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In the bleak midwinter

Christmas carols from King's
King's College Choir Cambridge, Daniel Hyde (conductor), Matthew Martin (organ) Detailed performer information
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Label: King's College, Cambridge
Recording details: Various dates
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Benjamin Sheen
Engineered by Benjamin Sheen
Release date: November 2021
Total duration: 74 minutes 30 seconds

This album reflects a Christmas that was unlike any other in recent history. During preparations for the 2020 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols—with the viability of a live broadcast precarious—a decision was taken that it would be useful to do a dress rehearsal of the service, and record it, just in case it was needed later. The Christmas Eve service was indeed called off, and much of the music on this album is actually what was heard by the world that day.

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Nine lessons and carols: the Nativity through music
History comes to life at least once a day at King’s College Cambridge, revived by the regular, repeating pattern of Evensong. Its ritual connection of past and present, tradition and change, word and deed, is a source of hope: that most necessary condition for belief in an unknowable future. People of all faiths and none have been reminded of hope’s priceless currency in recent times by a simple virus, highly contagious, deadly, disruptive. Covid cancelled Evensong in King’s College Chapel for many months, calling time on its rich variety of communal reflection and spiritual nourishment. Another King’s institution, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, found a way to work within lockdown limits last year. The annual service, pre-recorded for broadcast to millions worldwide, has arguably never been more valued or needed than it was on Christmas Eve 2020; certainly, its living tradition arrived not a moment too soon for many families and friends separated, bereaved or otherwise troubled by the pandemic.

The world’s troubles seem simpler, its wonders greater, when seen through the eyes of a child. The story of the Nativity could scarcely be told more simply than it is in Once in royal David’s city. The hymn’s familiarity disguises the insight of words fashioned in the late 1840s by Cecil Frances Humphreys, later Alexander, for use in Sunday school. Mrs Alexander’s work delivers moral instruction; it also offers lessons to people of all ages about unconditional love and empathetic joy, virtues not readily associated with High Victorian piety. As the Congregational minister and composer Erik Routley noted, Alexander’s text found its ideal partner in Henry Gauntlett’s music. The melody, observed Routley, ‘has the extraordinary quality of sounding as effective in the homely piano-accompanied gathering for which it was originally composed as it does amid all the splendour of King’s College Chapel. That is as much as to say that Dr Gauntlett, who wrote ten thousand hymn-tunes, of which a few are magnificent and the rest as dull as old rope, here caught the popular note and wrote something like a genuine carol.’ Three King’s College organists—Arthur Henry Mann, known to his choristers as ‘Daddy Mann’, David Willcocks and Stephen Cleobury—have each contributed to the composition’s splendour and popularity, the first two with their harmonisations, the latter with his bold descant.

Otto Goldschmidt’s name often surfaces in footnotes to the story of British choral singing. The German-born pianist, conductor and composer, who married the soprano Jenny Lind, the celebrated ‘Swedish nightingale’, settled in London in his late twenties. He later founded the Bach Choir, with which he gave the first complete performance in England of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor. A tender shoot, his setting of an anonymous sixteenth-century text for Advent, dresses William Bartholomew’s English translation in the fashionable Victorian style of an unaccompanied part-song. Goldschmidt’s sonorous harmonies and largely syllabic treatment of the words, a legacy of his formative studies with Felix Mendelssohn, project the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Messiah, here synonymous with the new-born Jesus as a shoot, stemming from the family tree of Jesse, father of King David.

Long before the argument in favour of singing choral works and operas in their original language was won, John Troutbeck, clergyman and Chaplain-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria, laboured tirelessly to render works new and old into English. Many of his translations, not least those of Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions and Christmas Oratorio, became the common property of choral societies throughout the British Empire. The chorale How shall I fitly meet thee?, from the first part of the Christmas Oratorio, provides a moment for personal reflection on news of the Saviour’s birth: its profound humility intensified by Bach’s peerless harmonisation and the imagery of Troutbeck’s verse.

Harold Darke served the London church of St Michael, Cornhill, for half a century as organist and, for almost as long, as conductor of the St Michael’s Singers. He became acting organist at King’s College, Cambridge, after Boris Ord returned to the Royal Air Force as a flight lieutenant in 1941, and was appointed a Fellow four years later. Darke’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s A Christmas Carol or In the bleak midwinter, a staple of the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, underlines the contrast between the humble surroundings of Christ’s birth and the promised majesty of his Second Coming. Darke accommodates the poem’s irregular metre by varying the music of each verse. He wrote the piece in 1911 for the choir of Emmanuel Church, West Hampstead. Gustav Holst’s folk-style setting, which tailors Rossetti’s words to four repeated verses, was first published in 1906 in The English Hymnal and soon established its place among the great hymns of Christmas. Mack Wilberg, music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, brings sublime stasis to his arrangement with mantra-like melodic repetitions and close chromatic harmonies that meld like fallen snow.

