Posts Tagged ‘Christmas carols’

Victorian sentimentality still pervades the Church of England, never more so than at Christmastide.  Sometimes the imagery threatens to overwhelm the message, or even common sense, and collides with itself.  A good example of trying to get both feet into the same sock is presented by two much-loved Christmas carols.  Away in a manger coos over “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, while Once in Royal David’s City assures us that, through out his childhood, “tears and smiles like us he knew.” Which is the soppiest?

Anglican hymnody is full of such clunkers (rhyming ‘God’ with ‘sod’, for example) but it is often difficult to sacrifice the whole hymn just because part of it refers to some obsolete belief, is written in arcane language or is just plain ridiculous.  Hymns have a long shelf life. We treasure them still, because they still – just – get away with it.  Victorian sentimentality gets us over the difficult bits.

It’s not really a big problem, not least because this Christmas, our local church choir here in Hanslope is booked to sing carols in a local pub and no-one there will think any the less of us if we merrily trill “Seraph quire singeth, angel bell ringeth” over the real ales.  We’ll all be part of a joint, gladsome conspiracy to suspend our disbelief, for once, and genial bewilderment at some of the expressions used.  Hey, it’s Christmas!


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As a Christmas gift to myself I’ve bought the Essential Carols from King’s from iTunes and listen to it while at work.  They’re all there, from Once in Royal David’s City – I always get teary at the line,”Not in that poor, lowly stable…” – right through all the goodies to Hark the Herald Angels Sing which satisfyingly brings Midnight Mass to a rejoicing close.  Christmas is music, emerging from the darkness and holding it at bay.

Many years ago it was possible to sit in the row immediately behind the Decani choral scholars of an evening, simply by having an academic gown on (no-one in King’s ever seemed to notice that I was an undergraduate at St John’s and was wearing its distinctive gown).  So I heard the whole repertoire from one of the three or four best choirs in the world over three years, when Sir David Willcocks was the choirmaster, and still found time to go to evening service at John’s as well.

But it’s not until now that, listening to what are surprisingly old recordings, I fully realise how softly the choir has always sung.  Albeit with clear, superb diction, they sometimes seem merely to murmur the words and still sound so wonderful.  It’s the chapel, of course.  Its enormous acoustic takes and lifts the sound the choir and organ produce and makes it special.  To hear the echoes is to experience that shiver up the spine we yearn for.

For generations, the King’s choir has known about that acoustic and balanced themselves firmly but sweetly with it, and every year we are granted the pure pleasure of it.  Here, less is indeed more.

So to Stephen Cleobury, for whom I turned the pages all those years ago, and to all at King’s, Happy Christmas, and thank you again.

King's College Cambridge

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