Yesterday I was in King’s College, Cambridge to hear the ‘Carols from King’s’ service, which will be broadcast on Christmas Eve on BBC2. When I was a student at the college, the choir sang Evensong every day and I missed most of the services, telling myself that I could go any time I liked. Now that I can’t go any time I like, it seems a huge luxury to sit there in the winter darkness and listen to sacred choral music, beautifully sung, for a couple of hours. The Chapel, whose resonant acoustic can obliterate certain kinds of instrumental music, is a perfect setting for the choir. At the end of each piece, the great building seems to go on caressing the memory of their voices for seconds, reluctant to let go.
The choir is composed of men (students of the college) and boys (pupils at the nearby choir school). It never ceases to amaze me that some of little choristers, who look as if they might be more at home in the tuck shop or on the rugby field, can open their mouths and utter divine streams of melody, looking angelic as they do so. And I’m convinced that their radiance when they sing is not an illusion. Music shows a side of them which must take some of their loved ones aback.
Mediaeval carols have always been my favourite. But, as at last year’s Carol Service, it was a modern setting which I found especially haunting. Last year I loved a motet by James MacMillan. This year it was American composer Morten Lauridsen’s setting of ‘O magnum mysterium’. One of the readers said afterwards that she was glad she hadn’t had to speak directly after that particular piece, because it was very affecting.