Of the Father’s heart begotten stems from words written in the early fifth century by the lawyer and Christian poet, Prudentius. One of his long Latin hymns contains verses beginning with the words 'Corde natus ex parentis'. These were adopted for liturgical use and, over time, found a fitting place in Christmas services. The Anglican priest and hymnwriter John Mason Neale, aided by the choirmaster Thomas Helmore, coupled Neale’s English translation of Prudentius to a plainsong melody preserved in the Piæ Cantiones, a Swedish anthology of ecclesiastical and Christmas songs printed in Germany in 1582. Neale’s version was later revised for inclusion in The English Hymnal by Robert or ‘Roby’ Furley Davis, a Cambridge graduate and long-serving senior classical master at Campbell College, Belfast. The hymn’s nobility registers in David Willcocks’ arrangement, underlined by its division of labour between adults’ and boys’ voices and richly textured organ registrations.

After a sequence of compositions rooted in Advent, a time of waiting and watching for Christ, comes a piece associated with Epiphany and the recognition of the infant Jesus as Son of God. Angels, from the realms of glory, as so many of the works on this album, reflects the carol repertoire’s international nature. Its melody is that of the old French carol Les anges dans nos compagnes, a traditional noël possibly from Lorraine; its words were crafted by the Ayrshire-born James Montgomery—among the most prolific and popular of nineteenth-century hymn writers and editor of the radical magazine, the Sheffield Iris. Montgomery’s verse first appeared in the Iris on Christmas Eve 1818 and spread like wildfire in hymn books, broadsheet prints and other publications. Reginald Jacques, conductor of the Bach Choir from the early 1930s to 1960, replaced Montgomery’s inelegant ‘Come and worship’ refrain with the more mellifluous ‘Gloria’ from Les anges dans nos compagnes. His joyful arrangement was included in the immensely successful first volume of Carols for Choirs, which Jacques co-edited with David Willcocks.

Roger Quilter’s songs proved so popular in the opening decades of the last century that he was rarely moved to write in any other genre. An old carol, his setting of an early fifteenth-century devotional lyric, dates from 1923, and was first published in his Six Songs, Op 25. The piece captures the mystery of Christ’s incarnation in music of great tenderness and intimate expression. The element of mystery, so far removed from everyday experience as to demand a leap of faith, is present, too, in the words and music of In dulci jubilo, supposedly taught by angels to Heinrich Seuse or Suso, a fourteenth-century German Dominican monk and mystic, known to his contemporaries as ‘Servant of the Eternal Wisdom’. The carol’s dance-like melody, in fact, predates Suso’s mix of German and Latin words by at least a century. Robert Lucas de Pearsall, a wealthy Bristolian and owner of a ruined castle overlooking Lake Constance, created his sumptuous double-choir setting for the Karlsruhe Choral Society in 1834. He later widened its reach by translating the German text into English for the Bristol Madrigal Society.

Philip Moore’s The angel Gabriel was commissioned by Daniel Hyde for the 2019 Festival of Nine Lesson and Carols at King’s College. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Cleobury, who died little more than a month before its first performance. Moore, who served as organist and Master of the Music at York Minster for twenty-five years, abandons the carol’s traditional lilting Basque melody in favour of a freshly composed setting of Sabine Baring-Gould’s verse. ‘I have often felt that a more vigorous treatment of these words would also be appropriate,’ he observes. ‘“His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame”, for example, gives more than a hint of the drama of the Annunciation. My setting of the words attempts to illustrate this.’ Moore’s brief organ introduction, an aural metaphor for Gabriel’s descent from heaven, imparts momentum that carries into the choir’s shifting metrical patterns, imitative passages and declamatory ‘Gloria’s. Moore’s setting for solo treble of ‘My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name’ echoes the opening of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Magnificat in G. ‘I hope that the small quotation from this iconic work will add interest, as well as reflecting my admiration for a composer whose birthday I share,’ he notes.

