What is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols?
We explore the history of King's College Cambridge's iconic Christmas service the 'Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols', which is broadcasted across the world
For many people, the Festival Nine Lessons And Carols refers to the service that is broadcast on Radio 4 from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, every Christmas Eve.
Taking place at 3pm, the service always begins with Once in Royal David’s City, the first verse of which is sung as a solo by a boy treble. After that, the service consists of the reading of nine lessons, taken from various books of the Bible and covering the main themes of the Nativity story.
In between come various pieces of music. These may be carols sung just by King’s College Choir, or may be hymns involving the whole congregation. In recent years, a tradition of always including a brand new work has been set in place.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been taking place at King’s College since 1918, and was first broadcast by the BBC in 1928. However, the format itself goes back earlier than this. It was, in fact, in Truro, Cornwall on 24 December 1880 that the Right Rev. Edward White Benson, Bishop of Truro, led the first Nine Lessons and Carols service.
Benson’s attention at the time was to give the local people something to distract them from spending the evening in the pub, and the venue of the service was surprisingly modest – with the city’s new Cathedral still under construction, it took place in a temporary wooden building holding just 400 people.
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Nothing, of course, can match the experience of tuning the radio into the King’s service live on Christmas Eve – or, better still, being in the chapel itself. However, various choirs have sought to recreate the magic by recording the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols format on disc
Best recordings of Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
Choir of King’s College,
Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury (1999)
Warner Classics 573 6932
‘File into yellow candle light, fair choristers of King’s’, urges John Betjeman in Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge. The poet proceeds to evoke images of a sacred space rich in ornament, rich enough to overwhelm the senses. Much of the genius of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols lies in its balance of movement and stillness, colour and transparency, public pageant and private devotion. Sound recordings may lack the flicker of candlelight and the synaesthetic magic of a winter sunset meeting the stained glass of King’s Chapel, but they invite listeners to contemplate words and music without visual distraction.
There’s a rare intensity about the atmosphere created in the first of Stephen Cleobury’s three audio recordings of Nine Lessons and Carols, made in ideal conditions shortly before the Christmas Eve service in December 1998 and completed the following summer. His choir is on excellent form throughout, hallmarked by divine sounding trebles, seamless tonal blend and sustained focus. It also conveys reverence for the Christmas story: something unforced, hard to fake. Cleobury, as so often, sets speeds that feel just right – listen, for instance, to Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem or The Fayrfax Carol, a contemporary Christmas jewel by another King’s alumnus, Thomas Adès. The traditional numbers, Ord’s Adam lay y bounden, Pearsall’s matchless arrangement of In dulci jubilo and Darke’s sublime setting of In the bleak midwinter among them, receive fresh readings, all the better for being stripped of sentimental expression. The choice of music, like the words of the service, speaks of sorrow and joy, of the course from mankind’s fall to Christ’s incarnation and God’s promise of salvation.
While the live recording of the 2008 King’s Christmas Eve Festival packs the choir’s men fall short of the best of King’s, there are compensations in the conviction and compassion of the readings and the recorded sound’s warmth
Truro Cathedral Choir
Regent REGDVD 004
This video of Truro Cathedral’s 2014 Festival presents Nine Lessons and Carols as an emotionally charged act of worship. The package includes a compelling reconstruction of Bishop Benson’s original 1880 service on a companion audio disc, a fascinating 30-minute documentary about Truro’s part in the Festival’s creation and the carol revival, and a facsimile of Benson’s first ‘Festal Service for Christmas Eve’. The Choir and its music director Christopher Gray give life to a release filled with insights into the Festival’s deep history.
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (2010)
King’s College KGS 0001
King’s launched its own label with this release based on its 2010 Christmas Eve service. Stephen Cleobury presents repertoire from the Festival’s early days alongside new arrangements and compositions, including Rautavaara’s Christmas Carol. The album includes excellent programme notes, and world premiere recordings of five King’s Christmas commissions including John Rutter’s charming All bells in paradise. Although the choir’s men fall short of the best of King’s, there are compensations in the conviction and compassion of the readings and the recorded sound’s warmth
Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford
The Gift of Music CCLCDG 1099
Former King’s Singer Bill Ives directs this imaginative marriage of music with the words of Eric Milner-White’s service. There is a feeling here of the great anticipation of Jesus’s birth and joy at the promise of salvation that it holds. Magdalen Chapel’s intimate scale and exquisite choral performances, especially of Arvo Pärt’s De profundis (complete with percussion), Ives’s own gentle setting of Sweet was the song and Walton’s deliberately archaic All this time, magnify the album’s atmosphere of engaged devotion.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.