Every Christmas Eve King’s College, Cambridge holds its famous annual ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s.’ Andrew Hammond, Chaplain of King’s College, takes us behind the scenes of this year’s service.
I got into a major grump a little while ago in a well-known store when I stumbled into their Christmas section. I really didn’t need to hear ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland’ in the middle of October.
There is a slight irony in this, of course, as the Christmas season is something that takes up a lot of head-space here at King’s from quite a long time before October, primarily due to our service on Christmas Eve, the famous ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s.’ As I find myself pointing out at carefully selected moments, this goes out to around 140 million listeners. Live. That tends to concentrate the mind. It certainly concentrates our minds.
You might think the formula is so settled, the annual regularity of it so fixed, that every element simply happens smoothly, like a beautiful, well-kept classic car. In some senses that is true: you fiddle with something so honed at your peril, but like that car, it takes a great deal of loving attention to keep it not just a classic but performing optimally. So, if continuing with the automobile idea, perhaps it is more like a Formula 1 car than a Morse jag.
There is a big team of people whose preparatory work and efforts for this event are both complex and vital, and often require being ready to act swiftly and effectively in the moment. Liturgical and musical planning are a big part of this, but there is also the management of the event itself in terms of ticketing and admission. This involves people-movement and security, the maintenance and preparation of the building itself, the social media operation, accommodating the BBC team and their equipment, chaperoning the choristers, and so much more.
For the last 35 years, one of the constants in this process has been the involvement of Stephen Cleobury, the renowned Director of Music at King’s College. This year, as always, we will perform a newly-commissioned carol. This is an important part of the tradition of Christmas Eve here, a continuing sense of refreshment within a burnished tradition. The last two years have been by Oxford University Press composers, happily!
Stephen Cleobury particularly enjoys the process of commissioning a new carol each year, telling us: ‘one of the things I enjoy about the annual commissioning process is that, far from having a planned list of composers to approach, each commission arises from a unique set of circumstances. For example, I met Judith Weir at a Christmas party, and a carol followed the following year. I discussed the possibility of writing a carol for us with Harrison Birtwistle as I waited with him backstage before I conducted a piece of his at the Proms. And so on.
The process generally starts early in the year, and begins with identifying a text, and my briefing the composer on the size and vocal ranges of the Choir and so on. I have wanted to invite composers who write in the mainstream of music to show that liturgical choirs can be part of this world, too. The bar does not need to be lowered for us!’
This year, the challenge will include singing in Welsh, as the new piece is by Huw Watkins, who studied at King’s as an undergraduate and is now Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. The carol is part of the welsh Plygain carol Carol Eliseus, and was chosen by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, now Master of Magdalene College here in Cambridge.
Reflecting on this commission, Watkins said: ‘I was particularly delighted to have been asked to write this year’s new carol, having been an undergraduate at King’s in the ‘90s. As a non-Welsh-speaking Welshman, I was also thrilled and slightly daunted when Stephen Cleobury suggested a Welsh text. My mother (a native speaker) has helped me with the sounds and stresses of the words, and I feel like setting this language has unlocked an indefinable Welshness in my music. I wanted to write something pure and somehow artless, and all the time I’ve had that glorious acoustic in my head.’
This will only be my third year as a participant in the Christmas Eve service, less than a tenth of Stephen Cleobury’s involvement, and with his retirement gradually appearing over the horizon, we are aware of wanting to make the last years of his epic tenure appropriately celebratory and well-marked; not the least of this is the serendipitous arrival of the centenary of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 2018. The privilege and responsibility in which we share are quite unmatched; as thrilling as the building itself, you might say, and true to the fine ambition of our royal founder, Henry VI.
Featured image credit: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge with director Stephen Cleobury in the Chapel at King’s College by Kevin Leighton. Used with permission.