On Christmas Day 1946, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote to Boris Ord, recently returned from active service to resume his Cambridge duties, ‘to make a grouse’ about the near absence of traditional English carols from the King’s College Christmas service. The veteran composer suggested ‘Virgin unspotted’ and ‘On Xmas night’, otherwise known as the Sussex Carol, for Ord’s consideration. Vaughan Williams had collected the words and melody of the latter in 1904 from Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex, and subsequently furnished them with a choral arrangement of arresting charm for inclusion in Stainer & Bell’s Eight Traditional English Carols, first published in 1919.

O come, all ye faithful, While shepherds watched their flocks by night and Hark! the herald angels sing could fairly be described as hymns, functional church pieces blessed with the ease and grace of the finest folk tunes. While shepherds watched their flocks by night recalls St Luke’s account of the angels singing at the birth of Jesus, retold in words attributed to Nahum Tate, Poet Laureate to William and Mary. The text first appeared in 1700 in the supplement to Tate’s and Nicholas Brady’s New Version of the Psalms of David and was later matched to a psalm-tune with roots in Tudor times. Two titans of Protestant church music, Charles Wesley and Felix Mendelssohn, were chiefly responsible for Hark! the herald angels sing. Wesley’s words, first published in his Hymns and Sacred Poems of 1739 and later embroidered by others, were made to fit music from an occasional piece by Mendelssohn, originally written in 1840 to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Philip Ledger’s rousing descant is emblematic of his considerable legacy as Director of Music at King’s College. Mendelssohn’s hymn is prefaced on this album by Matthew Martin’s short organ improvisation on Of the Father’s heart begotten.

O come, all ye faithful owns a fascinating backstory. Its original Latin text, Adeste fideles, was believed for many years to be the work of St Bonaventura, while its melody was attributed either to a Portuguese monk or an English musician. It appears likely, however, that its words and music were created by a member the circle of Catholic musicians known to John Francis Wade, a scribe and music teacher at the English College at Douai in northern France—Thomas Arne among them—or by Wade himself. One version of the tune survives in a manuscript from c1740 with connections to James Francis Edward Stuart, the so-called ‘Old Pretender’, Catholic claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. It entered the Anglican mainstream in the late 1790s after the Duke of Leeds heard it at the Portuguese Embassy chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and commissioned a new arrangement from Thomas Greatorex, director of the Concerts of Antient Music at the Haymarket Opera House.

The germ of Francis Pott’s Improvisation on Adeste fideles took hold during his time as a lay clerk at Winchester Cathedral, transmitted by what he recalls as the performance of ‘an egregiously flippant work based on the same tune’. When Pott pointed out its deficiencies, the performer suggested that he might like to do better. The opportunity arose in 2005 with a commission to write a recessional voluntary for the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The ‘resolutely diatonic foursquareness of the Adeste fideles tune,’ admits Pott, ‘presented considerably greater challenges than I had anticipated!’ He overcame the hymn tune’s limits by dissecting it into thematic fragments and treating them as the raw material for a work of striking contrapuntal ingenuity, musical heft and compelling virtuosity.

Charles Herbert Kitson’s Elementary Harmony, published in the 1920s, remains one of the best introductions to the art and craft of harmonising melodies. His skill touches every bar of Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour, an elegant setting of an old French melody that initially found favour as a drinking song after its arrival in England around 1700. Daniel Hyde’s subtle elaborations and revisions have enriched Kitson’s arrangement without diminishing its allure.

Cradle songs and lullabies are common to most traditions of Christmas music, often enlisted into church service from the ranks of folksongs and popular melodies. The ancient German and Slavic custom of rocking the Christ-child, widely enacted during Christmas vespers and matins, was often accompanied by dancing and a ‘Wiegenlied’ or ‘cradle-song’. Karl Leuner’s Des Hirten Wiegenlied (The shepherd’s cradle song), to words by the poet and polemicist Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, was composed around 1813 and arranged almost a century later for unaccompanied choir by Charles Macpherson, the Edinburgh-born assistant organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Elizabeth Poston was music director of the BBC’s European Service during the Second World War, an all-too-rare outlier as a woman with power to influence Britain’s musical life. It is likely that she also oversaw the sending of coded messages, on Churchill’s orders, to resistance fighters in occupied Europe. Poston studied composition with Vaughan Williams, whose love of folksong she shared. Her setting of the English traditional carol As I sat on a sunny bank, a variant of its better-known sibling I saw three ships come sailing in, packs the joyful news of the Nativity into six short verses. For good measure Poston plants a fragment of The First Nowell in the keyboard countermelody to the fifth verse. The piece was first performed by King’s College Musical Society in January 1969 as part of A Garland Gay, Poston’s surprise gift to her dear friend E M Forster for his recent ninetieth birthday.

