A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been held annually at King’s since 1918.
The audio-only broadcast has become a tradition in its own right. The first Festival from King’s was broadcast in 1928. And the tradition of broadcast has continued every year since, even, famously, “during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King’s could not be broadcast for security reasons.”
With the increasing prevalence of videos of the King’s College Choir singing carols, it’s worth mentioning that there’s no way to watch the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. This famous Christmas Eve service remains an audio-only affair.
Most video clips that turn up are excerpted from a separate televised service called “Carols from King’s.” This made-for-TV service is pre-recorded and broadcast on BBC television. For non-BBC audiences, it is available as a digital download directly from King’s.
2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and it was the final Festival under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. He had held the post of director of music since 1982. His successor, Daniel Hyde, directed his first service in 2019. The service was held, though without a congregation, in 2020. This year is the second time the service will be sung during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and there are plans to admit a congregation.
The service remains deeply loved by many, myself included. And in doing some reflecting on why it is that so many want to return to this service year after year, I encountered this wonderful passage at the end of the first story in A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh (1926):
“I do remember,” [Christopher Robin] said, “only Pooh doesn’t very well, so that’s why he likes having it told to him again. Because then it’s a real story and not just a remembering.”
The service begins, as always, with the hymn “Once in royal David’s city.” The descant is by David Willcocks, a former director of music at King’s
After the Bidding Prayer, we hear a carol arrangement that debuted last year: “In dulci jubilo,” arranged by Pearsall, and the director of music Daniel Hyde. This carol tune is heard every year because it is the first Organ Voluntary played at the conclusion of the service. When sung by the Choir, it is most often sung after the Second Lesson. It was last sung after the Bidding Prayer in 2001.
After the First Lesson, we hear a single carol: “The truth from above” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, arranged by Christopher Robinson.
After the Second Lesson, we hear another single carol: “The Holly and the Ivy” arranged by June Nixon. This arrangement was last sung at the service in 2010
It is interesting that Hyde’s pattern of music at the beginning of the service continues to evolve. In what is perhaps an effort to get the service off the ground, the long-standing custom of having two pieces of music after every lesson has been altered after the first two lessons. As a result, in other years where we might have heard four pieces of music after these first two lessons, we hear only two this year.
After the Third Lesson we hear the Sussex Carol in a very familiar arrangement by Willcocks. This Willcocks carol has been sung many times at this service, most recently in 2015. In Daniel Hyde’s first two services as director of music, he has chosen the Vaughan Williams arrangement.
Then follows the hymn “O Little town of Bethlehem.” As always, this hymn is sung to the English tune Forest Green. It was last sung at the 2017 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
Following the Fourth Lesson, we hear “In the stillness” by Sally Beamish. Beamish links to a recording of “In the stillness” by the St. Peter’s Singers of Leeds on her website.
UPDATE: King’s has just shared a video of them singing this carol
Though this will be Sally Beamish’s first appearance at the Christmas Eve service, her music is no stranger to King’s College. Her setting of Psalm 46 “Be Still” was commissioned by Stephen Cleobury, and sung at King’s in 2015.
Beamish’s carol is followed by “Gabriel’s Message,” arranged by Willcocks. This arrangement was last sung in 2015.
Following the Fifth Lesson the Choir sings “Make ye merry for him that is come” by Imogen Holst, a carol for SSATB choir published in the 1965 collection Carols for Today from Oxford University Press.
Afterward, the Choir sings Cecilia McDowall’s “There is no rose.” Since 1983, King’s College has commissioned a new carol for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, though no new commission was sung in 2020. McDowall’s “There is no rose” is the commissioned carol this year, and it receives its first performance at this service.
Oxford University Press has summarized the piece this way:
Employing the richness of her distinctive harmonic palette, McDowall pairs upper and lower voices to great effect throughout, contrasting polyphonic writing with moments of rhythmic unison. The carol abounds in rise and fall of both melody and dynamic, before drawing to a hushed, atmospheric close.
After the Sixth Lesson, we hear “Angels from the realms of glory,” arranged by Reginald Jacques, a familiar carol that was last sung two years ago, in 2019.
This is followed by the Wexford Carol, arranged by John Rutter. If, like me, you need the first line of the carol to remember how it goes, the Wexford Carol is the one that begins “Good people all this Christmastide.” It’s an enduring Irish carol, but it has never been sung at this service to the best of my knowledge.
Another Rutter arrangement is heard after the Seventh Lesson: it’s his take on “Silent night.” Rutter has become somewhat synonymous with the Christmas season; he is a prolific writer of original carols and carol arrangements, and his work is prevalent across choirs of all types. Since 2005, a carol by Rutter has been sung at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols more or less every other year. 2015 was the last time two Rutter carols were sung within the same service.
Rutter’s “Silent night” is followed by the hymn “While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” arranged, as it was in last year’s service, by Nicholas Marston.
The ordering of the pieces after the Seventh Lesson is another place where we can see a new director of music at work. After switching the order of these two pieces in his first two years as director of music, Daniel Hyde has swapped the order once again. He has restored the pattern that Philip Ledger settled on during his tenure as director of music, and this pattern has been followed in most services ever since. In most years the carol has come first, and then the hymn.
After the Eighth Lesson, the Choir sings “Thou who wast rich.” This is another existing carol arrangement—this time by Charles Herbert Kitson—that has received some further arranging by Daniel Hyde.
After this, the Choir sings Simon Preston’s arrangement of “I saw three ships,” last sung in 2018.
And so we arrive at that climactic Ninth Lesson with its spine-tingling introduction: “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation.”
It is followed by the requisite hymn, “O come, all ye faithful.” Daniel Hyde’s custom has been to sing all the verses, and he presents a smorgasbord of spectacular arrangements for the final stanzas (Willcocks, Christopher Robinson, and David Hill).
After the Collect and Blessing, all present sing the final hymn: “Hark! the herald angels sing,” with the Willcocks descant.
Of the two Organ voluntaries following the service, the first is always In dulci jubilo, by J. S. Bach, BWV 729. Over the years, the second voluntary presents organists like myself a list of big, festive pieces that have enough “Christmas spirit” to be played at a service like this. This year, we revisit a work last played twenty years ago, the Carillon-Sortie by Henri Mulet
The service, which is broadcast live from England at 3:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, may be heard on many public radio stations in the United States and is available to stream live on the BBC website at 10:00 a.m. Eastern. As for myself, I’ll be listening at 9:00 a.m. Central. You can also stream the service on demand from the BBC for a month following Christmas Eve.
Oh, and of course, the spreadsheet has been updated: King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols(1997–2021)
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