Easter 2024

10 December 2014
Nine Lessons and Carols - A Festival of, 2014 (preview)

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge is surely single most listened to regularly occurring church service in the world. Through live and delayed radio and web broadcasts, this service reaches millions of listeners annually.

It has reached that magical point of the year where it comes time to examine what we shall hear at this year's Festival.

We at also made some predictions and we need to see how our crystal ball performed.

A larger number of carols have not been addressed by our predictions. Here they are, in order.

After the first lesson we hear Remember, O thou man by Thomas Ravenscroft. This lovely, simple carol was last sung in 2011.

After the second lesson we hear the Peter Maxwell Davies carol "One Star, at Last". This carol, with words by George Mackay Brown was commissioned for this service in 1984. It was the second in the series of annually commissioned carols in Stephen Cleobury's tenure.

Sung much less often that the Pearsall setting, the older setting by Hieronymus Praetorius of In dulci jubilo follows. This eight part motet was last sung in 2008.

The unbeatable Sussex Carol arranged by David Willcocks follows the third lesson. It last appeared in 2011.

The immaculate A spotless rose of Herbert Howells follows fourth lesson. It is the only Howells carol to appear in the service (at least in recent memory*), and it has not been sung since 2008. As it's superb final cadence fades, the choir will take up the strains of the medieval "There is no rose", a carol that appears frequently in the service of the years, and was last sung in 2009.

The fifth lesson brings the simple Gabriel's Message by Edgar Pettman, last sung just a couple years ago.

Harrison Birtwistle's "Lullaby" comes up after the sixth lesson. Though it hasn't been sung before, Birtwistle's "The Gleam" was the commissioned carol in 2003. The Birtwistle is followed by the familiar Gustav Holst setting of In the bleak midwinter. This carol was last sung in . . . wait a minute. We think the choir has recorded this, but we can't find any indication that it has been sung in this service in recent memory*. The homophonic ease of this carol is probably need as a foil to (we presume) the polyphonic difficulty of the Birtwistle.

Similarly, Hector Berlioz's L'adieu des Bergers (The Shepherd's Farewell), has also been sung by the choir (see below) but never at this service -- note that Carols from Kings, pre-recorded for television broadcast, is not the same as the Christmas Eve service, which is broadcast live on the radio only.

Director Stephen Cleobury has commissioned a new carol every year since 1983. This year the commission goes to Swiss composer Carl Rütti. His setting of "I wonder as I wander" (see below) is familiar to listeners to this service. "I wonder" was last sung in 2011. We will update this paragraph with information about this year's commission De Maria Virgine as that information becomes available.

After the Rutti commission follows the rather saccharine setting of Ding! Dong! merrily on high by Mack Wilberg. Though previously sung in 2007, 2009, and 2010, many of us question whether this carol will really have a long tenure in this service.

The other traditional elements of the service are in place: the final two hymns are "O come, all ye faithful" and "Hark! the herald angels sing". The service concludes, as always with the Bach Organ Prelude on "In dulci jubilo," BWV 729. The final organ voluntary, which changes year to year, is the Final of the Sixth Organ Symphony by Charles-Marie Widor.

Our spreadsheet of all the carols since 1997 has been updated

*We have resorted to the phrase "in recent memory" when necessary because our records only go back to 1997. We very much wish to continue this research, in person, in Cambridge, in 2016/17. Surely a sabbatical is needed.

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