The Story of Nine Lessons and Carols
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols [78:37]
Truro Cathedral Choir/Christopher Gray; Luke Bond (organ)
rec. live, 23 December 2014, Truro Cathedral
The Story of Nine Lessons and Carols. A documentary presented by Jeremy Summerly [29:54]
rec. 7 May and 8 June 2015, Truro Cathedral
Truro Perspectives. David Briggs, Andrew Nethsingha and Robert Sharpe talk about their time at Truro Cathedral. [11:47]
rec. 11-14 October 2015
Dolby digital stereo. The film of the Nine Lessons and Carols service also in AC3 5.0 Surround
Reconstruction of the 1880 Nine Lessons with Carols [59:23]
Truro Cathedral Choir/Christopher Gray; Luke Bond (organ)
rec. 19-21 January 2015, Truro Cathedral
Orders of service and sung texts included
REGENT REGDVD004 [DVD: 120:18; CD: 59:23]
To millions of people round the world King’s College, Cambridge is the ‘home’ of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. That’s understandable because the BBC broadcast of that service every Christmas Eve represents the start of the season of Christmas in countless households. However, the true ‘home’ of the Nine Lessons and Carols is what is probably England’s most geographically remote cathedral; the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Truro in Cornwall. This fascinating package from Regent, which includes the label’s first choral DVD, tells us all about the origins of this important Christmas musical liturgy.
The key figure, as we are reminded in Jeremy Summerly’s excellent documentary feature, is Edward White Benson (1829-1896). A Victorian headmaster and clergyman, among Benson’s achievements was the establishment of Lincoln Theological College in 1874 during his time as Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral (1872-77). In 1877 he was appointed as the first Bishop of Truro and he served there until becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883. When he arrived in Truro the new diocese had no cathedral and Benson set about remedying that with such energy that the foundation stone was laid in 1880. I learned with interest from the film that at the time this was the first cathedral to be built from scratch in England since 1220. By 1887 construction of the Gothic revival church was sufficiently advanced that the cathedral could be consecrated though by then Benson had departed for Canterbury.
The cathedral and Truro High School for Girls, which he founded in 1880, are surely his greatest tangible legacies to the Truro diocese. His intangible legacy is the service of Nine Lessons and Carols which he instituted in 1880. Benson personally planned the format of the service – and did so in considerable detail – assisted by the Succentor of the cathedral, Somerset Walpole, who was responsible for the choir. In the film we see documents including Benson’s draft for the Order of Service – which went through many changes. In the archives there’s also a copy of the printed Order of Service annotated in Benson’s own hand. The Regent booklet includes a facsimile of the 1880 Order of Service – not the one annotated by Benson – and it’s remarkable to see the detailed instructions given to the congregation, including many dynamic markings for O come, all ye faithful. I was slightly disappointed to learn from the present Precentor of the cathedral that the story of the choir going round the Truro pubs on Christmas Eve, singing carols in order to attract people away from the hostelries and into the new service is just a myth. It’s the sort of story you wish could be true. The 1880 service couldn’t be held in the cathedral as it was then unbuilt. Instead it took place in a large wooden shed which had been erected specifically to accommodate large congregations until the cathedral was ready.
Benson took great pains over the liturgical structure of the service and it’s noticeable how each of the readings leads with compelling logic into the carol, hymn or anthem which follow. The present day cathedral choir first attempted a reconstruction of the 1880 service in 2013, when it aroused great interest in the city and diocese. One or two “liberties” were necessary and appropriate, the chief of which was the use of the cathedral’s splendid ‘Father’ Willis organ, which wasn’t installed until 1887. The Byfield organ, in use in the shed in 1880, still exists in the cathedral and is playable but wasn’t deemed suitable for this project. As an aside, I was fascinated to learn that when the Willis organ was installed – it was transported from London to Cornwall by boat – the Truro Cathedral organist was G R Sinclair (1863-1917), later organist of Hereford Cathedral and immortalised by Elgar as ‘G.R.S.’ in the ‘Enigma’ Variations.
