Nine Lessons


On Christmas Eve I had the pleasure of attending the famous carol service at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, where I found myself focusing more than usual on the readings, the ‘Nine Lessons’. This might be because, in the past, listening in on the radio, I’ve tended to use these intervals in the musical sequence to perform pressing pre-Christmas tasks, checking supplies of custard, and so on. Which of course means missing some of the most interesting moments of the service.

The unchanging progression of readings presents a wide-ranging, sometimes eccentric, account of the Christmas Story; and the distribution of these amongst readers also throws up some challenges. Everyone knows about the lone choirboy who starts the service, heard worldwide, singing a solo verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. But what about the other boy (also presumably aged about 11) who has to read the opening bible extract, maybe the longest one in the service, in several different voices (Adam and God, plus narrative). It's the kind of passage even professional actors are wary of when they have to record audiobooks and the like.

A townsperson from Cambridge, most often the Mayor, is always given the strangest (fourth) lesson, a list of fantastical prophecies from Isaiah, announcing that ‘the cow and the bear shall feed’, ‘the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp’ and so on. Perhaps most gripping this year, after so much high level skullduggery around the world, was the eighth lesson from St Matthew, atmospherically read by the Vice-Provost. King Herod ‘privily’ calls the Wise Men and asks them to let him know once they have located Jesus and his family, so that he too can pay them a friendly visit. But having been warned by God in a dream not to do this, an early incarnation of WikiLeaks as it might be, ‘they departed into their country another way’.

It will have to go almost without saying in this short account that the selection and performance of the music was subtle and sensitive as ever, with Michael Berkeley’s fresh and singable new carol seeming to me one of the loveliest in the 35-year series, and the refurbished Chapel organ sounding splendid, and worth the bother. Many thanks to all concerned for this unfailing annual Christmas gift.

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

© Judith Weir, 2020