At two minutes past three on Monday, with dusk just beginning to fall, many people’s Christmases will properly begin. That is when a boy treble from the choir of King’s College, Cambridge – chosen by music director Stephen Cleobury from his shortlist of possible soloists just seconds before the service begins – sings the opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City live on Radio 4.
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has flourished despite the fact that society has become more secular, but Cleobury sees no contradiction in that. “The service, as with our regular evensong in term time, is open to everybody,” he says.
“It’s very important that we do the right thing by people of genuine Christian conviction, but it’s also important that we welcome and include people who have different views, including those who have lost all faith or who come from different faiths.
“We are providing something that people can connect with in different ways. Hearing Once in Royal David’s City or In the Bleak Midwinter connects people with something earlier in their life and provides a solace of some kind.”
This year’s festival has particular significance. It is 100 years since the service began, the brainchild of King’s College dean Eric Milner-White, who wanted a service that could unite and inspire people after the horrors of the first world war, and 90 years since it was first broadcast on BBC radio. It is also Cleobury’s final outing after 37 years as music director – he will be 70 on 31 December and retires next year after an epic stint (second among King’s music directors only to Arthur Henry Mann, who managed a remarkable 53 years from 1876 to 1929.
It has proved a challenging final year for Cleobury. In March he was knocked over by a cyclist – a very Cambridge accident – and fractured his skull. Happily, after a short layoff, he was back leading the choir. Then, earlier this month, opera singer Lesley Garrett directed a broadside against King’s all-male choir (it is made up of 16 boy choristers and 14 male undergraduate choral scholars), calling it a “throwback to a bygone age” and demanding that girls be allowed in. It led to a lively debate to which Cleobury, until now, has not responded.
“It’s an interesting subject,” he tells me, “but not something that can be dealt with in soundbites. We haven’t gone for a mixed choir in the chapel choir, but we have made significant contributions to opportunities for girls to sing in other ways.”
He points out that during his time as music director, the college has started King’s Voices, a mixed choir of undergraduates that has given women the chance to sing in the chapel at evensong every Monday. He has also launched King’s Junior Voices, which brings 100 children every weekend to the choir school attached to the college to learn to sing. Of those, he says, two-thirds are girls.
Cleobury doesn’t defend keeping a boys-only choir, as some do, in terms of the quality or uniqueness of the sound. “For me, that is not the main issue,” he says, “because you can listen to boys’ choir X and boys’ choir Y and they’ll sound different. Likewise with girls’ choirs. It depends how they’re trained and on the sort of sound the choir director has in mind.”
The real reason to maintain boys-only choirs, he argues, is that boys need to be encouraged to sing. When choirs are opened up to girls, they tend to overwhelm them, outnumbering the boys and perhaps making them feel self-conscious, and if boys aren’t being trained between the ages of eight and 13 the production line of male singers starts to dry up.
“Boys – certainly in the presence of girls – feel that singing isn’t a cool thing to do,” he says. “But they are the tenors and basses of tomorrow. Neglect them and you won’t have your symphony chorus, so you won’t have your Beethoven Nine or your Missa Solemnis or your Dream of Gerontius being performed.”
But will it be sustainable in the future for the BBC to have a boys-only choir for its Christmas showpiece? “I’m not in the business of prediction,” he says, explaining that it would be for the college authorities to change the composition of the chapel choir. At some point, though, the BBC will come under pressure to rule on the issue, and whether they will be willing to hold the line is a moot point. Traditional practice and gender equality make for discordant partners.
The radio version of the service is broadcast live; the TV version which goes out at 5.50pm on BBC2 on Christmas Eve was recorded a few weeks ago. Traditionalists will favour the radio broadcast, in part because it integrates the biblical Christmas story and the carols more organically – Cleobury says he chooses the music to match the readings and that it is not merely “a selection of all our favourite carols” – but also because of the unpredictability of live performance.
Is Cleobury fearful of things going wrong? “I wouldn’t use the word fearful,” he says, “but I’ve never gone into it with any sense of complacency. I try to get appropriately geared up – that’s a combination of preparation in advance and concentration in the moment.”
The college estimates that more than 100 million people around the world listen to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. It is broadcast on the BBC World Service and on 450 public radio stations in the US, where it has a very loyal audience. The TV version, Carols from King’s, gets more than 2 million viewers in the UK.
For his valedictory service, Cleobury has chosen half a dozen carols that were sung at the first service in 1918 and also included arrangements by his five predecessors as music director. It will be an attempt to sum up a century of Christmases at King’s.
“I shall be full of emotion,” says Cleobury. “I’m sometimes accused of being a bit buttoned up, but I’m not really.” Did he always intend to stay for so long as music director? “I never had a plan,” he says. “It’s been immensely stimulating and rewarding. Who wouldn’t want to go into that building [the college’s cathedral-sized chapel] each day and make music?”
The great English Cathedral choral tradition is followed by the exemplary choir of Kings College, at Cambridge University in England. King’s College will, this Christmas, present its 100th Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which will be broadcast by the BBC World Service, covering a wide audience of listeners from around the world.
This year’s broadcast will be the final one for music director Stephen Cleobury, whose 37 years as Kins College Choir Director will end with this performance.
One is constantly amazed at the quality and variety of music produced by this choir and if, like me, you are an admirer of boys voices (to which, in the future, girls voices might well be added), King’s College Choir is a must for the experience of exquisite choral singing.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand