Christmas Carols at MusiCB3

MusiCB3 is looking very festive lately. The much-admired Pendlebury Christmas decorations are up, and the exhibition cases in the Anderson Room are showing off some of the Music Department’s Christmas-related items. One of the Anderson Room cases is devoted to the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year.


John Sutton / King’s College Chapel in the snow – 1 / CC BY-SA 2.0 (Wikimedia Commons).

The service was first sung at King’s College on Christmas Eve in 1918, having been adapted for King’s by Eric Milner-White from the Nine Lessons and Carols service sung at Truro Cathedral. Whilst the King’s College service follows a similar pattern to the older Truro service, some of the prayers were adapted for a university setting. The bidding prayer for the beginning of the service must have been especially poignant in December 1918, remembering as it does those “who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light.” As well as being part of Cambridge Christmas tradition, the service has of course been broadcast almost every year since 1928, thus becoming part of Christmas traditions far and wide.

The Music Department’s holdings related to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols include specially-commissioned carols composed for the service, and orders of service from across the years. A couple of these must have originally belonged to choir members, as they have helpful stage directions written in…


As well as being the 100th anniversary service, this year’s Festival is also significant in that it will be Stephen Cleobury’s last in post, before his retirement in September 2019. It was Cleobury who established the tradition of commissioning a new carol each year for the service. For the 1983 service, in Cleobury’s first year as director of music, Lennox Berkeley wrote the carol ‘In Wintertime’, and the service has included a specially-written carol each year since then.

For this anniversary year, the new carol has been composed by Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir, who is a King’s College alumna. The UL holds a copy of an earlier carol written for King’s College by Weir. ‘Illuminare, Jerusalem’ was written for the 1985 service, and can be found at classmark: M250.b.95.114

You can find carols galore in both the UL and the Pendlebury collections, as well as literature about carols. Try Andrew Gant’s ‘Christmas carols : from village green to church choir’ (M794.d.201.2), or, for something specifically on the King’s College Nine Lessons, you could peruse ‘Carols from King’s : the stories of our favourite carols from King’s College’ by Alexandra Coghlan, in the Rare Books department at the UL (Cam.d.2016.1). The Pendlebury also has plenty of recorded carols available to borrow, including many recordings by Cambridge college choirs. A trip to the Pendlebury would also be a good opportunity to visit our Coca-Cola Can Choir, back in the library this year by popular demand!

In other festive news : at the UL next week the Library Choir will perform carols in the entrance hall at midday on Friday 14th, with a repeat performance the following Wednesday 19th. Do come along if you can!




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1 Response to Christmas Carols at MusiCB3

  1. Pingback: To celebrate, to commemorate: Stephen Cleobury | MusiCB3 Blog

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