Easter 2024

28 December 2015
carols - global warming

This Christmas, for most of the U.S. (and it sounds like most of Europe as well), it was absurd to be singing about snow. There was a high temperature of nearly 70˚F in New York City! The climate is changing, and so let's focus for a moment on those carols that are particularly well-suited to warming weather.

Now, some carols we could stand a bit more of:

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25 December 2015
Kings - Carols from, 2015

While our main interest on this blog is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols itself, the service "Carols from Kings" which is recorded for television broadcast is certainly more internet-friendly. Here are the carols from this year's service.

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21 December 2015
IRBY - "Once in royal David's city"

As the 2015 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, England drew near (preview) it seemed meet and right to delve a bit deeper into some of the music.

This series began with Richard Causton's The Flight. Below: a look at the Processional Hymn.

There's a famous discussion that happened when Gustav Mahler came to visit Jean Sibelius. The two composers discussed the nature of the symphony itself. Mahler argued for romanticism: for him, the symphony must be all-encompassing. It must be "the world". Sibelius, the modernist, disagreed. For him the symphony was about the "inner logic", the interconnection and interplay of ideas.

These two approaches need not be and, in fact, are not mutually exclusive. Mahler and Sibelius, if pressed, could probably find examples of their preferred creative world view in each other's work.

The discussion these composers had is instructive in naming parts of the particular liturgy that is Lessons and Carols. Given the nature of the subjects of religion, one would expect the catholic (romantic) view of liturgy: it must be "the world". And yet, for liturgy to be protestant (modernist) it must also provide an "inner logic".

“the Anglican Church's ongoing liturgical apotheosis is found in the service of Lessons and Carols”

And there is no greater flowering of the two streams of Catholicism and Protestantism than the Anglican Church.

And the Anglican Church's ongoing liturgical apotheosis is found in the service of Lessons and Carols (a service not found in the Book of Common Prayer!).

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, England on Christmas Eve begins with the processional hymn "Once in royal David's city" sung to the hymn tune IRBY. This tune was written by Henry John Gauntlett, and his original harmonization can be found in green Carols for Choirs 1 (Oxford Univ. Press).

Gauntlett claimed to have composed 10,000 hymn tunes, and this may explain the tune's success. Whether or not he composed precisely that high a number is irrelevant. What we see with the melody of IRBY is the steady hand of a master at work. One could imagine for this hymn tune a scenario similar to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy": draft after draft, revision after revision, until what emerges is as perfectly crafted as the parameters of acoustic science will allow.

Of course when we talk about IRBY we must talk about it's use, since 1919, as the opening hymn at the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. While Gauntlett was able to refine this tune with pen and ink, it's modern performance practices have been forged from the particular alchemy of the stone of a gothic chapel, boys voices, and a small, significant red light from the BBC.

It is in the cool air of King's Chapel that the tune was first paired with its harmonization by Arthur Henry Mann. Mann, the Organist of King's College since 1876, had worked together with the Dean Eric Milner-White to direct the music at the very first service of Lessons and Carols at King's in 1918. The following year, the two settled on "Once in royal David's city" as the opening hymn, and it has remained the opening hymn of the service for the following 96 years.

Like Mann, attendees and listeners to this service first confront the tune itself, unadorned, and sung by a single treble voice. The red light comes on. The director nods. The chosen treble, who only moments before did not know for certain if he would be singing the solo verse, begins the story in the winter light of the chapel as millions around the world hold their breath to listen.

The tune begins on one note (the dominant, the fifth scale degree), rises a bit (to the leading tone), and then resolves just higher than that (to the tonic). The first two notes are readily heard as members of the Dominant (V) chord, especially in the ample acoustic of King's Chapel. In conventional harmony, the V chord always resolves itself to the Tonic (I), as it does here.

“these three notes succinctly resolve our waiting for the Incarnation to arrive”

The question must be asked -- and we at cannot readily find the answer -- when did the excellent custom of presenting this tune unharmonized and sung by a solo treble begin?

It is an understated elegance with which the tune unfolds. As it is St. John himself, later in the service, who "unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation", these three notes succinctly resolve our waiting for the Incarnation to arrive. Together, they are the unequivocal end of Advent.

