Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols - King's College Cambridge

Martin CullingfordThu 24th December 2009

Something old, something new

Hymns and carols rich in imagery, readings from scripture, prayers for the living and remembrance of the dead, all wrapped in a much-loved and much-replicated formula. As Eric Milner White, who founded the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College Cambridge in 1918 put it, “the development of the loving purposes of God as seen through the windows and words of the Bible.”

The Festival has taken place annually in the fenland college chapel every year since 1918. By that description I of course refer to one of the most astonishingly awe-inspiring works of English Gothic architecture, its exquisite fan-vaulting soaring high above the wintry afternoon late light in which the congregation now gather. It is the sort of space that hushes your voice as you enter. But it is, foremost, a college chapel reverently marking the academic cycle with daily worship, however much it may be best known in many a mind for this one very special service.

Not, however, that I'm actually there. I'm on the opposite side of East Anglia, on the Suffolk coast, (where incidentally, later this evening I shall be walking up through the frozen sea-mist thick with its muffled sound of fog-horn and church bell to Kirkley cliff, for Midnight Mass in the parish church near where Benjamin Britten was born and where he would turn the pages whilst his mother practised the organ). So I tune in to King's on the radio, but in doing so am not alone. It is, after all, how most people will experience the service (and anyway, I could hardly have blogged from the chapel's nave).

Since 1983, music director Stephen Cleobury has commissioned a new carol each year from a leading composer. Beginning with Lennox Berkeley, subsequent years have featured, among many others, Judith Weir, Harrison Birtwistle and Thomas Adès. I spoke to both Cleobury and the composer Gabriel Jackson at several points as the 2009 carol took shape for an article in the December issue of Gramophone (subscribers can find it at Gramophone.net). So this blog post is a sort of coda to that.

It was a fortunate year to have chosen to write this article, Jackson proving to be an open and engaging interviewee. Many composers might have played their cards close to their chest, or chosen to cast mystery over the whole process of choosing a text, forming an approach and engaging with the context of the commission. With Jackson I felt I was hearing his genuine thoughts and ideas at each point as the year progressed.

He chose to set "A Christmas Carol" by GK Chesterton, which begins “The Christ Child lay on Mary's lap”. The overall atmosphere was of serenity, very much the peace of the Nativity, not the grief of the Pieta, though there are moments of energy too, and could I detect fleeting intimations of the pain to come? One moment particularly struck me: when towards the end a solo treble voice emerges from the choir, Jackson seems to have lent it not the otherworldly pure perfection of many a treble line, but the natural spirit of a child's call.

The poem's structure gave a strophic character to the piece, but yet it changed and developed with each repetition. Like the service itself. Annual the basic formula may be, but all of us who hear it do so changed and grown after our individual journeys of the past year, and so it breathes afresh, familiar yet different. That is the strength of traditions such as these.

A happy Christmas to you all.

Listen to this year's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. You can find the order of service, including the Chesterton text, at the King's College Cambridge website.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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