For many people, carols with the cathedral choirs marks the true start of the Christmas festivities, says Matthew Dennison

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A darkened cathedral and the boy treble’s solo in Once in Royal David’s City is one of the most special Christmas moments for many. Cathedral choirs mark the true start of the festivities, says Matthew Dennison.

Carol singing may be a moment to relax over Christmas but everything can easily descend into a festive frenzy. Follow The Field’s guide to Christmas to breeze through the festive season.

CATHEDRAL CHOIRS

There’s an explosion of light from the Christmas altar frontal in Wells Cathedral, a modern piece of needlecraft dominated by a dazzling starburst. Thousands of candles line stone recesses or stand in golden ziggurats. The choir, in royal blue cassocks, continues a tradition begun in the first years of the 10th century, leading local worshippers in favourite paeans of praise to God, the rich hymnal of Christmas carols.

For most of us, Christmas carols form an indelible memory in our rollcall of Christmases past. In Britain’s great cathedrals, sung by cathedral choirs of lay clerks and boy and girl choristers, they achieve an exhilarating musicality that is among the defining joys of cathedral worship. At Wells, services on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning remind worshippers “that the coming of God was, extraordinarily, through the life of a vulnerable child”. For many in the congregation, the purity of the boy treble’s solo in Once in Royal David’s City, traditionally a feature of every carol service, makes tangible the perfect fragility of the child at the heart of the Christmas story. As David Flood, master of the choristers at Canterbury Cathedral, comments, “The solo boy beginning of Once in Royal David’s City in a darkened cathedral is the special moment for many people.”

Cathedral choirs. Wells

The Wells Cathedral choristers.

There is a particular magic in the combination of the unearthly acoustics of cathedrals’ vaulted spaces and the polished harmonies of dedicated cathedral choirs. “Visitors to the cathedral often say that the building ‘comes alive’ when the choir starts to sing,” James Lancelot, master of the choristers at Durham Cathedral, tells me. “This is never more true than at Christmas.”

Many Christmas services take place when the light has departed from short winter days, artificial light or candles casting their glow over ancient stone and gilded wood, stained-glass windows blackened by December darkness. The effect is both beautiful and intimate. The familiarity of the musical repertoire adds to this intimacy. For many worshippers, Dr Lancelot explains, the focus is on the younger members of the cathedral choirs, and rightly so. “Christmas being a time when children are especially in our thoughts, the sight and sound of choristers singing is especially apt, as well as being a visible sign of the Church’s commitment to the future and of the inclusivity of its worship.”

Andrew Lumsden, organist and director of music at Winchester Cathedral, explains that boy and girl choristers’ contribution to Christmas worship extends beyond singing. “The wonderful enthusiasm choristers bring to the celebration of Christmas is infectious for everyone present.”

At Lincoln Cathedral, preparations for Christmas acknowledge the centrality of music in worshippers’ expectations. “Music is one of the most recognisable features of the Christmas season,” says assistant organist Hilary Punnett, “and so cathedral choirs are central to celebrating the season with a feast of music for young and old. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the music.” Choristers’ enthusiasms are wide-ranging, like those of the congregations they serve. “For me, there is no single special piece, they all give the tingle factor but then it’s my job to make that happen,” says Dr Flood, whose choir includes a dozen lay clerks (four basses, four tenors and four countertenors) and 25 boy choristers, aged between eight and 13.

DRAWN BY THE MUSIC

As congregations continue to dwindle, cathedral communities recognise the value of the special Christmas repertory as a way of attracting the faithful. “For the Church, music is arguably the most powerful medium with which to draw people in and this is the case more so at Christmas than at any time of the year,” says Ashley Grote, master of music at Norwich Cathedral. “For the thousands of people who flock to the cathedral for our carols, Christmas services and concerts, the Cathedral Choirs provide music which has the power to touch everyone in an individual way, regardless of who they are or where they have come from. The music requires nothing of them other than that they listen, and they can take from it what they will.”

Cathedral choirs. Winchester

Choristers skating at Winchester Cathedral; the ice-rink is part of the annual Christmas celebrations.

Even those without a particular interest in music respond to the familiarity of Christmas choices and a distinctive quality to choral performance that stands outside fashion, offering listeners something as unchanging as the Christmas story itself. “At Worcester, it’s the traditional carols led by cathedral choirs that seem to go straight to the heart of the tens of thousands who pass through during the festive season,” says Peter Nardone, organist and director of music at Worcester Cathedral. “We always programme a wide variety of styles of music in our concerts and services but the old favourites get the popular vote. People think they like change but they love tradition even more.”

