Poster Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Sixteen boys make up the treble voices of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, which sings in the annual 'A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.'
Kevin Leighton

'A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols'

Editor's note: The audio for this year's A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is no longer available.

Read or download the Order of Service for this year's program:

News feature

King's College pivots in a challenging year

By Colleen Phelps

Christmas Eve at King's College, Cambridge, usually follows the same routine. There's a morning 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."

For many listeners, this is the moment Christmas begins. And while the audience will still hear all the same readings and carols as scheduled, the service released this year will be not be live. While the people at King's had planned as recently as the week before Christmas to broadcast live as usual, albeit without a congregation, they also prerecorded elements of the service throughout the fall just in case of a required shutdown due to COVID-19.

In a recent interview for the podcast Classically Speaking, King's director of music, Daniel Hyde, said that reaching the broadcast has been the result of prioritizing. At the start of the school year bringing the choir back together "out of the freezer" with proper precautions was key. But the main stated goal was creating the annual Christmas radio and TV broadcasts.

"The shared first priority is really what's driving our activity," Hyde said, pointing out that the planning began over the summer, but couldn't actually move forward until the fall when the students' return was a sure thing. But once they had the early recordings in their "back pocket," as he said, it was at least certain that the broadcast would indeed be the 2020 choir with this year's planned music.

One aspect of King's that helped to keep everyone safe throughout the semester was that the children's choir has 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 had mostly been able to rehearse as normal, although in the larger chapel space. And the 14 male undergraduates who comprise the lower voices are all university students, who spread out more for rehearsals. Without the burden of regular services, the groups had time to grow accustomed to the new standing formation.

King's College, Cambridge, first held a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1918 in an effort to comfort a student body who had lost many of its members to World War I. It has been broadcast nearly every year since 1918. This is not the first time precautions are being taken. 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 multiple denominations and churches around the world. More than 30 million people still tune in. In the United States, given the time difference, it starts Christmas Eve morning with a set of well-known hymns of the season and a progression of choral music moving from darkness to light.

Not every piece of the service is exactly the same every year. While congregational hymns remain, carols are rotated in and out. And for the past three decades, one of the carols has always been newly commissioned for the occasion. That is also a change this year. At the time the commission would have needed to be composed, the world was on lockdown. Nobody was certain that the choir would be back this year, if it would be the full choir, or if the service would be able to go forward. This was a set of variables Hyde didn't feel like he could hand a composer.

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, 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."

Faced with the challenges of 2020, he's noticed that the choir members have gained confidence as they sing in these unexpected circumstances. And by aiming to reach the flashing red light on Christmas Eve, they were still able to make sure that millions worldwide could still participate in a beloved holiday tradition.

Colleen Phelps is a classical host at Nashville Public Radio and the host of the Classically Speaking podcast.


King's College, Cambridge, is making a video available for Carols From King's 2020, a program of carols with a telling of the Christmas story. It features the choristers of the King's College Choir, the King's Singers, organist Matthew Martin and conductor Daniel Hyde. Find out more

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