Recording Nine Lessons and Carols

Director of Music Chris Gray reflects on recording the Nine Lessons and Carols service this year:

When the first Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson, devised his ‘Festival of Nine Lessons with Carols’ in 1880, he faced significant challenges that must have seemed insurmountable. The people of Truro had just lost their beloved parish church which had been pulled down, save for one aisle, to prepare for the building of a grand new cathedral designed by J L Pearson. There was much local opposition to this ambitious building project at a time when Cornwall was suffering terrible poverty following the loss of so many of its mines, and the Anglican Church in Cornwall was on its knees, with Methodism much more popular. Nonetheless, around 400 people packed into the wooden shed that was the temporary Truro Cathedral on Christmas Eve 1880, brought together to hear, in words and music, the story of a baby facing his own challenges as he began his life in the little town of Bethlehem under Roman occupation with threats of violence all around. The message of this story, for me, is primarily one of empathy and hope: God can truly relate to the challenges faced by Benson in 1880, and to the challenges faced by us, here and now – in Cecil Frances Alexander’s words which you will hear at the start of the service, “he feeleth for our sadness and he shareth in our gladness”.

This deeply personal message – and what could be more “personal” than God choosing to come to earth as a person? – inevitably inspires us to turn to our own families and our own communities at Christmas. So it is that many of the carols I have chosen for this specially filmed ‘Nine Lessons’ have a local link. There is an arrangement of ‘Once in royal’ by former Truro organ scholar Philip Stopford, and a ‘Silent night’ by former Truro Assistant Organist Simon Morley. There is a setting of a carol from St Day, the ‘Sans Day Carol’, by John Rutter and there are two recent carols by Cornish composers, Becky McGlade and Russell Pascoe. And then there are some familiar classics like Boris Ord’s ‘Adam lay ybounden’ and Philip Ledger’s ‘Sussex Carol’. These are held within the traditional ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ format, with the great Bidding Prayer (added by Eric Milner-White after King’s College Cambridge adopted Benson’s service in 1918), the blessing of the crib, and a Christmas message from the Dean.

Recording the service was a moving experience in itself, with the extraordinary talents of our boys, girls, lay vicars and choral scholars being matched by their good humour and absolute commitment to the music. We all hope that it might bring some comfort, peace and joy as we navigate these unsettled times together.

Visit the History Section of the website to find out more about the history of Nine Lessons and Carols.