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The Future of Carols?

Robert Weedon | Radio | Thursday 24th December 2009

As I type this, I'm listening to the annual broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College in Cambridge, as are thousands of people all over the world, which is quite a nice feeling (although in a way, I've often had a suspicion that it serves to annually reinforce the fame of the University of Cambridge in the popular conscience, in the same way that Inspector Morse probably does Oxford, and the Boat Race does the two institutions).

Every year, the Radio Times and every other TV and radio listings magazine list the services as an antidote to all the commercialisation of Christmas, and I couldn't agree more - there is something rather innocent and cosy about it, even if some of the sentiments expressed in the Biblical lessons are actually slightly sinister:

"And unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee", a passage which sounds even worse in a modern translation.

That aside, it's quite likely that most of the audience are there to hear the music, anyway - after all, were it not for the standard of the music, they could just go to a local church or chapel.

There are currently two Christmas services broadcast from King's College - the famous 3pm radio service simulcast live on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service which conforms rigidly to the pattern pioneered at Truro Cathedral in 1880, and a televised service, Carols from King's, recorded a fortnight earlier which is arguably a bit more populist, featuring poems and other readings instead of the traditional Biblical readings of the radio version. I'm not sure how many people are aware of this difference, although this year, the fact it's not live might be a bit more evident due to the opening picture not featuring any snow on the ground. The two programmes also feature different pieces of music, with the radio version being a little more "highbrow" in content. To add to the confusion, the radio service is then repeated on BBC Radio 3 on Christmas Day with the final organ voluntary restored.

This year, the service, as usual, features a fairly interesting mix of old and new carols, some of which are the 'usual suspects', mostly dating from the Victorian Christmas revival, and others from more obscure medieval sources or modern compositions. For 2009, the new commission was by Gabriel Jackson, the recently-appointed Associate Composer for the BBC Singers. His composition started off well, although the jarring highness of the opening of its final stanza struck me as rather unpleasant, almost like the sort of thing an inexperienced young composer might write without realising it's not very nice to hear or sing. However, as a whole, I was impressed by the standard of the music.

As it's his 90th birthday this year, the definitive arrangements of highly respected English choral composer David Willcocks featured heavily in this service, although the arrangements of traditional carols by musical director Stephen Cleobury and Mack Wilberg were also excellent, and brought a fresh feeling to otherwise rather tired-feeling pieces. Other highlights included the first outing of Personent Hodie, with its strange repeating "ideo-oh-oh" phrase, for over ten years.

For many people, this service is their only encounter with choral music throughout the year, apart from perhaps 'O Fortuna' via its use in a certain idiot-magnet TV talent show and maybe the 'Halleluya Chorus', which is really outstaying its welcome this year thanks to the BBC's Handel centenary celebrations.

Christmas carols were the first vernacular church music, and many of their melodies are founded on medieval plainchants or folk songs, making many of them fascinating windows into a more superstitious rural past, which is in no way a criticism of them, and is probably a large part of their appeal. However, I do ponder whether the traditional service of carols will become increasingly irrelevant in forty years time.

At the start of December this year, the press was full of stories about the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, stating that traditional carols are "nonsense". Now, I think he was probably taken slightly out of context in the way that the press always manages to, but in a way, he was right - they are full of Victorian morality, medieval superstitions, folklore and obscure Biblical references. As a result, school children now rarely sing traditional Victorian carols at school, instead focussing on modern pop song-style compositions about the season, usually because they can use the same songs for their school productions.

Senior school carol services are also becoming increasingly rare due to the various religious and logistical problems holding one would bring. Even in churches, as a result of attempts to woo young people by using Christian rock and pop, traditional church choral music is a dying form. Even cathedrals struggle to attract talented boy choristers these days.

Forty years may seem a strange prediction, but I think that may be the time it takes for the current generation of school children to filter through to adulthood, and therefore a lack of awareness of old-fashioned Christmas carols. With these songs being instilled in the older generation from their youth, they associate them intrinsically with Christmas. Instead of carols, shops, adverts and TV programmes bombard us with Christmas songs by the likes of Slade, The Pogues and, ahem, Gary Glitter. They don't carry any religious associations, other than celebrating that certain "something" that Winter festival season has always held, even in pre-Christian times (as noted by references in many traditional carols to holly and ivy, etc).

Now, we have encountered thoughts like this in the past which have proved to be incorrect. In 1928, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a warning about the diminishing role of traditional music in the season, leading him to publish his Oxford Book of Carols in an attempt to refresh and preserve traditional carols, of which many included remain in the repetoire. Other composers such as David Willcocks, Reginald Jacques and John Rutter have served to give choirs accessible yet modern arrangements of them in books such as the massively successful Carols for Choirs series.

We are told that churches' Christmas congregations are up by 40% (albeit depleted during the rest of the year), and Classic FM still has its annual poll of Christmas Carols, which this year chose "O Holy Night", a French carol that most people will have probably encountered from its use in Home Alone and various awful covers by self-promoting crossover singers. However, when they do it, it feels so awfully commercialised. It doesn't bode particularly well for the future. Merry Christmas.



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