymn was preceded by the sixteenth century carol Up! good Christen folk. The service did, however, end with Hark! the herald angels sing. The notes at the beginning of the service booklet indicate that members of the congregation ‘should join heartily in the singing of the hymns and verses specially marked for that purpose’. Participation was positively encouraged.

If that was the form of the service, what was the atmosphere like? Unlike today there would have been no BBC trucks on the cobbles of King’s Parade or microphones suspended from holes in the fan vault. The Dean would not have had a huge correspondence through the autumn from people saying how much they would like to come and could they please bring their ageing grandparent who has been a stalwart of their parish church choir for half a century; nor would there have been the sorts of concerns about security that have worried the College in recent years. At the very first service people would have gathered in reasonable time, but not exceptionally early, and settled down just before the afternoon light began to fade. As well as members of College, dressed, like the Choir, in white surplices, I imagine many people in uniform, as well as those wearing bandages or on crutches, or perhaps having been wheeled across from the First Eastern General Hospital. Just about everyone present, whether ’town’ or ‘gown’ would have been keenly aware of the loss of a friend, or a son, or a brother.

When the Dean read his new Bidding Prayer to the standing congregation, they would have been following the words in the service booklet and straining to hear his crisp consonants and clipped vowels in the Chapel’s difficult acoustic. The words take them first to Bethlehem; then let them know that ‘the tale of the loving purposes of God’ is to be read from Holy Scripture; then invite all present to make, ‘this Chapel, dedicated to His pure and lowly Mother, glad with our carols of praise’. But before gladness comes prayer: for the whole world, for peace, for love and unity in the Church, across the Empire, in the town and University and in this College and at Eton. The prayer then becomes more focused on those who are struggling: ‘the poor, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed’, ‘the sick and them that mourn’, ‘the lonely and the unloved’ and ‘the aged and the little children’. That Milner-White was primarily a man of sympathy, a pastor, is evident here. Finally, the prayer moves on to the departed; an audacious addition at the time. The wording of the prayer is clever and capacious. Of course, it refers to all ‘those whom we love but see no longer’, to quote a prayer that appeared in the 1928 Prayer Book, in which Milner-White had a big hand but which never became legal. But the allusions are more specific than that. ‘Lastly let us remember before Him them who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.’ It’s the ‘other shore’ that is the giveaway. The thought is the same as Rupert Brooke’s, a Fellow of King’s until he died in the same war, who wrote of ‘some corner of a foreign field’. The other shore is on the far side of the English Channel.

While reading Milner-White’s words 100 years later, not only did scenes familiar from film footage of the trenches flash across my mind, but also the rows and rows of gravestones in the many war cemeteries in northern France and Belgium that I had visited the previous summer. In one such cemetery I found the grave of Group Captain Gerald Fitzgerald of the Durham Light Infantry. Fitzgerald was a good friend of Milner-White. They were at Harrow together and they shared rooms in the Gibbs’ Building next to the Chapel at King’s when they were undergraduates. Milner-White couldn’t have imagined the white stones of the war cemeteries, but he would have recalled the noise and smell of battle and grieved the young friendship enjoyed and so cruelly cut short.

All that was a century ago. The world has changed much and the service has changed too, though rather less. The BBC has broadcast it every year (with one exception) since 1928; the windows were taken out of the Chapel for the war but the service and broadcasts kept going. Boris Ord contributed Adam lay ybounden, and Harold Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter became one of the most loved regular carols. The pattern of readings settled down. A version of the service was recorded for television in 1956 and is now a regular feature of the December schedule. Queues, largely of the young people of Cambridge, began to form many hours before the service began and (according to local mythology) everyone enjoyed the fellowship of waiting in the wintry weather as much as the service itself. David Willcocks came to direct the music, and then Philip Ledger. Both wrote new arrangements, made recordings of carols and adorned the great hymns with their own descants. Stephen Cleobury arrived in 1982 and introduced the regular practice of commissioning new carols, wrote many arrangements and added his own descants. Some people began queuing one, two or three days in advance; not to be sure of getting in so much as to add something to the experience of celebrating the birth of the Christ child in the depth of winter. Every year more and more radio stations have taken the service and broadcast it to living rooms, kitchens, hospital wards, garden sheds and prison cells around the world. The College has become used to receiving letters (and now emails and social media messages) of praise or criticism, delight or complaint, especially with regard to anything that might be perceived as a change or innovation. And of course, the service has been emulated, adapted, transplanted and generally used as a source of inspiration in cathedrals, churches and chapels of many denominations in almost every continent on the planet.

