King’s College Choir, O Come All Ye Faithful

Album of the Week, December 9, 2023

Today we go from one of the most popular albums I’ve ever reviewed (judging from the number of complete strangers who have visited my site to read about it) to one of the more obscure, sort of. I say “sort of” because while not a lot of people may have this particular record (to be precise, right now I’m one of seven folks on Discogs who own a copy of this pressing), it’s the most traditional of Christmas traditions: the English cathedral carol album. And it’s by a completely top-notch group with a top-shelf conductor.

Of the musical groups I’ve reviewed on this page, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is undoubtedly the oldest and most established, having been created by King Henry VI to provide daily singing in his chapel (he is the “King” in King’s College, having founded it in 1441). The men and boys choir has from its inception consisted of 16 boy choristers accompanied by adult male voices, and at least throughout the last four hundred years by organ, though the form and particulars have changed over time. The first recorded director of music was one John Tomkins, the half-brother of composer Thomas Tomkins, who was the successor to Orlando Gibbons as the organist at King’s College.

Between Tomkins’ appointment in 1606 and the late 20th century there were fourteen directors of the choir, most notably including Sir David Willcocks, who directed the choir from 1957 to 1974 and in numerous recordings and broadcasts (and wrote numerous descants which are memorialized in the collections Carols for Choirs). Willcocks was succeeded by Sir Philip Ledger, who conducted the choir for nine years before taking the reins of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Ledger was succeeded by Stephen Cleobury, who directed the choir from 1982 until 2019, a few months before his death from cancer at age 70. Today’s album was recorded in 1984, a few short years into his tenure.

There is something quintessentially English about the King’s College Christmas Eve services, in the form of “lessons in songs and carols,” that have been broadcast worldwide by the BBC for at least the entire time I’ve been alive. A good amount of it has to do with the precise Received Pronunciation of the speakers, but perhaps equally much has to do with the English choral tradition— the clarity of the voices of the trebles, the precision of the diction, and the very English musical choices. This record is a good example of all of the above. It is full of great carol arrangements, but I’ll pick out a few:

“Once in Royal David’s City” is famous for beginning the Lessons services, as it has done since 1918. Written by organist Henry Gauntlett to a text by Cecil Frances Alexander, the carol, originally written for a child’s songbook, is here heard in the expansive arrangement by King’s organist Dr. Arthur Henry Mann which, Erik Routley has written, “turns the homely children’s hymn into a processional of immense spaciousness.” One of the other legendary bits about the carol is that the boy soloist who sings the first verse is only told that he will sing the solo a few minutes before the start of the service; we trust that the unnamed soloist on this recording got a little more notice.

I sometimes forget that Ralph Vaughan Williams, in addition to his considerable talents as a composer, was also a folklorist and song collector, much as Arthur Kyle Davis or Bascom Lamar Lunsford were on this side of the Atlantic. “On Christmas Night” is also known as the “Sussex Carol” after the location where Vaughan Williams heard it sung, in the hamlet of Monk’s Gate in Horsham by Harriett Verrell. It might be one of the definitive English carols, featuring the adult and treble voices in dialog with each other and then in harmony at the end. You can hear more English oral tradition at work in “The Seven Joys of Mary,” which was collected as an anonymous folk song as #278 in the Roud index.

“Ding dong! merrily on high” consists of words written by English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934) to a secular tune by 16th century French composer Thoinot Arbeau. Woodward directed bell choirs, and you can hear the tintinnabulations in his writing.

Cleobury’s version of the Kings College Choir is the one I grew up listening to every Christmas Eve, but it’s worth reflecting that his version is in some ways also Willcocks’, and Tomkins’, and indeed all the different masters of the choir to this point, all blended into one continuous tradition.

We’ll continue to veer all over the map in our appreciation of Christmas music for the next few weeks, jumping back over to the American side of the pond to check out a different take on the holiday. Until then, you can listen to today’s album, which I’ve posted here since there are no streams to be found of it anywhere.