From it's arrival on the tonic, the rhythm picks up steam. The arrival is weighted so that the first tonic pitch lingers over the next beat, resulting in a succession of five eighth notes and a melodic turn and cadential appoggiatura. The rhythm is repeated exactly in the consequent phrase.

It's the kind of thing that in a very sprightly tempo (and with the right kind of instrumentation) would make for a rather convincing country dance. In a slower tempo, as it must be sung, it becomes quite regal, as befits the word "royal" in the first line.

Mann's harmonization, found in the orange Carols for Choirs 2 and most hymnals that carry the tune, is heard on the second stanza when the choir enters. It complements the shape of the tune's "unfolding". Harmonized not with a V chord, but with only scale degree three in the bass. This gives more than a hint of the tonic chord for a melody that is about to outline V, but the tonic chord is not heard in root position on a strong beat until the tail end of the consequent phrase phrase. This is a sophisticated harmonization with narrative power.

After this, beginning at the third stanza, the organ and congregation join the festivities.

The words of the hymn work to tell this story beautifully. Cecil Frances Alexander was a story teller of a hymn-writer. See, for instance, her lyric opening "There is a green hill far away / without a city wall". You may also know her work from the hymn "All things bright and beautiful". Alexander, a Victorian hymn-writer, had a particular fondness for the word "little", using it almost as much as the Book of Mormon uses the phrase "and it came to pass". But here, she seems to be at the height of her powers, giving the narrative a "rare clarity and dignity" (J. R. Watson, The English Hymn).

The notes tell a story just as much the words do. The opening pitches of the melody are well-matched to the words' "Once upon a time" aesthetic, but they also have the effect of a more famous set of blue words on a black screen. This story is an epic tale that many are drawn to and love hearing hearing year after year. This story is "the world", or at least a key part of it.

Taken together, the words and the tune of this opening hymn have set the stage for this service for over nine decades. Perhaps there is contained in the implied harmonies of opening melodic motive (V-I) the possibility of a kind of reverse liturgical Shenkarian analysis of the pattern of the whole service: longing and fulfilment; tension and release; sin and redemption.

Like the unexpected beginning to Beethoven's First Symphony (V7-I), in the pattern of lessons we hear a repeated V-I resolution, in different keys, and within a larger scheme.

  1. The First Lesson relates to the Ninth in this scheme. See below.
  2. In the Second Lesson we come in media res ("because thou hast done this thing") to the story of Abraham and Isaac. The cries of Isaac are not heard, but the promise of God is: "in blessing I will bless thee"
  3. Third Lesson: people walked in darkness and they have seen light.
  4. Fourth Lesson: a branch shall grow and peace will come.
  5. Fifth Lesson: a virgin is impregnated.
  6. Sixth Lesson: a pregnant woman gives birth.
  7. Seventh Lesson: shepherds are afraid of angelic visitors, but then they're excited and go "with haste" to Bethlehem
  8. Eighth Lesson: wise men seek the King of the Jews and find him (the sub-plot with Herod is not resolved in this service; that's what Epiphany is for!)
  9. Ninth Lesson: What began in the First Lesson as unresolved is ultimately wrapped up in the Ninth (like a good baseball game). In the First Lesson Adam and Eve do a bad, bad thing, and they are punished for it, but their world has changed. They are separated from God.

    And let's note that in a contemporary world where the concept of sin is mocked, and confession is increasingly ignored, it is helpful that this origin story is preserved in this liturgy at Christmas. Sin is properly understood as separation from God, and Christmas can change this. Through another famous hymn we sing, "cast out our sin and enter in". (See a rather beautiful essay on these things at Sed Angli "Confession and Grace")

    The Ninth Lesson provides the massive crashing resolution of the entire thing, including that niggling part about the apple in the First Lesson ("to them gave he power to become the sons of God"). Christ is the Second Adam. Like the exuberant "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Ninth Lesson is the Incarnation as Easter story. A fitting resolution if there ever was one.

Make no mistake: "O come all ye faithful" after the Ninth Lesson is sung in the same key as "Once in royal David's city" because there is an "inner logic" to this service.

Tracing back before the "Easter" moment we hear in the prologue hymn to John's Gospel, we have Incarnation, the Annunciation, prophecies, covenants, and an apple.