There is, therefore, a tremendous sense of responsibility at King’s for the stewardship of this wonderful occasion. Those of us inside the Chapel for the service cannot help but be aware of the uncounted millions who are sharing it with us on many different shores. When I was Chaplain it was my duty to prepare the readers. Early on Christmas Eve morning I’d take them all to stand at the High Altar and look down the length of the building. I’d then draw their attention to the service sheets already in each place in the empty and silent Chapel. Each of those service booklets, I suggested, represents Wembley Stadium filled to capacity. I said this to try to get their nerves out of their system. It certainly sparked a reaction, and the image has stayed in my mind. And it is probably an underestimate of the people whom we think of as the unseen congregation, with whom we are one for those precious ninety minutes of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

Sir Stephen Cleobury
A few years ago, I realised that the date fixed for my retirement from the position of Organist and Director of Music at King’s would enable me to choose and conduct the music on this significant occasion. This, for me, would crown the years in which it has been my privilege to fulfil this role.

Much of my time in the late summer and early autumn of the last thirty-seven years has been spent in thinking about repertoire for the 24th of December. Always this has involved trying to include music marking centenaries, significant birthdays, or, indeed, the deaths of composers. The choice was perhaps particularly challenging in my first year, 1982, when I had only a term in post prior to the service, but no less so in 2018, which required particularly careful thought. Eventually I decided that I would like to include a number of carols which had been chosen for the first service in 1918, albeit some of them in different musical settings. The next consideration was to represent all those who had directed the music across the years. This meant starting with A H Mann’s harmonisation of Once in royal David’s city (a version in which I have recently restored Mann’s original intention whereby the music begins with a root position G major chord and only in the repeat of the first two phrases is the high B in the bass, yielding a first inversion chord, employed). Boris Ord was clearly to be represented by the ever-popular Adam lay ybounden. In the cases of Sir David Willcocks and Sir Philip Ledger, one was spoilt for choice in terms of the volume of repertoire from which selection could be made, while Harold Darke, who looked after the choir during Boris Ord’s wartime service was obviously to be heard through his beautiful In the bleak mid-winter. I also included some of my own arrangements.

I wanted also to represent some now well-known works which were introduced to the Festival at various stages, and I might mention Howells’ A Spotless Rose, first heard in 1929, Sir Christèmas by William Mathias (1976), and The Lamb by John Tavener (1982).

The final strand in my thinking centred on commissioned works (commissioning a new carol each year having been my custom since 1983). Among the most popular have been John Rutter’s What sweeter music and Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Dyévo. For 2018 itself, I returned to Judith Weir, alumna and honorary fellow of the College, who earlier had written the hugely effective Illuminare, Jerusalem to commission. This time she set the Wesley poem O mercy divine for choir and solo cello. It seemed particularly appropriate to ask former King’s chorister, Guy Johnston, to play the cello part.

As I have said, it has been an enormous privilege to be connected with this great tradition for so long; I want to pay a special tribute to my two immediate predecessors, David and Philip (sadly I did not know the others), whose support and encouragement of my endeavours was greatly sustaining.

Bob Chilcott
3pm Greenwich Mean Time, on Christmas Eve is quite a magical time of the year for so many people, from all walks of life and from a variety of different countries. It is the time when the 3 o’clock news is read on BBC Radio 4, before going over to the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge for the live broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The solo treble voice, singing the first verse of the opening carol, Once in royal David’s city, signals the beginning of the celebration of Christmas as it resounds through the ether into headphones, radios, computers and homes, all over the world. The solo voice is for many a marker, that for a moment unifies millions of people everywhere.

