Monday, December 21, 2020

Lessons & Carols, the coronavirus and King's Chapel

Every Christmas Eve, in plague times and not, I do my best to listen to the live broadcast from King's College Chapel, Cambridge, of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a magnificent program from a magnificent medieval building that still is an active Church of England house of worship (images here are from Wikimedia).

This year, despite the coronavirus, the choristers planned to soldier on --- although with a number of changes. Ordinarily, the building is packed on Christmas Eve and filled with the sound of congregational singing, too. That was  not to be the case this year.

The original plan  had been a live broadcast by the choristers and choir from an otherwise empty chapel. The 16 boys who provide the treble voices live together in a boarding program at the college and had been protected from the virus. The 14 undergraduate students who provide the deeper voices have not been sequestered, however, and two of them came down with mild cases of the virus at the last minute, throwing all of those singers into self-quarantine.

Without pause, The King's Singers, a six-member a cappella ensemble founded at King's College in 1968, stepped in for the choir --- but it was decided at that point to pre-record the entire service, a process completed last Sunday.

So this year's service will be broadcast at the usual time, but will be remembered as the first break in the live tradition since 1930.

 If you'd like to tune in here, broadcast time (audio only) will be 9 a.m. Thursday (Iowa time). You can live-stream it from the BBC World Service web site and from the American Public Media web site. Minnesota Public Radio (owned by American Public Media) will broadcast the program, but apparently Iowa Public Radio is not a subscriber.


The festival service itself is not especially old, devised during 1880 by Edward White Benson, Bishop of Truro and later Archbishop of Canterbury, and conducted on Christmas Eve that year in a temporary wooden building in use because Truro Cathedral still was under construction.

It first was celebrated at King's College in 1918 during the aftermath of World War I and live broadcasts from the chapel commenced during 1928.

As the title suggests, the service consists of nine readings from the Bible interspersed with nine carols. With two exceptions, carols vary from year to year. The readings and brief prayers are constants.

The service always concludes with "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" but opens with a lesser-known carol, "Once in Royal David's City," written in 1848 as a hymn for children by a clergyman's wife, Cecil Frances Alexander.

And that is one of my favorite carols of the season, especially as presented during the festival service. 

As the boy choristers and the choir prepare for the Christmas Eve processional at King's College, the director selects the chorister who will open the service with the first verse, sung a cappella. The full choir then joins as the procession commences and, finally, the voices of the chapel organ and congregation are added. Listen especially on the final verse for the glorious David Willcocks descant.

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