And before that apple, how did it all begin?

Ah, yes. "Once in royal David's city..."

It's not an Amen (IV-I), but it is a very inspired and inspiring place to start (V-I).

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18 December 2015
Mealor, Paul - quoting the Apostle Paul

This video "Paul Mealor - The Reason for Choir" is making the rounds today.

In the video, Mealor says:

When something is right, when something is the truth, when something is beautiful, it carries on because it has people to fight for it.

He probably knows this, but he's paraphrasing the Apostle Paul:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8

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11 December 2015
letter - Christmas

My wife Anne has written our Christmas letter this year. We're too cheap to actually mail these. If you think you should get one from us here it is:

Dear Friends,

I want your Christmas letters.  I want your best-crafted, most thoroughly curated cardboard mockups of yourselves.  I want your your glossings-over and your under-reportage, your artful excisions and misleading interpolations.  I want it all, friends.

Why don't you give it to me?

I'll resort to playground antics.  I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

So greetings!

I'm writing to you from the great flyover state of Missouri, where we've recently moved and are sort of settling in.  David is loving his new job.  Good thing, or I would have been really steamed because moving is the worst. The move from Virginia went as smoothly as it could have but was still huge pain in the *ss,  for which I am working desultorily at being extremely grateful!

We found a wonderful rental with a range of plumbing problems in a fantastic, walkable neighborhood really far away from work, and we love strolling to the nearby park.  Anne had a whole lot of trouble but eventually found part-time work in one of her fields and is with agonizing slowness drumming up work in the others.

William is learning how to throw tantrums and growing too fast to keep him in shoes!  He knows many words some of which we wish he didn't and is sharing several of them with me at the top of his lungs while trying to bite my ankles as I write this.

Ampney has spent the year breaking every drinking glass in the house and barfing up ribbon and being a cat.

I hope to hear from you soon.  Why haven't you sent me a d*mn Christmas letter, you monsters?
There is no good cheese here.  We're on the lookout for dairy Nirvana in the new year!  Send cheese.

Love to you you ingrates,


10 December 2015
Causton, Richard - The Flight

Now that this blog has offered its traditional Preview of the music for this year's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, England, and now that the college has posted the official service booklet (direct link to PDF) it seems meet and right to delve a bit deeper into the music at this year's service.

We begin this series with "The Flight" by Richard Causton

Richard Causton is currently a Fellow in Music at King's. In 2012, King's commissioned an Advent carol from Causton, "Out of your sleep". ("Richard Causton composes 2015 commissioned carol" from King's College;

The words of "The Flight" come from poet, and fellow blogger, George Szirtes. The blog reveals that Szirtes and Causton may be in the early stages of working on an opera together.

Szirtes himself came to England as a refugee (Poetry Foundation, Wikipedia), and the words of "The Flight" rely on this image. Its tragic repeated line haunts the entire poem: "we move on forever". These words take on extra significance given the extent of the present Syrian refugee crisis.

The lines "The sea is a graveyard / the beach is dry bones / the child…" may also give one great pause. The proximity of the world "child" to a beach of death conjures up one of the most significant photos in the news this year.

"The Flight" - George Szirtes

The child on the dirtpath
finds the highway blocked
The dogs at the entrance
snarl that doors are locked
The great god of kindness
has his kindness mocked 
   May those who travel light
   Find shelter on the flight
   May Bethlehem
   Give rest to them.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

We sleep then awaken
we rest on the way
our sleep might be troubled
but hope is our day
we move on for ever
like children astray

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

On December 10 a report featuring an interview with Stephen Cleobury and choirboys aired on the BBC. The report also includes excerpts of "The Flight" in rehearsal. It starts at 40 min. 40 sec. in to the program World at One.

The reports from the boys are "difficult" and "glissandi".

"The story is about a small child, something that connects with peoples' experiences very strongly," Cleobury says in the interivew. "I think it's great to have something that is so strongly tied in to the contemporary scene."

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07 December 2015
notes - explanatory, on the 2015 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

Stephen Cleobury writes:

"This year's selection has a very strong King's basis. The commissioned carol is from Richard Causton, a Fellow of King's College, and a university lecturer in composition. He has, in turn, commissioned a new text from George Szirtes, which has strong contemporary resonances.