I was lucky enough to sing in this service seven times, four times as a boy chorister and three times as a tenor Choral Scholar. In fact, I was also the solo treble voice that sang the first verse of Once in royal David’s city. I do remember quite clearly our Director of Music, Sir David Willcocks, humming me the starting note (rather indistinctly) just before three o’clock and then asking me to hum it back to him, which I also did rather indistinctly. There was not a lot of time to be nervous because there was a job to be done.

With the first two verses unaccompanied by the organ, the critical point is always the beginning of the third verse, when the organ joins. The hope was that the organ would come in at exactly the same pitch that the choir was singing. If it did, then it was job done, relief and smiles all round. I suspect David chose me because my pitch was quite reliable. And yet nowadays it amazes me to hear the boy soloists, year after year, singing this solo. They seem so calm, professional and secure. They are consummate young professional musicians.

Those of us who were choristers in the nineteen-sixties will remember singing this service before the Chapel was cleaned and restored inside. Years of candle smoke had darkened the windows and the stone of the building so the only light inside was a subdued, warm, yellow candlelight. It was difficult, on a late December afternoon, to see any detail on the ceiling, the walls or the windows. However, the sound of the Chapel full of people, the choir in full song and the organ at full tilt released an energy and warmth that created an atmosphere that was filled with light.

In those days one of the most exciting things was singing the new descants that David had written just a few years previously to the hymns, O come, all ye faithful and Hark! the herald angels sing as published in the classic choral volume Carols for Choirs that he edited with Reginald Jacques. Of course, these have now become a part of the King’s folklore, but at this time they were still relatively new. David also wrote a wonderful descant to the last verse of Once in royal David’s city during my time as a chorister, which perhaps has not had the exposure of the others, but at the same time is very fine—and we loved singing it. It took a few years for David’s successor, Sir Philip Ledger, to pen his own fine descants, and then Sir Stephen Cleobury, who followed suit later during his own tenure as Director of Music at King’s.

During the Willcocks years, I remember the repertoire being fairly consistent. The carols began with Boris Ord’s setting of Adam lay ybounden. We would also sing the wonderful R L de Pearsall arrangement of In dulci jubilo and Harold Darke’s lovely setting of In the bleak mid-winter. I returned to King’s as a choral scholar in 1973 for David’s last Christmas Eve Service. By then his second Carols for Choirs volume, co-edited with John Rutter, had taken a hold. Many singers will remember David’s arrangements of Quelle est cette odeur agréable? and Silent Night from this book being sung. And of course, John’s own The Cherry Tree Carol became a favourite. When Sir Philip Ledger took over as Director of Music he replaced Boris Ord’s Adam lay ybounden with G R Woodward’s Up! good Christen folk as the choir’s first offering. The music of William Mathias also featured regularly, with his classic setting Sir Christèmas.

Many admirers of the King’s tradition would see one of the greatest achievements and legacies of the thirty-seven year tenure of Sir Stephen Cleobury as being the annual commissioning of a new carol from a leading composer of the day. Many of these are performed regularly all over the world, and the tradition has opened people’s eyes and ears to the wonder of the new, as well as respecting and cherishing what has gone before. King’s College Choir, through its position in the world as one of the leading choirs singing within the Christian tradition, has, through its nearly 100 years of Christmas Eve broadcasts, helped to innovate, inspire and bring a special kind of unity to millions of people throughout the world through the medium of the airwaves. This moment of magic, just after 3 o’clock, Greenwich Mean Time, is there for us all.

John Butt
‘If you make one mistake that lasts one second, and it’s broadcast to 100 million people, do you realise that it’s the same as one person hearing the same mistake for over three years?’

So said a choral scholar, famously keen on calculation, just as I was about to ascend the organ loft stairs 45 minutes before I made the first of my two attempts at accompanying the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, on Christmas Eve 1980. I don’t recall whether this statement actually made me feel any worse than I would otherwise have felt but I had the clear sense that the number of listeners was actually unimaginable, so far off the scale of what I could conceive that I was not actually capable of getting nervous enough to reflect that totality. Surviving those experiences when I had just turned twenty is something I will always cherish, even if they seemed almost unreal at the time they were actually happening.

Of course, like for so many of us, ‘King’s’ on Christmas Eve was part of my earliest Christmas memories, my father dutifully tuning the valve radio to the correct channel at 3pm, just as his own father had done when he acquired his first ‘wireless’ around 1930. My ingrained impression was of a solemn yet joyous ceremony, broadcast across the entire world and stretching back into the mists of time. At around the age of ten I at last visited the chapel, which I already felt I knew from numerous LP covers and TV recordings. I was immediately hooked and, for reasons that I cannot quite recall, I immediately gained the ambition to learn the organ, specifically to win the organ scholarship at King’s. This was the longest-lived and most intense ambition I have ever had—and one that fortunately proved to be fruitful.

On the other hand, I vividly remember my first time in the loft for a choir practice and experiencing, almost instantaneously, the meaning of the motto ‘be careful what you wish for’. There is no doubt though that my experience at King’s—much of it entirely different from what I had anticipated and certainly far harder—set me up with skills and experience that have been absolutely central to everything I have managed to achieve since.

But one area of competence that I developed some time after my undergraduate career at King’s was the type of critical thinking that is vital for much academic research and teaching. This gave me the sense of perspective to recognise that the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is actually a relatively recent ‘invented tradition’ (its vague analogy to the repetitive structure of various Roman offices notwithstanding). And, as Timothy Day’s excellent recent book, I saw eternity the other night, shows us, it’s clear that the success of the Festival (and indeed much of its mystique) is critically dependent on the development of the recording industry and world-wide broadcasting. When it first defined my father’s Christmas, he was actually hearing one of the very earliest broadcasts.

I was given tremendous support in my second year by the wonderful Hugh Maclean, who was having a year’s sabbatical in Cambridge. He was one of Boris Ord’s later organ scholars and the very first to be recorded accompanying the actual services, together with the first LP version. Learning from his experiences and advice gave me a sense of historical depth and a link to an era that seemed very far in the past. Yet I am older now than he was in 1980 (and indeed, much older than the then Director, Philip Ledger) and, as only the sixteenth organ scholar to play for the carol services, I am astonished to realise that there have been more organ scholars after my time than before. Now I have the vertiginous experience of feeling that the first Festival of 1918 is much closer to our present day than it felt in 1980; what seemed to be a timeless tradition seems to shorten as I get older.

Another oddity about the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is the relatively unexplored belief that it has become universally part of Christmas around the world. Living in the United States for a number of years taught me that the service was certainly enjoyed in various church denominations that had an interest in some degree of liturgical organisation, together with many devotees of what might loosely be termed ‘western art music’. But I certainly encountered many, even from Christian churches, who had absolutely no knowledge of the tradition. Now, living in Scotland, I find similar experiences just as striking: it is quite common to find ministers and members of the Church of Scotland who have virtually no knowledge of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Where it has been introduced it is not unusual to encounter variations of the service wherein the readings are interspersed not with carols but with theologically congruent (and often musically indifferent) hymns and psalms. So much for two nations divided by a common island!

In all then, I have come to view Nine Lessons and Carols with a degree of proportion and cultural distance that I could not possibly have even conceived of when I was playing for the broadcasts. Yet, rather than belittling the thrills of my youth, and indeed those of millions of listeners across the world, this experience has taught me a great lesson about the human condition. We all seek historical and cultural grounding, often coupled with some sort of inherited belief system. The events and traditions that achieve the greatest resonance with the sensibilities that many of us share are often those that are the most valuable—the most authentic—in any particular era, however short or narrow the traditions concerned. Even if I overestimated the significance of what I was trying to achieve as Organ Scholar at King’s, it was certainly worth living it for a while. It provided me with many of the necessary skills for a productive musical life, and I am still able to be enchanted by the sorts of experience that the Festival has so often set in motion.

John Rutter
For me, it’s Eric Milner-White’s bidding prayer that does it every time. When we ‘remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light’, I invariably dissolve into silent tears, having already been weakened by the reminders of the poor, the helpless and all the others listed in that section of the prayer. I am ready to ‘hear again the message of the angels’. It’s a group experience: several hundred people gathered together (with millions more listening on radio), all with a common purpose. I know of no other religious event involving words and music—and a great and ancient building—that can compare with it.

