Easter 2024

15 December 2010
Nine Lessons and Carols - a Festival of, 2010 (preview)

Looking toward the choir stalls in King's
photo by the author

On Monday we saw published the Order of Service to this year's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge.

This year's service is fascinating and unusual in that two decade-long precedents are broken, and there are three direct repeats from last year's service.

As always, the service begins with "Once in royal David’s city". This carol has opened the service at King's since 1919.

The Invitatory Carol (after the Bidding Prayer) is "This is the truth sent from above" arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This carol was last sung in 2007 after the First Lesson. It has previously made it's appearance in this slot in 1998, 2001, and 2003. To my knowledge, it has not been been sung as the Invitatory Carol in previous years.

After the First Lesson, a twelve-year pattern comes to an end. A setting of "Adam lay ybounden" was from 1998 through 2009 the second carol after the First Lesson. This year, Boris Ord's setting is the first carol to be sung.

The second carol is Stephen Cleobury's "A Virgin most pure".

(Note that the above and other videos of the King's College Choir come from "Carols from King's", a service for television that is filmed well before Christmas Eve.)

After the Second Lesson, Pearsall's "In dulci jubilo" is a direct repeat from the 2009 service.

Peter Tranchell's delightful "If ye would hear the angels sing" follows. This carol reappeared in 2008 after being published by the Church Music Society. A quick scan of reveals "It was commissioned in 1965 by Peter Marchbank for Queen Mary's School, Basingstoke."

After the Third Lesson, both pieces of music are nearly direct repeats of the previous year's selections. The Sussex Carol appears in an arrangement by Philip Ledger. Last year an arrangement of this same carol by his predecessor, David Willcocks, was sung.

The hymn "God rest you merry, gentlemen" follows. This same hymn was sung last year, breaking a nine-year "Unto us is born a Son"-"It came upon a midnight clear"-"O little town of Bethlehem" rotation.

Last sung five years ago, "A tender shoot" of Otto Goldschmidt returns after the Fourth Lesson.

And in another exact repeat from last year's service, the familiar "Lo, how a rose e'er blooming" melody appears sung in Swedish to the luminous and great setting by Jan Sandström.

Pierre Villette's "O toute belle Vierge Marie" was last heard in 2006, though as the second carol after the Fifth Lesson. This year it is the first.

The second is Peter Hurford's "As I sat on a sunny bank". Hurford has not had any music sung at this service, at least in recent memory. This year is the 80th anniversary of Hurford's birth.

This is also the first time that music of Max Reger has been sung (at least in a while). "Maria sitzt am Rosenhag" follows the Sixth Lesson.

The familiar "The Holly and the Ivy" in an unfamiliar arrangement by Australian June Nixon follows.

Again, in a breach of a custom established in 2000, a hymn, "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" immediately follows the Seventh Lesson. The hymn was, for nine years, the second piece of music after the reading.

This year the second work is one of the many previously commissioned carols: "Illuminare Jerusalem" by Judith Weir, with it's delightfully quirky organ emphases.

Incidentally, something that has escaped our notice until now is that the Director of Music seems to have jumped two lessons in 2005, reading that year the Seventh rather than the Fifth, which was customary.

The commissioned Carol falls quite late in the service this year. Only Jonathan Dove's "The Three Kings" in 2000 has fallen later in the services for which we have records. There is a great deal of excitement about hearing the Carol by the heir apparent to the majestic legacy of Jean Sibelius. Mark our words: from Einojuhani Rautavaara you can expect no less than a Twenty-First century masterpiece. The composer of the "Christmas Carol" has also supplied the text.

This is a notable commission. Rautavaara is a greater composer than any other who has been commissioned to write for the service since 1997.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: that saccharine Mack Wilberg setting of "Ding! Dong! Merrily on high" follows. I predict that this will lead to a liturgical riot similar in scope to the reaction at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Paris.

Or perhaps not.

It will be interesting to hear the pairing of the two in the service. I suspect that there will be a rather abrupt change in tone. I am certain that there will be a dramatic shift in tonal languages. Only the Rosetta Stone of Christ's incarnation can hold these two pieces in tension.

The service ends in the usual manner. The addition of hymn tunes to the service leaflet is a nice touch, probably long overdue.

Who can ever remember those tunes, anyway?'s Lessons and Carols spreadsheet has been updated for your reference.

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