It’s the seconds before the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols …

Note: This blog post is from 2010. If you’re looking for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols post for 2011, it’s here. 2012’s post can be found here. 


Although the journey home from our in-laws’ family ‘do’ on Christmas Eve is – as I wrote this time last year – a reliably exciting moment to savour, I’m reckoning that it is the moments before the beginning of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols are quite possibly the best moment during this crazy period of time. A moment of ecstasy, in fact.

It is as though 3pm on Christmas Eve – the time the carol service from Kings College, Cambridge goes out live on BBC Radio 4 – is the ultimate deadline. Everything has to be done by then. Presents bought, wrapped and positioned under the tree. The fridge stocked up. Shirts ironed. Special Christmas baths need to be had. The cats need to be fed. The bed made. Everything has to be perfect for the most perfect of celebrations.

3pm signals the beginning of the festivities proper (learning that the TV version of the service is actually pre-recorded in mid-December doesn’t affect my fascination).

Those final seconds – last year it was 45 – before the chorister ‘steps forward to sing the opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City’ are the most tantalising. Because as soon as the singing starts we’re all catapulted into a period of celebration where time is elastic. Days of the week seems like an redundant idea from Medieval times.

We’ll see each other at the other end of all this, we think as the those final seconds tick by. Will we be different at the end of the celebrations? How long will we manage to hang on to the warm fuzzy feeling which has descended upon us these past few days? Could we let those feelings bleed into our everyday life when the new year comes? Will we get our ultimate Christmas? Will it live up to the hype? Will our dreams come true? Have we covered every base in preparing for it? How did otherwise questioning, self-aware individuals allow themselves to succomb to a feeling difficult to quantify and impossible to determine the cause of.

And then the chorister steps forward. He starts to sing. It’s too late now.

:: The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is in HD Audio via the BBC Radio 4 website from 3pm on Christmas Eve

:: Catch the same service re-broadcast in HD Audio via the BBC Radio 3 website on Christmas Day afternoon.

2010: Gillian Duffy reflects on ‘Bigotgate’

Here’s a review of something essentially reviewing something else which happened during 2010. But what’s striking for me about this is not so much the story, but the engaging nature of the interview itself. It’s definitely worth a listen.

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Radio 4 PM host Eddie Mair’s interview with the woman at the centre of the ‘Bigotgate’ scandal is an interesting listen, not least because it takes the listener on quite a long journey. By the end of it, Duffy – the media’s ‘victim’ during the ‘scandal’ – reveals her to be a normal human being. Normal in that there are so many aspects to her which make like all of us.

I was particularly struck with the obvious rapport Mair established with Duffy resulting in a hugely entertaining piece of storytelling.

And with the reflective interview broadcast at the end of the year too, there’s a sense of closure on the whole sordid media affair.

Christmas Descants

The descant reigns supreme at Christmas. The melody which soars above the rest of the hymn in the final verse transforms the collective praise between congregation and choir into an intense moment of triumph and joy. The descant amplifies the theatre of the celebration. The sense of drama is palpable. If it’s a particularly good descant, it’s almost impossible not to sing along. And, if you’re a chap, you may even momentarily mourn the breaking of your own voice.

From the composer’s perspective, descants are the ultimate challenge. An eager crowd awaits the simple addition to an already favourite carol. Emotions demand to be satisfied. Spirits want to be raised to the most respectable of climaxes.

It’s also an opportunity to indulge in the most intense and fundamental of compositional techniques: four part harmony. Taking an already established melody and enhancing it. The composer takes the congregation to a different place. This is music in it’s purest sense: a journey embarked upon through melody and harmony. Ringing a melody dry to illicit the most visceral of emotional reactions.

The payback for the composer is the calling card he leaves: it’s his name credited, and one of the most famous and persistent is David Willcocks’ descant for Oh Come All Ye Faithful. There is nothing more exhilerating than standing in a choir staring out at a congregation in front of you and hearing this descant ring out all around.

