Easter 2024

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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