One week into December, and I’ve already heard, and sometimes sung, Guinness Book of Record-breaking numbers of carols. Of course many of these were encountered quite involuntarily while out catching trains and shopping – in pole position for ‘Worst Xmas Ditty 2014’ is the Country & Western version of Silent Night I couldn’t avoid hearing in The Body Shop. But I’ve also attended carol recitals (both services and concerts) which were amongst the most thoughtful and carefully-structured musical events I’ve heard all year.
No surprises that first amongst these was the ‘Advent Procession’ at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Services like this, where the singers move around the total church space, candlelit and symbolising the coming of light from darkness, have become popular at the outset of the Christmas season. But nowhere else has a space quite like King’s Chapel to progress around, and the tradition here of teaming up music and biblical readings reaches its apogee (I would say) in this introduction to the coming of Jesus, via Old Testament prophecies and that fascinating figure, John the Baptist.
Over his long tenure at King’s, music director Stephen Cleobury has made a point of performing new, or genuinely ‘modern music’ – a powerful antidote to the sentimentality always threatening to overpower telling of the Christmas story. This service was no exception with fine carols by Richard Causton and Peter Maxwell Davies, as well as an extremely rare hearing of Stravinsky’s The Dove Descending, confidently delivered from the east end of the chapel by, it must be remembered, a group of singers of whom the greater part are aged 12 and under. Positioned close to the choir for part of the service we marvelled at these small singers efficiently picking up the next bit of sheet music before delivering the next exacting performance – Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus were amongst many others piled on the stand. The Chapel seemed to be packed with members of college (not the case for the more celebrated ‘Nine Lessons’ service deep in the vacation) and I sensed that for them, whatever their religious beliefs, it is a place to in which to be thoughtful and reflective in the presence of beautiful words, music and architecture.