Commemorating A King's College Christmas Tradition

Dec 22, 2019
Originally published on December 22, 2019 12:21 pm

Every Christmas Eve at exactly 3 p.m., the Chapel of King's College in Cambridge, England plays A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The tradition began in 1918, and for decades it's been broadcast on the BBC and around the world. A commemorative recording of last year's Centenary Service has just been released; it was the last one conducted by Sir Stephen Cleobury, the choir's music director for 37 years, who died just last month on Nov. 22.

The tradition of a special Christmas service began at King's College during Rev. Eric Milner-White's first year as dean in 1918. Milner-White had served as an army chaplain in World War I, and thought that the people of England sorely needed a morale boost. Today, the Nine Lessons plays a similar role. "I think the service provides a wonderful sense of tradition in an increasingly secularized society," says the choir's new music director, Daniel Hyde.

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke to Daniel Hyde about a few of the service's traditions, such as its annual radio broadcast, commissioning an original hymn and how they choose the boy soloist for "Once in Royal David's City." Listen in the audio player above.

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KING'S COLLEGE CHOIR: (Singing) Hark the herald angels sing...


3 p.m. exactly every Christmas Eve, the chapel of King's College in Cambridge, England, plays the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The tradition began in 1918. And for decades, it's been broadcast on the BBC and around the world. A commemorative recording of last year's centenary service has just been released. And it was the last one conducted by Sir Stephen Cleobury, who was music director for 37 years. He died November 22. We're joined now by Sir Cleobury's successor Daniel Hyde, who joins us from King's College. Welcome to the program.

DANIEL HYDE: Thank you. Nice to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For those who aren't familiar with the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, tell us about the service and its history.

HYDE: Well, the service dates back to a former dean of King's, Eric Milner-White, devising a sequence of readings interspersed with carols. And it was really in response to people's feelings, people's emotions following the Great War. And it's something which has evolved. But there's a structure to it in that there are nine lessons, which tell the story of the birth of Jesus right from Genesis, Adam and Eve, all the way through to the various characters who visited him in the manger and beyond. So there's a structure to it, which has been the same now for just over 100 years.


KING'S COLLEGE CHOIR: (Singing) Unto us is born a son, king of choirs supernal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, of course, it is played across the country and the world. But the other thing is that people line up, I mean, for hours and hours to get tickets to attend.

HYDE: Yeah. It's had a curious history. It used to be that there was a queue going for some days outside the main college gates. And that, of course, created a real sense of anticipation and excitement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The choir of King's College is made up of 16 boy choristers and 16 men who are choral and organ scholars. But the ceremony always begins with a processional sung by one boy.


GEORGE HILL: (Singing) Once in royal David's city stood a lowly cattle shed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This young man is George Hill. How is the soloist chosen? Must be extraordinary to be that boy starting this off.

HYDE: Yeah. So what we do is we teach the solo, of course, to more than just one boy. So on the morning of the carol service, I'll probably hear four, if not, maybe even five boys and just see essentially who's in the best voice.


HILL: (Singing) Jesus Christ, her little child.

HYDE: It's a combination of who is as steady as we need on the solo itself. But it's also a consideration of what I know of each of the boys from the preceding term. So I know those who are very safe under pressure. I know those who might feel a little bit anxious when they see a full chapel. There's a whole load of different considerations that bring me to a decision. And then just as the radio announcer announces the program and just as things go live in the chapel, I'll call one of the boys forward.


HYDE: And he'll sing it.


KING'S COLLEGE CHOIR: (Singing inaudibly).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I didn't know. It's that up to the minute. They don't know that they're going to be chosen until, actually, they're called.

HYDE: Well, I suppose they know that they might be one of five...


HYDE: ...If they were there in the morning. But the whole purpose of not telling them any sooner than that is that they then don't have any time to think about it.


HYDE: Maybe they also don't have time to tell their parents, who might worry about it even more than they would.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) In addition to some well-known carols, there's a tradition of commissioning a new carol each year, right?

HYDE: Correct - yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And in 2018, it was "O Mercy Divine" by composer Judith Weir. Let's listen to a moment of this song from the new album.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) O mercy divine.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) O mercy divine.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) How couldst thou incline?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) How couldst thou incline?

KING'S COLLEGE CHOIR: (Singing) My God, to become such an infant as mine?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's an important moment for composers to present new Christmas carols.

HYDE: Absolutely. It's a tradition that was started by my predecessor Stephen Cleobury in 1983. And he did it because, in his own words, he felt that it was very important that mainstream composers were seen to be writing choral and, in this case, church music. It's kept it very fresh. So it's a great innovation that we will carry on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's the newly commissioned carol this year?

HYDE: So the new carol this year is a setting of words, "The Angel Gabriel." And it's written by Philip Moore, who was, for many years, the director of music at York Minster. Philip is well known as a composer in the choral world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Along with the music, as you mentioned, there are lessons or Bible readings. In this new recording, we hear Sir Stephen Cleobury reading from the book of Luke.


STEPHEN CLEOBURY: (Reading) And the angel said onto them, fear not. For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the importance, you think, now of having these lessons and hearing this music?

HYDE: I think this service provides a wonderful sense of tradition in an increasingly secularized society. And I think, for many people, the idea of Christmas being sort of huddled around the radio, wrapping presents, having a cup of tea - I don't know what people do at 3 o'clock on Christmas Day - on Christmas Eve because I'm always in chapel. But I think it's very much a starting point for people's Christmas celebrations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I imagine it must bind people. I mean, it's a tradition that's gone on for so long in a very divided Britain.

HYDE: Absolutely. But, I mean, it's a tradition which is known worldwide. And I think that business of radio...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We know it well.

HYDE: ...As I said, huddling around something - yeah. And, of course, you - it could be anywhere in the world. We got letters from all over the world, people writing after they've heard the service, sometimes saying how much they enjoyed it, sometimes saying how little they enjoyed it. You know, whatever it is, people will comment. And it's great to know that people have been with us on that occasion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Daniel Hyde, newly appointed director of music for the choir of King's College Cambridge. On Christmas Eve, the traditional broadcast of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols will, of course, be heard on the BBC and also over many public radio stations here at home in America. Thank you so much.

HYDE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.