Whether in King's College or a venue near you, the role of music at Christmas

Martin CullingfordFri 4th December 2015

Gramophone's Editor introduces the December issue of the magazine

This Christmas Eve, as they have for almost a century, the congregation in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, will take their seat for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Many will have queued for hours in the fierce Fenland cold to be part of this famous and evocative tradition. In greater warmth, individuals, families perhaps, will tune in to BBC Radio 4 and other stations worldwide. They, as the hosting vicar at the beginning of Radio 3’s Choral Evensong (another beloved religious and musical tradition), reminds us every week, are part of the service too.

For King’s, several significant events are being marked this year. It’s 500 years since the chapel was finished, since that extraordinary soaring stonework and vaulting became one of the defining monuments of Gothic architecture. But 2015 was also the year Sir David Willcocks, Director of Music at King’s for 17 years, died aged 95. As befits someone whose descants have come to define the way many of us hear certain carols, not least Hark! the herald angels sing, the service will feature some of his arrangements. It will also feature a setting by John Scott, Organist and Director of Music at St Thomas, New York, who died earlier this year at the much younger age of 59.

The contribution both conductors made to all our musical lives are explored in the new issue of Gramophone: in Willcocks’s case through our review of Decca’s richly fascinating new box-set of his recordings with King’s; in Scott’s case through a poignant piece written shortly before his death by one of our writers who attended the recording sessions of St Thomas’s beautifully performed new Christmas album, ‘Dancing Day’, one of my Editor’s Choices in this issue.

And then there will be the new carol, this year by Richard Causton. Every year since 1983 the current Music Director, Stephen Cleobury, has commissioned a new carol, many of which have found their way into the wider repertoire. Acknowledgement of history, faithful remembrance of past colleagues and friends, the nurturing of the future: all these lie at the heart of Christmas, and its heady and poignant mixture of celebration and reflection. Sometimes it takes an institution or a tradition – whether musical or liturgical – to embody it all, to make it easier to grasp.

What King’s does will be replicated throughout the world. The Christmas season always draws many who might not otherwise have done so into concert halls, whether to hear masterworks from the choral repertoire from adults or to be moved and inspired by children giving end-of-term school performances. Works of many ages will be performed by people today in countries and languages far removed from when and where they were written.  

This year’s newspapers and broadcasts have paid testimony to an uncertain year marked by moments of horrific and heartbreaking tragedy. It is one of music’s greatest gifts – and privileges – that it can, whether in sacred and secular contexts, provoke thought, provide peace and offer us strength, both through making our past part of our present and by giving us faith in the future.

My best wishes for Christmas to all our readers.  

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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