As in many aspects of church practice, organists and choirmasters continue to add to and evolve the Christmas repertoire, balancing the familiarity of best-loved carols with newer, more challenging pieces. Punnett explains that, during the Christmas season, the choir at Lincoln Cathedral performs material that “ranges from family favourites to newly composed works. To launch the Christmas season, we perform Handel’s Messiah with an orchestra and then we’re fully in the swing of things with performances at the Lincoln Christmas Market, various carol services and Britten’s Ceremony of Carols by candlelight in our stunning Chapter House. This year our choristers are excited to be adding performances of The Snowman to our regular repertoire.”

The experience at Winchester is that from innovation emerge new traditions. “We have been very lucky in the past to have had music written for us by Sir John Tavener, including his Christmas proclamation God is with us,” says Lumsden. “This has become a hardy annual in our carol services and when we sing it in a dimly lit cathedral in front of the enormous Christmas tree, for many people this marks the start of their Christmas festivities.”

Cathedral choirs. Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams leads a Christmas carol service at Canterbury Cathedral in 2009.

At Norwich, Grote is at pains to balance the triumphalism of best-loved Christmas carols with music that inspires reflection appropriate to the season and a recognition among congregations of the continuing need for the Christmas miracle in a world of conflict and unrest. “After the elation that comes with the final refrain of Hark, the herald angels sing, we end our Christmas Eve procession with an Epilogue, a reflective piece sung from a distance by cathedral choirs, to remind us that, while Christmas brings tidings of great joy for many of us, there is still a desperate world out there, crying out for God’s help.”

Cathedrals’ largest congregations occur at Christmas, with worshippers crowding these much-loved buildings. At Lincoln Cathedral, for example, a congregation of 2,500 people attends the annual Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols. There are implications for choirs, too, in singing in such packed spaces and, for many choirmasters, the size of the congregation adds another spur to excellence. Christmas services feel unlike those at other times of the year. At Canterbury, Flood relishes an atmosphere he describes simply as “amazing”. Alongside the excitement of the season itself is the warmth and reassurance imparted by unchanging patterns of worship and music that many parishioners have heard performed annually since their childhoods.

For choristers, the familiar retreading of the annual round of Advent and Christmas carols is not the only pleasure associated with this, one of the happiest festivals in the church calendar. Cathedral choirs continue to play a part in local community life. Some services include moments of interaction between cathedral choirs and congregation. At Durham, Dr Lancelot tells me, “the choristers especially love the service of the Lighting of the Christmas Tree and Blessing of the Crib, which signifies for them the start of Christmas. They love, too, the Children’s Carol Service, when children in the congregation crowd around the choristers to sing a carol together with them.”

CATHEDRAL CHOIRS IN THE COMMUNITY

Many cathedral choirs also sing outside their cathedrals. “While the cathedral is where most of the ‘action’ happens,” reflects Lumsden at Winchester, “the choristers would probably say that their favourite Christmas event is singing carols in the local pub.” Other typical venues include old people’s homes, local schools, market squares and late-night-opening Christmas shopping evenings, where choristers, in their coloured cassocks and snowy surplices with shining faces, form a distinctive spectacle.

Cathedral choirs. Ely

Ely Cathedral girls’ choir rehearsing.

Britain’s cathedrals are repositories of our national treasures, often buildings of exceptional architectural merit that have preserved not only the message of Christianity but aspects of Christian worship through two millennia. Music is a key part of cathedrals’ mission work. “Music plays a central role in all cathedral worship,” says Lumsden, and never more so now that the majority of parish churches no longer have a choir of their own. At Christmas, the acquired excellence of centuries, combined with a repertoire of seasonal music that continues to develop, makes the contribution of cathedral choirs to nationwide celebrations especially valuable.

When the presents are opened and the goose stripped to the bone, when paper hats have been recycled and the shouts of the pantomime fade, when the Boxing Day bag is hung and the sloe gin drained, it is memories that linger. For readers lucky enough to live near a cathedral, the Christmas services are as special as any other moment of the celebrations. At their heart are the contributions of choristers young and old, who devote significant periods of their Christmas to sharing the wonderful message.