by Rick Krueger
Hearing this album was what really confirmed me — a fourth-generation American of German ancestry and Lutheran upbringing — as a lifelong, diehard Anglophile. As a unlooked-for bonus, it reopened a vocational path I had taken for granted, if not outright abandoned, as I trained to become a musician.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you say to the first point, “every single album you’ve written about so far is by a British artist or composer!” Point taken. Throw in my love for the work of Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien and Shakespeare (as well as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes), and you might consider my opening sentence an overstatement. But hear me out.
When O Come All Ye Faithful was released in 1984, it grabbed me with its sheer beauty, as an unmatchable showcase for both the choir of King’s College, Cambridge and the then-new digital recording process. The opening carol, “Once in Royal David’s City,” starts with a single boy treble, growing through a cappella harmonies to a finale encompassing a virile tenor/bass melody, a soaring treble descant, and pipe organ in full bloom. Wide dynamic range, constantly changing timbres, and the King’s College Chapel’s softening resonance characterized every track, even on the inferior vinyl pressings of the time. It’s a sound that feels like it’s been around forever, one of the beauties of the English choral tradition — a surface impression of timelessness, of serene stability in a frantically changing world.
Peer beneath the surface, though, and things look vastly different. All that serenity comes about through constant, ongoing effort and innovation; the modern boychoir tradition in Great Britain really only dates back to the mid-1800s. King’s College’s Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols began in 1919, but it was modern technology (first radio, then high fidelity recording) that first brought it to international attention, and the wildly popular Carols for Choirs arrangements by Sir David Willcocks that spread its use to choirs and churches worldwide. Taking over from Willcocks & Philip Ledger in 1982, director Stephen Cleobury didn’t hesitate to program his own carol arrangements alongside those of his predecessors; since then, he’s annually commissioned new carols from contemporary composers for each year’s service.
And all this effort is undertaken in the service of deep, thoughtful Christian faith — not a sentimental, reactionary, unthinking faith, but one that confronts the dark, messy paradoxes at the heart of human nature, and boldly claims that God has acted to heal them. Take as an example the Basque carol “The Infant King;” it dispenses swiftly with any cutesy reflection on “little Lord Jesus” to proclaim Christ’s mission to the world:
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
Then in the grave at last reposing:
Lullaby! is the babe a-waking?
Hush, do not stir the Infant King.
Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Ultimately, over the years O Come All Ye Faithful has come to be a personal, vocational benchmark for me — not so much as a standard for vocal music in the local church technically (a distinctly unfair burden for the vast majority of volunteer singers and churches), but for how it can function spiritually — as proclamation united with the gift of music, to move the whole person with the depth of theological truth, the God-given response of faith, and the innocent, creaturely joy of singing together. An awful lot to claim for a 48-minute album — but I’m grateful I can stand by it.
Other Favorites by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge:
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (1999), conducted by Stephen Cleobury. The complete Christmas Eve service recorded live. A mix of vintage carol settings, modern arrangements, and newer compositions, including the 1999 commission “The Fayrfax Carol” by Thomas Ades.
A Celebration of Herbert Howells, conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Howells’ music for King’s kicked off a series of service settings for English churches, each composed with the sound of the relevant choir and building in mind. Hearing the lush results unfold in the rich King’s Chapel acoustic is genuinely awe-inspiring and moving.
Other Choral Classics for Christmas:
Anonymous 4, On Yoolis Night. This American female quartet stunned the classical world of the 1980s with their impossibly pure blend and their expertly assembled programs. This set of medieval carols and motets is simultaneously energizing and soothing from start to finish.
Christmas with Chanticleer and Dawn Upshaw. The USA’s best all-male chorus joins forces with a versatile, low-key Minnesotan diva; the resulting clear, sweet sound is thoroughly delightful. The highlight: Hugo Distler’s luminous variations on “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen (Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming).”
The Choir of Clare College Cambridge, conducted by John Rutter, The Holly and the Ivy. From the late 1960s on, Rutter revitalized carol arranging, adding touches of British “light music” (think Broadway/West End syncopation and lyricism) to superb craftsmanship. Clare’s mixed college chorus provides the energetic singing; Rutter’s sparkling orchestrations do the rest, with the setting of the Irish “Wexford Carol” and the original “Mary’s Lullaby” particular standouts.
The King’s Singers, A Little Christmas Music. The original members of this male sextet were all King’s College choristers; twenty years after their first recording, the group tackles an enticing mix of sacred and secular tunes. Again, arrangements and orchestrations, especially tenor Bob Chilcott’s takes on “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and “Ding Dong Merrily On High,” are innovative and vivacious.
The Monteverdi Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, Once As I Remember. Gardiner made his bones pioneering original performance practice of Baroque and Classical music; his Bach recordings are consistently impeccable and exciting. This unique album tells the Christmas story via music from seven centuries, based on the Gardiner family’s annual Nativity play. The Monteverdis’ gorgeous take on Herbert Howells’ “A Spotless Rose” is not to be missed.
The Choir of Winchester Cathedral, conducted by David Hill, Christmas Fantasy. The classic English boychoir sound boosted with full orchestra. A more off-beat selection of carols, focusing on arrangements by Peter Warlock, plus two major works, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ vigorous Fantasia on Christmas Carols and Gerald Finzi’s heart-melting In Terra Pax.
Previous Albums in this Series: