Easter 2024

29 December 2016
Kings - Carols from, 2016

While our main interest on this blog is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols itself, the service "Carols from Kings" (which is pre-recorded for television broadcast) is certainly more internet-friendly.

It is important to clarify that though there is some overlap in the music of "Carols from Kings" and the "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols", these are two distinct services. The Festival itself is heard as a live audio broadcast and is not video-recorded.

One similarity between the services, however, is the splendid effect of the fading winter sunlight through the stained glass of the chapel as the service progresses. This effect is well captured on video. At the request of the BBC, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols begins a little after 3 p.m. This year, the sun set at 3:51 p.m.

Here are the carols from this year's "Carols from Kings".

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25 December 2016
Leighton, Kenneth - A Christmas Carol, Op. 21

Merry Christmas!

On this Christmas Day we particularly want to share A Christmas Carol, Op. 21 by Kenneth Leighton.

It's not the familiar setting of "What sweeter music" that you may have come to expect this time of year.

The unexpected glories of Robert Herrick's words are brought into vivid color by this rich, energetic setting.

And if that's not enough, it's from a CD called Carols for Christmas Morning. (album on Spotify)

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23 December 2016
Christmas Eve 2016

Today is Christmas Eve Eve (what some people call "Christmas Adam") so here, in one nifty post, are the pages that you might want to see on

20 December 2016
5 Things To Listen For In The 1962 Broadcast Of A Festival Of Nine Lessons And Carols From King's College, Cambridge

Number 4 will surprise you

By David Sinden staff

I wrote an article about this yesterday, but my editor said it was tl;dr. Here's the cool kid version.

You can listen to a live broadcast recording of the 1962 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Spotify. The service was directed by David Willcocks. Here's what to listen for.

1. The opening hymn: "Once in royal David's city"

Notice anything? Yes, it's the right hymn. Yes, it begins with a treble solo. But, wait, where's the descant? There isn't one.

The famous Willcocks descant may not have even been written yet. It bears a copyright date of 1970, eight years after this service took place.

2. The words really do rhyme in "God rest ye merry, gentlemen"

In the hymn "God rest ye merry, gentlemen" the word "wind" is sung to rhyme with "mind" in the lines of the third stanza, something which is not done at King's (or anywhere that we know of) today.

The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind,

I would never tell my choir to sing it that way.

3. Organ introduces the choir carols

Nowadays you really have to have your radio cranked up to hear the very soft pitches given by the organ before the choir sings. But not so in 1962. The organ plays the first phrase to remind them exactly how it goes, and the registration isn't always very subtle.

4. There's a "gathering chord" before every stanza of every hymn

The organist introduces the hymns in the typical way. But when it comes time to sing the organ plays a chord a full beat before the singing begins. Every time. What is that about?

5. The lovely carol "Born in a manger"

It's not a carol you know. You probably haven't heard it before. It's not a carol that anyone seems to know, and I don't think it's been sung very much since 1962. I believe it was written by Christopher Morris (1922–2014).

read the full version of this article: An in-depth listen to a recording of the 1962 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge

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19 December 2016
An in-depth listen to a recording of the 1962 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge

Maybe others are already aware of this, but we were delighted to stumble upon a recording of the 1962 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge. This is a live recording of the service on that Christmas Eve more than half a century ago. The director of music at that time was David Willcocks.

The recording called "Christmas Carols from King's" and is available on Spotify from "Digital Gramaphone". We are not sure about it's availability elsewhere.

One of the first things to jump out at us is how much the conventions surrounding hymn playing and singing have changed.

There is no descant on the opening hymn, Once in royal David's city. Willcocks's descant bears a copyright date of 1970 in Carols for Choirs 2, the same year that book was published, so it is certainly possible that he hadn't conceived of it yet.

Even after a rhythmic introduction to the hymns, the organist gives a one-beat "gathering chord" at the start of each stanza of the hymns. This is not a practice that we have heard anywhere else, though we don't often listen to liturgical recordings from English collegiate chapels from the 1960s. We are not sure if it was common to accompany hymns this way, or if this was a convention developed for this broadcast.

It is certainly a bit odd to listen too, especially when the left hand enters with the tuba for that marvelous Willcocks descant to "O come, all ye faithful".

In the hymn "God rest ye merry, gentlemen" the word "wind" is made to rhyme with "mind" in the lines of the third stanza, something which is not done at King's (or anywhere that we know of) today.

The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind,

The organ also plays brief introductions to the carols, something that is not done nowadays.

In terms of the carols, a standout to us was "Born in a manger". The Spotify information does not include composers, but with a bit of sleuthing we hypothesize that this carol was written by Christopher Morris, who you might know as the editor of much music published by Oxford including A Sixteenth-Century Anthem Book.