But there’s another aspect to Willcocks’ arrangement of Oh Come All Ye Faithful. The verse which follows afterwards. Just when you thought the upper-limit of your innermost desires had been reached, so the fourth verse kicks in with a crawling bassline and the promise of heart-stopping chord shortly before the final refrain.

But that’s me. That’s what turns my legs to jelly every single time I hear it at Christmas. What’s yours?

Poor old John Rutter

The Sans Day Carol (arragned by composer John Rutter and sung here by King’s College Choir, Cambridge University) is a festive favourite of mine. It’s title roots it in Christmas, so too its simple joyful melody which embeds itself in the mind of the listener and insodoing defines the meaning of the word ‘Christmas’.

I first sang the Sans Day Carol when I was a member of the school ‘Junior Choir’ during our school carol service thirty years ago in the cathedral of St Edmundsbury. The event tapped probably established my borderline obsession with things ‘looking right and proper’. In what was a considerable choreographed event, the Junior Choir processed in from the choir stalls while the rest of the School choir – number 200 as I recall – processed up the nave at the same time. Everyone congregated in the middle of the Cathedral.

It was a dramatic sight. For an hour and a half on a snowy Friday afternoon, all eyes in the congregation were on us in the massed choir. And for those of us who craved attention, that was a special experience.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral

Up until that point, the choirs had rehearsed the Sans Day Carol on Friday nights after school. Junior Choir congregated upstairs for half of the rehearsal while the senior rehearsed in ‘The Old Hall’ downstairs. Both groups joined to run through the music to the service accompanied by a twangy grand piano in the corner.

As end of term beckoned so too the strange Friday when lessons were abandoned, replaced by a final assembly, and then a bus to nearby Bury St Edmunds for a special final rehearsal before the afternoon service. The rest of the school – 600 or so – would join us for that. Those of us who sang basked in our day-long ‘special status’. It would all be different at the beginning of the next term, for sure.

And the year we sang the Sans Day Carol for the first time, I recall being blown away at how completely different an experience it was singing along to the cathedral organ compared to that out-of-tune piano we’d suffered and got used to for so many weeks during rehearsals. It was – to coin a phrase – the icing on the cake.

As I progressed through school, so I moved on up into the ‘Senior Choir’ and the ‘Chapel Choir’. The Carol Service was always the high point. And while there are many other pieces which remind me of those magical end-of-term pieces of theatre, none transport me back as John Rutter’s arrangement of Sans Day Carol does.

And there’s a reason for that. It’s not just the power of memory. It’s not just that the music floats over the dramatic backdrop of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. It is because Rutter’s arrangement – and that of his music we sang in subsequent years – is so much fun to sing. Had he written something quite dull, then it wouldn’t have been enjoyable to sing and it wouldn’t have been burnt into my memory.

The inevitable shame is that the very accessibility of his music – the almost democratic nature of it – is the very thing which musical snobs criticise him for. Melodic writing accompanied by the kind of chord progressions found in jazz and pop music – like Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol (below) makes his music mainstream.

And mainstream is bad in classical music. If it’s written to please the soul – or indeed if the listener knows fairly confidently that his soul will be warmed by anything Rutter has written before it’s played for the first time – then it’s validity as a piece of music is somehow lessened. Which seems a great shame.

All this regardless of the fact that every time Rutter’s music is performed or purchased, the composer gets a royalty. He’s a composer who makes money by giving his listeners something they want. So he’s a good businessman too.

I know this because I often find myself straddling that line between thinking ‘Oooh it’s Christmas, I must here the Sans Day Carol’ and looking over my shoulder, wondering whether people think it’s a bit naff.

Then I remind myself. There are gradations. Where Andre Rieu’s success with the chocolate box album Forever Vienna makes my blood run cold, John Rutter’s compositional style succeeds in rooting itself in a collective experience – the very essence of Christmas itself.

Will there be a time when Rutter’s music is not sneered upon? It seems unlikely to me now. Mind you, I remember how me and my University pals used to snort with derision at our friend Ian’s inexplicable obsession with Abba long before the Abba revival swept the world.

You never know. He might just achieve the respect he justly deserves.