In September we heard the sad news of the death of one of my predecessors here at King's, the legendary Sir David Willcocks. His many carol arrangements and descants are known the world over, and we include a number of these. Near the beginning and the end are pieces by Vaughan Williams and Howells, both composers having been very closely associated with David Willcocks.

Also, during the summer, the world of church and organ music mourned the loss of John Scott, whose setting of Nova, Nova comes after the Annunciation lesson.

We mark the 70th birthday of John Rutter by including two of the carols he has written for King's over the years. Bob Chilcott, 60 this year, is a former chorister and choral scholar of King's, and his commission for the Choir is also programmed.

Carols by Boris Ord, Harold Darke and Philip Ledger also find a place. Ord and Ledger were, respectively, the predecessor and successor of Willcocks, while Darke looked after the Choir during WW2."

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Nine Lessons and Carols - A Festival of, 2015 (preview)

As it is our care and delight to await the coming of the 2015 King's College Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols, we must in heart and mind review the music list for this, the most famous regularly occurring church service in the entire world.

  1. After the First Lesson come two very familiar carols at this service.
    • This is the truth sent from above - Vaughan Williams last sung in 2012
    • Adam lay ybounden - Boris Ord, by the former director of music of King's, this is probably the most frequently sung carol after this lesson. It was last sung in 2011.
  2. After the Second Lesson
    • Ding dong! merrily on high - David Willcocks, the first of three carols by Willcocks
    • In dulci jubilo - Robert Lucas Pearsall, for a carol that is so closely associated with this service (at least in our minds) it is interesting to note that it hasn't been sung since 2010. Interestingly, these two carols were paired together after this lesson in 1999, though the order was reversed.
  3. After the Third Lesson
    • Sussex Carol - David Willcocks
    • Hymn: It came upon a midnight clear, this hymn was last sung in 2011 when it also followed Willcocks's "Sussex Carol" (though in that year there were three carols after the Third Lesson). The descant is that by Stephen Cleobury, which, with its opening parallel sixths, is one of our very favorites.
  4. After the Fourth Lesson
    • A tender shoot - Otto Goldschmidt, last sung in 2010
    • A spotless rose - Philip Ledger, last sung in 2012
  5. After the Fifth Lesson
    • The angel Gabriel - David Willcocks, it is believed that this marks the first performance of this carol at this service, at least in recent memory. More often the Edgar Pettman arrangement is sung, as it was in last year's service.
    • Nova, Nova - John Scott, a fitting tribute to a superb church musician who also died this year.
  6. After the Sixth Lesson
    • In the bleak midwinter - Harold Darke, sometimes voted the "best" Christmas carol of all time, this was sung last year.
    • Dormi Jesu - John Rutter, the second Rutter carol of the service. Note that Rutter celebrates his 70th birthday this year.
  7. After the Seventh Lesson
    • The Shepherd's Carol - Bob Chilcott, this carol has been sung every other year since 2011. It occupies an unusual place as a "modern classic" that was not composed by John Rutter. It was originally written not for this service, but for the service recorded television broadcast "Carols for Kings".
    • Hymn: God rest ye merry, gentlemen, this hymn is sung in the famous arrangement of David Willcocks
  8. After the Eighth Lesson
    • This year's commissioned carol The Flight - Richard Causton
    • Here is the little door - Herbert Howells, a splendid little carol that leans toward Epiphany. This will be the first time that this particular carol of Howells has been sung. Previously it was his "A spotless rose", which is sung frequently, including at last year's service. In fact, singing of this carol at this service goes back to at least 1936.
  9. After the Ninth Lesson the service concludes as it always does, with both hymns sung in their familiar David Willcocks arrangements.
    • Hymn: O come, all ye faithful
    • Hymn: Hark! the herald angels sing

The second organ voluntary is "Sortie on 'In dulci jubilo' " by David Briggs, a former organ scholar at King's. This organ piece was last performed in 2007.

The spreadsheet of carols at this service has been updated with this year's information.

This article was updated at 9 o'clock Central Time with descant information after an overwhelming response from our readers.

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