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Classical 101

King’s College Lessons and Carols

A statue of an angel blowing a trumpet near stained-glass windows in King's College Chapel, Cambridge University
King's College, Cambridge University
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American Public Media
Inside historic King's College Chapel, Cambridge University

For nearly a century, millions of people around the world have enjoyed the annual Christmas Eve radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge University. And for decades, choirs across the globe – including right here in central Ohio – have held lessons and carols services for local audiences.

Join Classical 101 for our live broadcast of the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols Saturday, Dec. 24 at 10 a.m. You can also enjoy a local lessons and carols service in person when First Congregational Church in Downtown Columbus presents A Christmas Festival of Lessons and Carols Sun., Dec. 18 at 4 p.m., with prelude music beginning at 3:30.

Whether experienced in person or on the radio, the Nine Lessons and Carols service is a mainstay of the holiday season. How a grassroots church service became a beloved international tradition is a compelling testament to the power of music, technology and innovation.

The earliest lessons and carols celebrations date to 1878, when services of Bible readings interspersed with sung Christmas hymns were first presented in cathedrals and churches around England. The first service called “Nine Lessons and Carols” was celebrated on Christmas Eve 1880 in Truro, Cornwall.

Soon thereafter Anglican, Catholic and Protestant churches throughout England and around the world added Nine Lessons and Carols services to their holiday celebrations. The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols was first celebrated in Cambridge, England, in 1918, as a gift to the Cambridge community. The event took place in the historic and acoustically sumptuous King’s College Chapel of Cambridge University.

2018 marked the centenary of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge University.

The advent of broadcast technologies made the King’s College Nine Lessons and Carols service available to remote listeners and viewers. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) first aired the service on radio in 1928. The BBC did not originally plan to broadcast the King’s College Nine Lessons and Carols every year but has aired the service annually ever since – with one exception. For unknown reasons, the service was not celebrated in Cambridge in 1930. The service and the broadcasts of it resumed in 1931.

During the 1930s, the broadcasts on the BBC Overseas Service, now BBC World Service, took the King’s College Lessons and Carols to an international audience. The broadcast tradition has continued through the decades, even during the bleak years of World War II and, in altered form, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged in 2020. That autumn, the full Lessons and Carols service was recorded in King’s College Chapel in several sessions and with no congregation, and the recorded service was broadcast on Christmas Eve.

Today the King’s College Lessons and Carols service owes much of its distinctive sound to organist, choral conductor and composer David Willcocks, who served as organist and music director at King’s College from 1957 to 1974. Willcocks’ elegant arrangements of Christmas carols for the King’s College Choir became popular through the Lessons and Carols broadcasts and are standard holiday repertoire for choirs around the world. Willcocks’ carol arrangements also helped establish the rich English tradition of choral music in the United States.

“It’s really through the experience of the Nine Lessons and Carols (broadcasts) that the Anglican tradition of choral singing has been so solidly rooted in the United States,” said Stephen Caracciolo, artistic director of LancasterChorale. “Now we are the recipients of this terrific repertoire.”

While steeped in history, the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has also been a catalyst for new music. Since 1983, a new carol has been commissioned for each’s year’s service, with the exception of the pandemic year 2020. The list of composers who have received this honor reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary music. Included on it are Arvo Pärt, Stephen Paulus, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Jonathan Dove, Cecilia McDowall and Judith Weir, who since 2014 has been the first woman to hold the venerable title of Master of the Queen’s (now King’s) Music.

This year’s broadcast of the King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols will feature Matthew Martin’s setting of the ancient Marian text Angelus ad Virginem. And as it has done for nearly a century, the broadcast will also feature the joyful sounds of the King’s College Choir and hundreds of congregants in a Christmas Eve tradition that continues to captivate the world.

Tune in to Classical 101’s live broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge University, Saturday, Dec. 24 at 10 a.m. First Congregational Church in Downtown Columbus presents A Christmas Festival of Lessons and Carols Sun., Dec. 18 at 4 p.m., with prelude music beginning at 3:30.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.