It was on the radio in my teenage years that I first experienced the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, around 1960, just as the first exciting new carol arrangements by the recently appointed Director, David Willcocks, were transforming the whole event, together with his radiant hymn descants which seemed to light up the sky as the choirs of angels sang in exultation. Since then, I don’t think I have ever missed King’s on Christmas Eve, either on radio or, from time to time, in the chapel itself if I was accorded the special honour of a pair of tickets. Over the years, I have been able to experience the ways in which the Festival has evolved, best described as an inspired blend of tradition retained and refreshing change introduced. No one, thank goodness, has attempted to improve upon the stately and poetic language of the 1611 King James Bible for the readings. The hymns remain largely the same. The format of the service and the constitution of the choir are as they were in 1960.

The changes have mostly been with the music. Some carols remain classics: it would a hard-hearted Director who would exclude Pearsall’s In dulci jubilo or Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter. But there were always new carols, some composed by the leading British composers of the day: in the 1960s we had, among others, Peter Maxwell Davies, Richard Rodney Bennett, and William Mathias. Then, when Stephen Cleobury arrived in 1982, he established a tradition of commissioning a new carol each year. The 39 carols so far commissioned offer us a fascinating series of snapshots of what was happening in the world of choral composition over a time span of more than thirty years—and they remind us that different composers attach very different meanings to the word ‘carol’, ranging from a tunefully simple ditty to an elaborate and challenging choral motet.

No composer has ever turned down Stephen’s invitation to write ‘the new carol’, though I almost did: in 1987 I was ill for most of the year and wondered if I would be able to come up with anything suitable to fill the vacant slot which came after the eighth lesson about the wise men. Fortunately, I found the energy and composed What sweeter music. Then, in 1999 (restored to health), Dormi, Jesu came in response to a second invitation. Looking at the list of distinguished composers who have written the commissioned carols, I have always felt rather overawed in their company. At the same time, I feel honoured to have contributed to an annual event that sheds a beam of light and hope into what sometimes seems like an impossibly dark world. The Christmas story remains extraordinarily moving and powerful, a symbol and reminder of the world as it might be if we could only cast aside our differences and focus on the love of a mother and her child, and nowhere is it more fittingly and beautifully celebrated than in King’s College Chapel each Christmas Eve.

Judith Bingham
I first visited Kings in the early 70s. I was starting out at the Royal Academy of Music, and my parents had retired from Sheffield to north Norfolk. We traipsed round Cambridge as tourists, and I duly noted in my diary seeing David Willcocks outside the Chapel, still with a couple of years to go as Director. In the 50-odd years that have passed since then, I’ve visited many times in different guises: as a singer, a composer, showing other people around, and just going to evensong, to bathe in the ne plus ultra of acoustics for voice: golden, like a halo of light round the voice, neither boomy nor dry, but somehow magical and iridescent. I have often felt that the combination of acoustic, architecture and music can produce a special genre of church music. At King’s I would add to that the light, which at Christmas plays its own special part. These considerations definitely played a big part in my thoughts when I was commissioned to write the new carol for Christmas Eve 2004. I wanted to write a piece that referenced the fan vaulting, and a piece that was expansive and muted enough to be bathed in that acoustic.

The composers are often left to choose their own text, and for years I had kept a Christmas card from a friend in America which had printed on it a four line poem:

Lo, in the silent night a child to God is born,
And all is brought again that ere was lost or lorn,
Could but thy soul, O Man, become a silent night,
God would be born in thee, and set all things aright.

Underneath it said ‘anon medieval’, which was good news, since this meant the words were out of copyright! I doubted that it really was medieval, though: all the medieval Christmas texts are well known and have been set many times—it’s unusual to come across something no one has ever set. With the help of friends and colleagues it wasn’t long before we identified the author as Angelus Silesius, a 17th-century German mystic.

The long melodic lines that resulted are accompanied by an organ part that continuously fans out, and on paper looks like a rudimentary rendering of the exquisite lace-like ceiling. It also seemed right to have some text from the same era in which the Chapel was built, and so a short hymn to the Virgin from the 15th century forms a dance like interlude in the middle.

I had listened to so many broadcasts of the service since I was a child that I wondered whether the actual event would be an anti-climax. Not so: like Venice, or Prague, it is better than you imagine. As a member of the congregation I experienced the beautiful light in the Chapel: the colours through the stained glass, and the setting of the sun as we moved through the nine lessons and carols.

