Most people acknowledge that phrases like “the Christmas spirit” and “the magic of Christmas” describe real phenomena, but precisely how to define them is another matter. Perhaps we could say that a whole array of traditions creates something more meaningful than the sum of its parts. These traditions include not only exterior decorations and gifts but also the interior, haunting sensibilities of childhood, a nostalgia for long-gone people and places, and even the sentimental associations we feel from revisiting, yet again, long-cherished and beautiful music.
The centuries-old tradition of choral music, or more generally of people singing together as a group in many forms, must certainly also hold a place deep in our collective cultural consciousness. One choral focal point (or, pardon me, vocal point) for many people is the Christmas Eve tradition of “Nine Lessons and Carols,” especially as it has been established at King’s College, one of the colleges of the University of Cambridge, in England.
King’s College annual performances of that service began in 1918 and have been broadcast every Christmas Eve (but one, 1930) since 1928, and worldwide since World War II. This year, in spite of the pandemic, the performance and broadcast will go on, although without a live audience present.
Perhaps we cling to the stability of tradition more than ever in unstable or unpredictable times and circumstances. So, if you haven’t yet joined the millions who make this broadcast part of their own Christmas tradition, you may enjoy tuning in online to BBC Radio 4 this year and every Christmas Eve Day at 10 a.m. EST or to the rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Christmas Day at 9 a.m. EST. Or check with your local classical music radio station, as many of them carry the broadcast (for example, WQXR-FM 105.9 in New York). Of course, the concept has also been adopted, sometimes with variations in format, by local churches of various denominations, which you might be able to attend live (and usually on earlier days in December) in your own town.
The traditional version still performed at King’s College is only slightly varied from year to year. In a nutshell, after the choir processes in to a solo boy chorister singing “Once in David’s Royal City,” there are nine parts to the service, each of which begins with a short Scripture reading, done by nine different people associated with the choir, college, or community, followed by two “carols” sung by the choir.
A few of the carols are replaced by a “hymn,” which by definition is sung by the congregation with the choir. The carols can vary from year to year and may be recent or several centuries old, such as “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” “In Dulci Jubilo,” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Every year since 1982, a new carol has been commissioned for inclusion, from composers including John Tavener and James MacMillan.
The “Service of Nine Lessons and Carols” actually predates King’s College. It was devised in 1880 by one Edward White Benson in Truro, England, in Cornwall.
At the end of World War I, a former chaplain who had become dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White, decided that after the horrors of the war it would be more uplifting to celebrate the “Lessons and Carols” on Christmas Eve, rather than the usual Evensong (the early evening Anglican service that takes place around the same time as Catholic Vespers).
In America today, such a tradition might seem very attractive to our many recent Anglophiles and “Downton Abbey” fans. But it should be observed that with church attendance down generally, and with many churches now even foregoing traditional choirs in favor of “praise and worship bands,” choral music by large choirs is no longer such a visible part of American life in the way it was even 50 years ago. A remnant of that culture can be seen in school choirs and “a cappella” pop singing groups, even some choral singing in many Broadway shows. It seems fundamental to human social life that many people will continue to want to sing in groups, so the genre is probably safe.
However, those of us of a certain age can remember a bit more singing by the public generally than we notice in popular culture now, whether around the campfire or on a hayride, in kids’ clubs, or around a home piano. More people then, it seems to this writer, could sing “Happy Birthday” in tune than can now. A check with the American Choral Directors’ Choral Journal does not confirm any statistics on this speculation, but anecdotal observation would suggest that the month of December may be the most likely month that many people hear a choir at all.
So, thanks to classic Christmas recordings and live holiday concerts, December is a month to celebrate the genre and perhaps to add the “Lessons and Carols” to our annual playlist, if it is not already there.
American composer Michael Kurek is the author of the recently released book “The Sound of Beauty: A Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life” and the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com