Morris died in 2015. His obituary from the Telegraph begins

"Christopher Morris, who has died aged 92, was the inspiration behind Carols for Choirs, first published in 1961 and later extended into four volumes, which, in the words of the composer John Rutter, 'changed the whole sound of Christmas for everybody who sings'."

If anyone deserves to have contribution to Anglican Christmas music recognized at contemporary Carol services, Christopher Morris does. "Born in a manger" is lovely, brief, and quite effective.

It seems to us utterly shocking that 1) we don't know the full picture about what music was sung at services like these in Willcocks's time 2) that a piece as good at this one is now almost completely unknown and unrecorded. Why has it not been sung recently?

This brings us to the final phase of listening to this recording, which is placing the music in its liturgical context. Thanks to this recording we know exactly what the carols are (with the exception of composer of "Born in a manger", which we hope to confirm very soon). Since the readings are not included, we are left wondering at the precise placement of the music.

This calls for some more speculation, but it is very possible that the service in 1962 looked like this:

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07 December 2016
Nine Lessons and Carols - A Festival of, 2016 (preview)

As it is our care and delight to await the coming of the 2016 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.

Where possible we have included links to recordings on YouTube sung by King's.

  1. After the first lesson comes the music of two women. First, staple of this service, and then a piece by a composer whose music has never been sung at this service.
    • Jesus Christ the apple tree by Elizabeth Poston. This carol was last sung in 2013, and it recurs fairly regularly. This will be its seventh appearance since 1999. (recording)
    • "Adam lay ybounden" by Gaynor Howard. Howard joins the ranks of Ord, Warlock, Ledger, and one Christopher Brown, whose setting of this text was heard in 2012. (Read more at Howard, Gaynor - Adam lay ybounden.)
  2. After the second lesson two very familiar unaccompanied carols are heard
    • Riu, riu chiu by Flecha. This lively Spanish carol was last heard in 2011 and also appears on many recordings from King's. (recording)
    • "In dulci jubilo" by Praetorius. This lovely macaronic carol is heard almost annually, either in this early setting or in the "carol-fantasia" by Pearsall. In the past nineteen years it has been omitted only three times: 2002, 2011, and 2013.
  3. After the third lesson another composer has his moment in the King's spotlight.
    • Sussex Carol by Brian Kelly. Again, the familiar names of Willcocks and Ledger are skipped in favor of a setting of this carol by a composer whose music has not previously been heard at this service. The name Brian Kelly will be familiar to many Anglican church musicians, though we cannot say that we know of this carol setting.
    • Hymn: "O little town of Bethlehem". This hymn makes its first appearance since 2007. In the intervening years this hymn slot has been taken up with either "God rest ye merry, gentlemen", "It came upon the midnight clear", or "Unto us is born a Son". (recording)
  4. After the fourth lesson the familiar carols return. Here we have two crystalline contrapuntal carol structures that are consummate Christmas compositions.
    • The Lamb by John Tavener. This carol was sung immediately after the fourth lesson at Stephen Cleobury's very first Lessons and Carols service at King's. This is all the more remarkable because though it was not specifically composed for that year's service it had only been written a few months before. (Tavener would later be commissioned to write "Away in a manger" in 2005.)

      We particularly want to mention this connection to Cleobury's first service because this year marks his 35th year at King's. One cannot help but wonder if he might be starting to think about stepping down, and in what way this music list could reflect a farewell to a tradition he has done so much to sustain, cultivate, and enliven.

      We do not have records of every year back to 1982, but we can find at least nine times that The Lamb has been sung at this service, the most recent being in 2013. (recording)

    • "A spotless rose" by Herbert Howells. Here again, quite a familiar carol and one that has deep roots at this service. I've found records of it being sung as early as 1934, though it perhaps appeared even earlier than that. It was last sung in 2014. Last year a different Howells carol "Here is the little door" was sung for the first time. (recording)
  5. After the fifth lesson
    • "I sing of a maiden" by Lennox Berkeley. Berkeley was the first composer to take part in a series of annual commissioned carols for this service. Berkeley's commissioned carol in 1983 was "In wintertime". In this service we hear his earlier, more familiar, more simple "I sing of a maiden" (Recording of "I sing of a maiden;" though please allow us to say that we think the splendid "In wintertime" is underperformed).
    • Joys Seven by Stephen Cleobury. This arrangement was sung as early as 1985, and we suspect it was sung a year earlier as well. It is a very effective arrangement, and the composer Nico Muhly explains why:
      ...There is, however, a completely over-the-top descant at the end that performs a little trick. The organ rises up the scale, and the trebles sing aah aah aah on the top four notes of an Ab-major scale. Then, when they repeat it immediately afterwards, the G is flatted, followed by the F, and then a G-natural: it’s very subtle, but it lines up perfectly with the text below “…to see her own son Jesus Christ to wear the crown…” “” what you expect is, of course, the crown of thorns, but the word that you get is “heav’n” (to rhyme with Seven). That little turn in the trebles is precisely the Tart Joy of Christmas: you have to make sure that you advance the clock to Good Friday, looming just a few months later.

      Muhly, Nico. "Scars from Home". 23 November 2008

      Joys Seven was last sung in 2014. (recording)

  6. After the sixth lesson something old and something new.
    • Quelle est cette odeur agréable? by Willcocks. The last record we have of this being sung was in 1991, though we do not currently have records of services from 1992-1996. (recording from the Choir of Guilford Cathedral under Barry Rose)
    • Then follows the commissioned carol, This Endernight by Michael Berkeley Lennox Berkeley's son.
      The anonymous c1400 text, This Endernight, is unusual for a carol in that it articulates the voice of the infant Jesus in dialogue with his mother. ‘Ender' or ‘Endris' means past or recent. Maternal feelings of tenderness are in abundance but there is also a knowingness about the importance of the event that is unfolding. It is an upbeat lullaby which looks forward to heavenly bliss and so culminates in a radiant cadence.

      "Michael Berkeley composes Christmas commissioned carol". King's College. 3 November 2016.

  7. After the seventh lesson
    • In the bleak midwinter by Harold Darke. This carol is perhaps the most familiar of any, and when it does not appear the same words are sometimes sung to a tune by Gustav Holst. This carol was sung last year after the sixth lesson. (recording)
    • Hymn: "While shepherds watched their flocks by night". This hymn was last sung in 2013. (recording)
  8. After the eight lesson.
    • Bethlehem Down by Peter Warlock. Various pieces by Warlock have appeared at these services ("Adam lay ybounden", "Balulalow", and "Benedicamus Domino") but Bethlehem Down only appears in our records four times. It was last sung in 1999. (recording)
    • "Ding! dong! merrily on high" by Mack Wilberg. This carol has appeared five times since its introduction in 2007. It was last sung in 2014. (recording)
  9. The final two hymns of this service after the ninth lesson are as predictable as the very first.
    • O come, all ye faithful in the familiar arrangement by Willcocks. (recording)
    • Hark! the herald-angels sing is crowned with a descant by Philip Ledger. (recording)
The organ music concluding the service is In dulci jubilo, BWV 729 and "Dieu parmi nous" by Olivier Messiaen

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06 December 2016
Howard, Gaynor - Adam lay ybounden

Undoubtedly a new name will catch a few by surprise as they study the music sung at this year's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge.

After a familiar rotation of "Adam lay ybounden" settings by Ord, Warlock, and Ledger only one other name has been admitted to this deciduous canon: that name was Christopher Brown, whose setting appeared in 2012.

This year yet another name appears: Gaynor Howard.

Howard's carol "Adam lay ybounden" is to be sung after the first lesson following a work by another woman, Elizabeth Poston.

From her biography on the Fountayne Editions website:

Gaynor Howard has been involved in music education throughout her working life after studying at the Royal College of Music. She taught first at Abergavenny High School, then Cardiff High School for Girls and latterly was Director of Music at Howell’s School Llandaff. She also collaborated on writing papers on the benefits of teaching music to children.

She was a founder member of the Glendower Singers, a chamber choir, which became well known through broadcasts and television appearances, and throughout her career she has arranged and written much instrumental and vocal music for a wide variety of occasions and forces.

Her setting of "Adam lay ybounden" appears to be written for treble voices only, and bears the dedication "For Howell's School, Llandaff". It bears a copyright date of 2015. The rhythm of the opening phrases will surely remind some of the familiar setting by Peter Warlock. Howard notes that the score calls for the tuba pedal stop in the final bars.

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Once again, dear reader, we at have been fortunate in being able to obtain the order of service for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge.

As ever, it is our strong desire that you have the information as soon as we do.

To that end we began tweeting this information at 9:54 p.m. United States Central Time.

The spreadsheet that lists carols from 1997 to the present has been updated with the information for this year's service. This sheet has also grown in the past two months to include various bits of information about past years' services, but it is by no means yet complete. See for more information and a link to the spreadsheet.

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Advent hymns - best, list of

We argue a lot about Advent, don't we?

Let's settle one question this year: what's the best Advent hymn of all time?

Vote for your favourite(s) or add your own.

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