The 1880 service, as reconstructed, is most interesting to hear, though by comparison with what we’ve become accustomed to the liturgy is fairly plain. There are, for instance, no descants to the hymns and, indeed, in the hymns and carols there’s no variety between the verses. The Lord at first had Adam made, the first carol we hear, is sung to a fine, sturdy English traditional tune. As I say, the tune is a fine one but after six verses, all sung in the same way, it has slightly outstayed its welcome, though I’m certain the presentation is authentic and therefore right to do. If I have a regret about this reconstruction it is that it would have been nice to involve additional singers to act as the congregation, joining in the carol refrains as prescribed in the Order of Service; I bet local choral societies would have jumped at the chance. The 1880 service included three extracts from Messiah sung as anthems. These are ‘For unto us is born a son;’, ‘Glory to God’ with its preceding recitatives, nicely sung – one each - by three of the choristers, and the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. All of these are very well done. One or two of the musical offerings were completely unfamiliar to me, including Once again, O blessed time, the music and words of which are so Victorian. The last vocal item is the Magnificat, sung to a rather dull psalm chant which is doubtless a completely authentic choice. The closing voluntary is the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Third Organ Sonata, which Luke Bond plays very well. I wonder if something less elaborate and demanding was chosen in 1880.
The 2014 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, filmed live in Truro Cathedral, shows us how far we have come in many ways, despite which the essential framework and spirit of Benson’s 1880 service has endured. Benson’s format was taken up by King’s College, Cambridge in 1918 on the initiative of the college’s newly appointed Dean, Eric Milner White. He adapted Benson’s format – a number of the scriptural readings were changed for example. Milner White’s greatest gift to this Christmas Eve liturgy was the majestic Bidding Prayer, which I am delighted to see Truro has “borrowed back”. This great prayer with its wonderful use of language always moves me, in particular the eloquent remembrance of the dead – those who, in Milner White’s immortal phrase, “rejoice with us but on another shore, and in a greater light”.
Truro’s 2014 service very rightly mixes old and new. The new – or recent – music includes the first performance of a new carol, The Salutation Carol by the Cornish composer, Russell Pascoe, which I liked very much. There’s also Philip Stopford’s I wonder as I wonder. I hadn’t heard this before and I presume the melody is Stopford‘s own; it’s a very effective setting. John Rutter’s What sweeter music is one of his most winning Christmas pieces and Nigel Short’s arrangement of Quem pastores, featuring close harmonies and a number of interesting key changes is very enjoyable.
More traditional fare includes Harold Darke’s In the bleak midwinter and Vaughan Williams’s haunting This is the truth sent from above. Also traditional by now are the descants by Sir David Willcocks to such hymns as O come, all ye faithful and Hark, the herald angels sing. I was in conversation just recently with the director of music at another English cathedral who agreed with me that, despite some excellent alternatives by other distinguished hands, the Willcocks descants are still the best. It’s good that they reign supreme in Truro.
In both the 2014 service and the 1880 reconstruction all the spoken prayers and readings are included with everything separately tracked.
At the end of the service, as is usual in King’s College Chapel and elsewhere, there are two organ voluntaries. First the choir and clergy process out to Bach’s majestic In dulci jubilo BWV729 after which the organist is at liberty to let off a few musical fireworks. Luke Bond has chosen the superb toccata on Von Himmel hoch by the American, Garth Edmundson (1892-1971). It’s a terrific piece, not least for showing off the pedal division, and Bond plays it thrillingly.
Throughout both of these programmes Luke Bond plays extremely well and Christopher Gray’s choir make a very fine showing. I’ve heard this choir quite a lot on disc in recent years and I’m consistently impressed.
The camera work in the film of the service is very good, showing not only the active participants in the liturgy but also giving us some splendid interior views of Truro Cathedral. Gary Cole’s audio recording is excellent, both on the DVD and CD. The documentary feature is also very well filmed and presented. I’d recommend viewing this first – certainly before hearing the 1880 reconstruction. There’s a very good booklet and all in all this is a splendid celebration of the Cornish origins of a unique English Christmas institution – and a celebration, too, of the strength of the institution in Truro nearly 140 years later.