Despite the pandemic changing every one of 2020’s holidays, Christmas Eve at King’s College, Cambridge, will look much the same for its choristers: a sound check, a lunch break, and then once the choirs are lined up to start, a red signal light flashes. One boy steps forward, unaccompanied, singing the perennial opening tune, “Once in Royal David’s City.”
But due to precautionary measures for COVID-19, there will be no congregation in the chapel for this year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. This will allow the production crew to spread out safely, and for the singers to be able to work at an appropriate distance, given the tendency of singing to spread respiratory aerosols.
In a recent interview for Nashville Public Radio’s podcast Classically Speaking, King’s director of music, Daniel Hyde, said that the goal since summer has been to still produce the annual Christmas radio and TV broadcasts.
“The shared first priority is really what’s driving our activity,” Hyde said, pointing out that, while the planning began over the summer, it couldn’t actually move forward until the fall, when the students’ return was a sure thing.
To make it possible, the children’s choir has been its own bubble of exposure. The 16 boys that make up the treble voices all live at King’s in a boarding school program, so they have mostly been able to rehearse as normal. And the 14 male undergraduates who comprise the lower voices are all university students, who spread out more for rehearsals — a challenge in a space with impressive reverb.
‘Lessons’ in a time of crisis
King’s College, Cambridge, first held A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1918 in an effort to comfort a student body that had lost many of its numbers to World War I. It has been broadcast nearly every year since then.
This is not the the first time the choir has had to take precautions. During World War II, the service was on the radio, but the windows on the chapel were boarded up for safety, and the location was never stated on air.
The service itself, dating back to 19th-century England, has been adapted by many denominations and churches around the world. More than 30 million people still tune in to hear the set of well-known hymns of the season and a progression of choral music moving from darkness to light.
Hyde is in his second year as director of music. It’s a job with a rich tradition: Hyde is only the ninth director of the choir since 1799, and his predecessor, Stephen Cleobury, who died in November 2019, was in the role for nearly four decades. But he recognizes that this is all part of a long history.
“The choir’s been going for 500-plus years,” he said. “It’s not about Stephen, and it’s not about me.”
The music of the service is, by its nature, a transition, the moment where the quiet contemplation and even darkness of Advent opens up to the light of Christmas. It has survived multiple pandemics, and it’ll survive this one, too, Hyde says. Faced with the challenges of 2020, he’s noticed that the choir members have become surer of themselves as they sing in these unexpected circumstances.
“If we get to 4:30 [UK time] on Christmas Eve when the red light goes off,” Hyde remarked, “then I think we’ll have achieved quite a lot in the circumstances.”
Watch Nine Lessons and Carols in Nashville
Several local churches hold annual services of A Festival of the Nine Lessons and Carols. This year, many are offering them virtually as well. Please check the churches’ websites for the most up-to-date information.
Wednesday, Dec. 15: Edgefield Baptist Church, 6 p.m.
Thursday, Dec. 24: First Presbyterian Church of Nashville, 8 & 11 p.m.
See any other local Lessons and Carols we should add? Email [email protected].