Bob Chilcott’s upbringing was conditioned by the combination of Cambridge, Christmas and choral singing. He was a boy chorister at King’s College in the 1960s and remained there as choral scholar. His substantial catalogue of yuletide music includes The shepherd’s carol, commissioned by King’s for its service of Nine Lessons and Carols, and a delightful arrangement of Still, still, still. The latter’s folksong-infused melody was written in the 1780s by Johann Friedrich Reichardt. Chilcott wraps it in extended harmonies and suspensions to create an atmosphere of shimmering, reverent tranquillity.

Andrew Stewart © 2021

Singing through a bleak midwinter
Catherine Bott talks to Daniel Hyde

‘If there’s one benefit of Covid, this is it,’ says Daniel Hyde, Director of Music at King’s College Cambridge since 2019. We’re standing in the chapel, more spacious than I’ve ever seen it. ‘We’ve cleared out all the furniture that isn’t fixed to the floor or the wall. This is how the chapel would probably have looked over a century ago: a clear space with all the glass and the light shining in different directions at different times of day.’

As a former organ scholar at King’s, Daniel knows every corner of this building; sitting in his office to hear about how he and the choir have weathered the last few months, there’s an obvious question to be asked first.

Returning to the chapel—did it feel like coming home?
Oh yes, absolutely. Not just the sound of that building and the views that one gets—it’s the smell of it that makes it feel like home. Is it the stonework, or the centuries of polishing the woodwork? It’s a mixture that never changes.

Now you’re back among those familiar smells and sights, is there pressure to sweep in like a new broom? How do you balance tradition and modernity?
I think one has to have a huge respect for the tradition, because the opportunities that I now have are here only because of the work of many others. I’d love to speak to some of my predecessors about their ways of working. Of course, that’s not possible, but they’d probably tell me that to maintain a tradition one has to nurture, change and develop it. I’m very aware that there’s an annual cycle to this job that is never going to change, and it’s this annual cycle that facilitates the extra things like touring, recordings and concerts: the icing on the cake.

There’s been very little cake, let alone icing, recently. How did you and your team deal with the curtailment of that annual cycle?
It forced us to think about all those things that we normally take for granted. We’re here to educate, develop and nurture the students, and suddenly the educational world went online. We tried to keep the choir alive online, but we couldn’t sing together on a Zoom call because of the delays in hearing everyone else, so our options were limited. It certainly taught me some new IT skills!

During early lockdowns, some professional ensembles made recordings that boosted morale; did you consider doing one too?
I felt very strongly that time online with the choristers was better spent by investing in the future, rather than creating something quick for tomorrow. We needed to keep the skills going—reading ability, aural awareness, general musicianship—so that when we came back we’d be able to hit the ground running.

The pandemic has occupied a significant percentage of the choristers’ lifetimes. How did they respond?
I think they adapted extremely well. Certainly the technology has been easier for them than for us grown-ups. Early on, when I was still trying to work out how a class worked on Zoom, how to let a person into the ‘room’ and so on, I’d be told by a Year Five boy, ‘Oh sir, you just need to press this, that, or the other.’ They just soaked it up. It’s trying to get them off the screens. Now that’s the challenge!

Now we’re in 2021, with hope on the horizon, how are they doing?
They were able to come back into school for a little summer camp after the first national lockdown in 2020, which was helpful. Then we managed most of the rest of the year, but when the next lockdown came in January 2021, returning to working via screens was just such a kick in the knees. But that makes it even better to be back now, understanding what it is to make music, realising the value of being together in the same place. The students are back at the university, we have been singing services in the chapel since just after Easter and the focus has been on getting the motor going. It’s been a shock to the system. I got used to weekends off, but I was missing the most important thing: actually doing the music. It’s been nice to go back to first principles, piecing it back together, and now we’re all just happy to be singing.

Did you choose a special anthem to mark the reuniting of the choir?
For the opening introit of our first Evensong, we sang a setting of the Founder’s Prayer by Henry Ley. 2021 marks the 550th anniversary of the death of King Henry VI, and this seemed especially appropriate as a way of saying ‘we’re open for business again, so let’s remember him.’ We always start the year with this piece, so it just felt right.

You’re releasing a new Christmas album, with the highly apposite title In the bleak midwinter: tell me about when—and how—you recorded it.
This album is a combination of Christmas music recorded as a backup for the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, with other specially recorded seasonal music. Nine Lessons is the biggest gig of the year for us; it is what we’re known for. We wanted it to be live, to make it special even though the regulations didn’t allow for a congregation, so we began rehearsing earlier than we would normally. Once it was taking shape, we decided it would be useful to do a dress rehearsal of the service, and record it, just in case we needed it later.