Before the service there is about an hour’s worth of organ music. Everybody is seated by this time, and to add to my nerves, I had two organ pieces in this sequence too! The concentrated atmosphere in the Chapel is quite extraordinary, and I don’t think I can describe it better than to quote from my diary:

The atmosphere in the Chapel is amazing: a great communal feeling of anticipation. The Rubens casts an extraordinary spell; its warm colours and sweeping action stunning even from a distance. At two it is still light, but the light gradually fades so that by the end of the service it is dark and the Chapel completely candlelit. At the end of the organ recital, there is a pause—the service starts at three minutes past three to take account of the news on Radio 4. The organ improvises, repeating D, F sharp, G: the beginning of Once in royal David’s city. A great stillness falls and in the final pause you feel that the whole world is focussed on the silence into which the boy’s voice will enter. 250 million people listening! In spite of it all being so familiar and iconic, it is quite mesmeric being there, somehow at that moment at the centre of the world.

King's Cambridge © 2019

Six months after the centenary service of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Stephen Cleobury was appointed Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. This richly deserved recognition of his ‘services to choral music’ brought tremendous pleasure and delight to the Choir and College, and to the many more who have attended Chapel services and listened to broadcasts, webcasts and recordings since Stephen became Director of Music in 1982. Since that time, he has chosen and conducted the music for 37 years of choral worship: for Christmas and Easter, as well as for thousands of daily chapel services. The sound of the Choir under his direction has reached the ears and touched the hearts of countless millions of people. Hundreds of boys and young men have been Choristers or Choral Scholars and there have been no fewer than 23 Organ Scholars. His influence as a teacher and a role model to young musicians has been as extraordinary as the way in which he has extended the reach of the Chapel’s music through recording, broadcasting and touring. As the College makes this recording of the Centenary Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols available, we once again salute Sir Stephen’s extraordinary achievements and pay tribute to the qualities of musicianship, leadership, commitment and dedication that lie behind all that he has given, and all that we have so gratefully received.

Christmas commissions at King’s
1983 In Wintertime Lennox Berkeley
1984 Fix on one star Peter Maxwell Davies
1985 Illuminare, Jerusalem Judith Weir
1986 Nowell (Holly Dark) Richard Rodney Bennett
1987 What sweeter music John Rutter
1988 The Birthday of thy King Peter Sculthorpe
1989 St Steven was a clerk Alexander Goehr
1990 Bogoróditse Dyevo Arvo Pärt
1991 The text is of a gathering John Casken
1992 Sweet Jesu, King of blisse Nicholas Maw
1993 When Christ was born (Christo paremus cantica) Diana Burrell
1994 The Angels Jonathan Harvey
1995 Seinté Mari moder milde James MacMillan
1996 Pilgrim Jesus Stephen Paulus
1997 Fayrfax Carol Thomas Adès
1998 Winter Solstice Carol Giles Swayne
1999 Dormi, Jesu John Rutter
1999 On Christmas Day to my heart Richard Rodney Bennett
2000 The Three Kings Jonathan Dove
2000 The Shepherd’s Carol Bob Chilcott
2001 Spring in Winter John Woolrich
2002 The angel Gabriel descended Robin Holloway
2003 The Gleam Harrison Birtwistle
2004 God Would be Born in Thee Judith Bingham
2005 Away in a Manger John Tavener
2006 Misere’ Nobis Mark-Anthony Turnage
2007 Advent Responsories / High Word of God Philip Ledger, David Willcocks
2007 Now comes the Dawn Brett Dean
2008 Mary Dominic Muldowney
2009 The Christ Child Gabriel Jackson
2010 Christmas Carol Einojuhani Rautavaara
2011 Christmas Eve Tansy Davies
2012 Ring Out, Wild Bells Carl Vine
2013 Hear the Voice of the Bard Thea Musgrave
2014 De Virgine Maria Carl Rütti
2015 The Flight Richard Causton
2016 This Endernight Michael Berkeley
2017 Elisha’s Carol / Carol Eliseus Huw Watkins
2018 O mercy divine Judith Weir

King's Cambridge © 2019

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