Continuing from the previous post ….
Although the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a very special occasion there is no reason for the choir to get ready early; they have practised enough. Vestry life proceeds pretty much like any other day, with the exception that that the Chapel is already full long before surpluses are pulled on. We gather in the normal place, say a prayer and then head off in procession, but not to the stalls. Rather we turn left and make our way through the narrow aisle at the side of the building to gather near the west door.
The Director of Music dons some headphones and listens (I assume) to the BBC Radio news, which must be completed before we begin. Then comes the radio announcement of the service and a red light begins to flash. One boy is identified with a nod, a point and a comforting smile and steps forward, the organ plays its last bars of improvisation, and falls silent before the red light stops flashing. We are live. The boy ventures his opening line with a charming mixture of confidence and vulnerability, skill and sensitivity to the moment. In a flash he has finished his first phrase, rounding off the word ‘shed’ with a good clear ‘d’, and he draws his next breath. He can have all the breath he wants because everyone else is holding theirs.
The choir then sings a couple of verses and before long the whole congregation is singing its heart out. We are in the stalls now and its my job to read the Bidding Prayer composed almost a century ago by Eric Milner-White, who impressed on the war-devastated College the need to try out what at the time was a revolutionary and experimental form of worship. It feels the very essence of traditional now, but when it was new it was very, very new and not everyone approved by any means.
It is well known, of course, that the Nine Lessons and Carols format was pioneered by Bishop Benson of Truro. King’s makes no claims about originating it, and I hope that by doffing my mortarboard to this truth I will save any Cornish readers the trouble of reminding me of this. It remains fair to suggest, however, that King’s has had something do with making the format flourish; and Milner-White’s Bidding Prayer is part of that.
The service continues on its way with familiar readings and plenty of very familiar carols. This year there are a number by John Rutter, a couple of which were written specially for King’s. We also remember Sir David Willcocks, who died in September, not least though the medium of his instantly recognizable descants and also with a couple of his arrangements for choir of traditional carols.
But anyone who gets lulled into a feeling that this service is backward looking this year, and we do have plenty of reason to look back, as we are just completing the 500th anniversary of the completion of the fabric of the Chapel, will get a big surprise immediately after the eighth lesson.
The newly commission carol this year has been written by a Fellow of King’s, Richard Causton. Casting around for inspiring words to set Richard got fed up with all the Christmas anthologies and phoned up his friend the Hungarian poet George Szirtes. As it happens George was just at that moment in Budapest Station talking with refugees. And so it was that the process that led to the new carol, ‘The Flight’,was initiated. It is uncompromising in depicting some of the most vivid scenes of 2015 that many of us know only – but still only too well – from television news broadcasts: ‘The sea is a graveyard / the beach is dry bones’. And the piece as a whole explores the uncomfortable idea that ‘the great god of kindness / has his kindness mocked.’ There is much to ponder in this troubling yet ultimately inspiring piece that sees in the child at the centre of the story ‘a spark’.
The service moves quickly forward from this point – by which time the great windows are all black and the candlelight in the stalls has a new intensity in the largely dark chapel. The Provost has to squint a bit, but like everyone else he is familiar with the words of the final reading in which St John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation.
After the service the great congregation dissipates, some travelling long car journeys back home; congratulating themselves for a having made the effort and knowing that the memory will stay in their minds forever. Mulled wine and mince pies are served in the Hall and the brief but noisy reception is an opportunity for members of College and choir and their families to decompress for a moment. Some, however, will slip out to find a Television to catch glimpses of ‘Carols from King’s’ a BBC2 television programme that we recorded about ten days previously. They will be back later full of reports about who was, and who wasn’t, subjected to a close up and how the whole thing came across on screen.
Then, after the briefest of breaks during which the choristers disappear back to their boardinghouse to pretend to sleep, there is a dinner for the choral scholars and their parents and any siblings loyal enough to join in the fun. This is the first time that most of us will have relaxed all day. The job is done and even if there were glitches – and you can be sure they will have been noticed – it’s too late now. The last of the BBC’s wires have been coiled up and the microphones, and all their remarkable bits and bobs, are safely stowed in vans that are ambling their way back home.
After the dinner people wander off – perhaps to a pub or a club or to a Midnight Mass in town, or maybe straight home to bed – depending on personal preference, as they say. All are encouraged to celebrate responsibly because there’s another big service in the morning; about a thousand people will be in Chapel this time for a beautiful Eucharist with carols. And, to make everyone’s joy complete, a sermon from the Dean, which you dear reader, will be able to read on this blog in due course …