And then we did need it; a week before Christmas, there was uncertainty about whether people would be allowed to see families over Christmas, with a lot of U-turning. It would have been irresponsible to bring everyone back to Cambridge and then send them home again. So a lot of the music on this album is actually what was heard by the world on Christmas Eve, which makes it unique—it will never happen again.

You can hear that the sound is different; we wanted the Chapel to sound … empty. On a normal Christmas Eve everyone comes wearing thick coats—their winter wardrobes—which soaks up the sound. But on this album you can hear the private sound of the chapel, the one we know from rehearsals, even more resonant than usual because there was lots more floor space for the sound to bounce off.

And not a congregational cough to be heard …
Yes, we were without noises, but we made sure that it sounded live: you could hear the stands and sits, for example. It was particularly important for that service because it’s only ever not been live once before. Those sounds had to say ‘this is three o’clock and this is going on in Cambridge.’ That’s the reason for its global reach; listeners can visualise this extraordinary building and that sense of wonder that this is going on now.

The music is perhaps more reflective, more low-key. We also adjusted the traditional order of things a little for the radio; normally at the end of the service you hear the noise of a huge congregation getting to its feet to sing O come, all ye faithful; then the Dean gives the Blessing followed by Hark! the herald angels sing. That’s two humdinger congregational carols back to back: obviously we didn’t have that. So, after the Blessing, we sang a beautiful arrangement by Bob Chilcott of the German tune Still, still, still. I imagined it being like the end of the day when Jesus is born, shutting the stable door quietly. This then led into a much more intimate performance of Hark! the herald angels sing.

It certainly had a powerful effect on me as I listened at home. And that was the sound of last Christmas, King’s College Choir singing through adversity …
… and hopefully reflecting what so many other places had to deal with as well. We just happen to be fortunate enough to have that radio broadcast, but every other cathedral and choir was going through the same thing.

Tell me about your immediate priorities.
The first priority is to get back to normal with the regular routine of services; that’s the reason for our existence, after all. We’re also looking at long-term touring and recording opportunities. We’ve learned so much about the technological side of things and we’re very fortunate to have our label and infrastructure. We may try to share concerts more widely by streaming them to reach people who can’t be here physically—I think that’s something that will become the new normal for many places.

When you tour with this choir, you’re taking people’s children to the other side of the world, along with undergraduates who are reading for degrees, so working out when to tour is always an issue. Perhaps the 7.30pm concert may be a thing of the past; I quite like the idea of concerts starting earlier, without an interval, so you can go out for dinner afterwards. Perhaps we could do the same programme twice, in the afternoon and the evening, to accommodate smaller audience numbers. All these are exciting unknowns, so there may be a new way of working, I just don’t know what it is yet!

You could be busier than ever.
That’s fine, as long as we can find a way of returning to a regular schedule here in Cambridge, because everything we do away from the chapel relies on daily training and that muscular memory. People talk about ‘working from home’ but we’ve actually been ‘living at work’. I’ve found it invigorating to be back in College again.

And the top-hatted choristers are once more processing across from school to the chapel in their ‘croc’.
Yes, people have already commented on that, saying how nice it is to pass the chapel and hear the choir singing again. One of the shocking things about Covid is the realisation that it can take many years to build up something like this but only a matter of months to start unpacking it. So we’ve worked extremely hard to shore up and reinforce things so we can get back to normal.

I’m hoping that we’ll be able to embrace some of the technological things we had to take on during Covid. For an eight-year-old coming into this tradition, faced with all these different pieces of music, books, all this stuff, it might be better to focus on pandemic-era material from my iPad, shared now on a big screen in the choir room. And with some current choral scholars hoping for careers in music, we have to work out how best to support them as they prepare to enter a newly precarious jobs market.

It’s almost two years since you returned to King’s College and very little of that time has been ‘normal service’ as you remember it. As Director of Music, what are your hopes for the future?
I think it’s going to take another three or four years before Covid is really behind us, because of the way chorister training works. They spend five years of schooling working in an intense environment unlike any other kind of classroom situation. That needs to be rekindled and we’re already making good progress. We also need to find ways of sending out this Covid generation whose final terms were stolen, really. So that’s going to take a while. I suppose that if in five years’ time we had all our chapel services up and running, with some interesting recordings coming out, alongside a good schedule of touring that takes us to parts of the world where there’s something to be learned about the place and something that we can give back into those communities, then I think we’d be doing quite well.

Catherine Bott © 2021

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