We have the first Bishop of Truro to thank for the much-loved Nine Lessons and Carols format that is now used in Christmas services everywhere, from the world-renowned King’s College, Cambridge, to village churches.
Bishop Edward White Benson (later the Archbishop of Canterbury) devised it in 1880, possibly to lure men out of pubs, when Truro Cathedral was being built-some 400 people crammed into a makeshift structure to hear carols, starting with Once in Royal David’s City, readings from the King James Bible and excerpts from Messiah. Now, the cathedral’s director of music, Christopher Gray, is reconstructing the occasion. ‘Piecing together what took place at 10pm on Christmas Eve in 1880 has been fascinating,’ he says. The service at 7pm on December 17 (preceded by a talk at 6pm) is free to attend (01872 276782; www.trurocathedral.org.uk).
The catalyst for the format going global was when Eric Milner-White adapted it for King’s College, Cambridge, in 1918. The octogenarian composer and conductor Thea Musgrave has produced the commissioned carol for this year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve (www.kings.cam.ac.uk). Miss Musgrave, 85, who is Scottish-born but lives in the USA, has set William Blake’s poem Hear the voice of the Bard to music. She says: ‘Stephen Cleobury [Director of Music] sent a long list of suggestions and this one jumped right off the page.
It reaches out for the larger beauty and mystery of our existence on Earth independent of specific religious affiliation- Blake finds our “lapsed” human souls in need of the refreshment and constancy of nature’s magical cycles.’
Entrance is free to the 3pm service; those in the queue by 9am should get a seat. The service, first broadcast 85 years ago, is live on Radio 4 and on Radio 3 on Christmas Day at 2pm.
* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter