On only my second visit to Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s (the first was as an usher in 1974) it was exciting to experience this world famous radio event from the inside. Bidden to arrive in good time, we had the great pleasure of hearing a sequence of organ miniatures, Messiaen alternating with Bach, while the sun dappled the stonework and incomparable stained glass windows . An elderly don during my student days used to recall that most of these windows were removed for safekeeping during WW2 and replaced with thin grey cardboard – often when I’m in the Chapel I try and imagine what it would be like sitting there under those conditions in midwinter.
There was also time to study the informative programme booklet. I learned that this sequence of readings and music began in 1918, instituted by a new Dean who had been an army chaplain during the Great War and felt the need for more imaginative worship. It’s an example of how so many precious British rituals are not particularly ancient, rather the aftermath of the Edwardian years and the war which followed. Another WW1 remnant is the honours list, all those OBEs and so on, invented by King George V in 1917.
Seated behind the choir, we heard a sound profile usually unavailable to listeners – a rich one, with excellent tenors and basses. Again the programme interestingly informed that until 1927 these positions were mostly fulfilled by lay clerks, not choral scholars. This year’s service in fact highlighted the college’s burgeoning twentieth century choral tradition, containing an unusually big portion of twinkling ‘Kings-y’ music – think “Ding Dong Merrily on High” by David Willcocks. All the better then that at the height of the service arrived the yearly new commission (a noble ‘new tradition’ invented by Stephen Cleobury during his now 34-year reign at King’s). Richard Causton’s ‘carol’ The Flight to words by George Szirtes was a stunningly apposite comment on the arrival of refugee families on Europe’s shores - just as we’re told Jesus and his parents arrived in unfriendly circumstances. A notable new composition – with tough vocal counterpoint, and an arresting high treble cry/glissando at the end, it was an instinctive reminder that significant numbers of those presently making dangerous sea crossings are babies and small children. And, less alarmingly of course, that a majority of the performers in Nine Lessons and Carols are themselves aged 12 and under.