The idea behind this recording was shaped by the English tradition of Nine Lessons and Carols. Like the story of Christmas itself, this tradition had humble beginnings. A thousand years ago, Cornwall (in the southwest of England) was joined to the Diocese of Devon under the Bishop of Exeter. It was only many centuries later – in 1877 – that it was finally given its own diocese once again, this time at Truro. A new cathedral was immediately planned, but while it was being built services had to be held in a temporary wooden building – often referred to as a ‘hut’, but large enough to hold 400 parishioners. This is where, on Christmas Eve 1880, the first service of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ was given and, unwittingly perhaps, a new tradition was created.
The service was designed by the Bishop of Truro, E. W. Benson. In the words of his son, the writer A. C. Benson: ‘My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop.’ In 1918 the service was adopted at King’s College Cambridge by the Dean, Eric Milner-White. In 1928 it was first broadcast by the BBC and it has now become one of the fixtures of Christmas broadcasting around the world.
I have lived in Denmark for nearly ten years. It is a country with a strong sense of tradition beneath the sophisticated veneer of its relaxed modernity, and this manifests itself strongly at the solstices. At midwinter the intense darkness, the crisp cold, and the Danes’ addiction to candlelight have made me nostalgic for the Christmas services of my youth. So with Ars Nova Copenhagen we started in 2008 to present our own version of the service – usually as a concert programme in churches rather than as part of the liturgy. It proved very popular and has become part of our annual season. Sometimes the singers give the readings (in Danish, naturally, though some of them have Swedish or Norwegian accents), and sometimes they are given by members of the community. All agree that the music gains an extra dimension by being folded into the spoken narrative, especially when the readings are shared among audience and performers alike.
I then thought of making a recording that would include the readings. But in which language (or languages) should they be given? Rejecting the idea of a mixture of many languages (attractive to me, but perhaps not to all) I looked instead for pieces of music that would go some way towards filling out the narrative in a suitable fashion. The following synopsis is drawn from the readings that form part of our presentation. Those familiar with the King’s College tradition will notice close resemblances, but also differences – in the latter part especially.