On the Centenary of “Nine Lessons and Carols”

Among this year’s many centenaries, English choral music nerds are celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the “Nine Lessons and Carols” liturgy as celebrated in the Advent and Christmas season in many parts of the Anglican Communion. Lessons and Carols has a lot to say about the intellectual, elite cultural, educational, and religious history of modern Britain. It has a prehistory, a prototype of the liturgy having been conceived initially in 1880 by the writer and churchman E.W. Benson. It was of a piece with the liberal Anglican Incarnational theology of the mid-to-late Victorian period, departing from strict conformity to the Book of Common Prayer to offer a modern, not an early modern, form of plainspoken English prose, wrapped up in one particular story of the Word made innocent flesh.

As the story goes, Dean of King’s College, Cambridge Eric Milner-White picked up Benson’s idea in 1918, and repurposed it for a new era. Everything about the Chapel of King’s is invented tradition: though construction began on it immediately after the foundation of the college in 1441, most of the internal decor comes from the mid-sixteenth century, when construction was completed and Henry VIII re-endowed the foundation. King’s as an academic institution in its own right, and not simply a retirement home for Eton scholars, is also an invented tradition, this time of the 1850s-60s; and the conceit of the Chapel as one of the nation’s great musical institutions is an invented tradition, too, borne out of the renaissance of High Anglicanism of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century and, among other things, out of the fact that fellow of King’s Oscar Browning rather fancied choristers. Of course there had been collegiate choral foundations for centuries, and Eton and King’s had always had choirs at their heart (the Eton Choirbook is our best source for pre-Reformation English liturgical music). But with the Victorian period and its romanticization of childhood came a return to the English male-voice choir, with its characteristically heavy treble sound borne of having about 18 boys on the top part and four adult men on each of the other three parts. New composers wrote new music for these reconstituted choirs: veterans of Anglican choral music will know C.V. Stanford’s canticles, for example, some of which were premiered by the King’s choir when Stanford was Professor of Music at Cambridge.

Back to Eric Milner-White: Milner-White became Dean at King’s in 1918, fresh out of army service, like a lot of other men who came back into the universities after the war, some of them starting fresh as mature students and some of whose studies had been interrupted. Many men in universities across Britain in the immediate postwar period had a great longing to return to a romanticized status quo ante, to imagine their universities as ancient foundations, filled with ritual and male bonding. They could be awfully mean to the women with whom they shared those universities. But at King’s there were, of course, no women to worry about (the larger university was another matter—Stanford was against women’s degrees, Milner-White in favor, to give you a flavor). For Milner-White, the task was to create something suited to the experiences and level of religiosity of the new generation of student-veterans, but which had the feel of ancient mystery. So he borrowed that Truro service, and added new elements, like the bidding prayer that (now traditionally) opens the service. It’s not hard to hear 1918 in the language “Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light.”

It wasn’t all roaring in the Twenties: there was a slow ebbing of the high tide of immediate-postwar social liberalism, and there was the BBC, that great voice of high-minded national conservatism. There were multiple services of Anglican worship every day on the interwar BBC, and it first broadcast Lessons and Carols at King’s live to the nation and the empire on Christmas Eve, 1928. It has done so ever since, in latter years adding a prerecorded television broadcast. The sound of the King’s choir made its way onto records and cassettes and CDs and into the multivolume series Carols for Choirs. Generations at this point have grown up hearing, and perhaps learning, 1950s–70s King’s Director of Music David Willcocks’s arrangements of carols such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

The World Service and the Anglican Communion are two of those puzzling vestiges of British Empire that still linger, conspiring both to make invented traditions appear far more ancient and to perpetuate an image of a chocolate-box, amusement-park quaint Britain, in which the revival of the King’s chapel and choir could certainly have nothing to do with Oscar Browning’s views on prepubescent boys and in which British power’s self-evident manifestation as violence could be forgotten. Nowhere was this more true than in the United States, where twentieth-century conservative Anglicans and Catholics and Anglo-Catholics more than ever revered an imagined, romanticized Britain. T.S. Eliot did, of course, and William Buckley, and many other people I have met in the years I have spent attending Episcopal churches in the United States, many of them my age or younger. If you want to hear a faithful rendition of Lessons and Carols on the far side of the Atlantic, the place to do so is at the corner of 53rd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, where stands the US’s only Episcopal collegiate choral foundation. Most of the clergy and staff are English. The director of music there, late of Magdalen College, Oxford (another of the great medieval collegiate foundations) will be taking over at King’s next year. Entering that space off Fifth Avenue is like stepping into a parallel universe. The music sounds beautiful, but whenever I go I leave not knowing whether I liked it.

Most cathedrals in England and Wales, which daily preserve and rehearse the Anglican choral tradition, have in recent years come to recognize that there is little to no anatomical difference between the voices of prepubescent girls and boys, and manage to create the English treble-heavy sound with mixed choirs. Other churches around the country and the world are less attached to that sound get on just fine with adult women singing the top parts. But Stephen Cleobury, the outgoing director at King’s, whose daughters have both sung in girls’ and mixed-voice Anglican choirs, has said that there is a distinctive value to the King’s choir remaining single-sex. In this he sounds rather like C.V. Stanford, and other Cambridge men just exactly one hundred years ago, who held that it was important that there be one single-sex university left in England. It sounds like something that could conceivably be true, but that no one manages to prove quite so much as state over and over again. That this is the same conversation that was happening in Cambridge a century ago speaks volumes about the history of English elite institutions and the ways they continue to reinvent themselves.

Lessons and Carols is such a quintessential invented tradition that it is even cited in the introduction to the famous Hobsbawm and Ranger Invention of Tradition volume, which coined the term and which most history undergraduates will at some point be asked to read. What place invented traditions a hundred years on? We need to have conversations anew about the kinds of public ritual that speak to our present condition, and not hesitate to invent new traditions instead of rehearsing old ones out of a kind of misplaced empty piety. But what Benson and Milner-White and all their collaborators got right, I think, was that forms of music and art and ritual and worship created to speak more immediately to our times—to, in the quest of the Church of England ever since the Act of Supremacy, get bums on seats—must not condescend or presume to know their audience better than they know themselves. The Lessons and Carols liturgy is pitched high, but not abstrusely so, and it presumes that its audience can come meet it where it is. It tells us something about the interwar BBC that they thought broadcasting this worldwide was a genius idea, and what it tells us isn’t all good. But that people still tune in on the radio and TV tells us, I think, how many of us are still looking for a peace that is not to be found here on Earth, and not to be found with any certainty in megachurches any more than it is to be found in homeless shelters and war zones and refugee camps. There is no preaching in Lessons and Carols: it creates a space for us to be; and its layered liturgy centers, under the sediment of British history, on a family of refugees cast asunder by the administrative reach of a foreign imperial power. It is for candles and for music and for prayer and for peace, and rather oddly—and this is one of the mysteries that is, for me, at the heart of British history—it retains the power to bewitch, despite its deep association with the heart of a nation that has committed great acts of violence and done great evil in its citizens’ name. That, in its intention to tell “the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child,” it should hit upon this particular national problem of evil as well, seems about right.

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