Magazine article Gramophone

Birth of a Tradition: Truro Cathedral Choir Remake History This Christmas as They Reconstruct the First Ever Service of Nine Lessons and Carols and Webcast the Results

Magazine article Gramophone

Birth of a Tradition: Truro Cathedral Choir Remake History This Christmas as They Reconstruct the First Ever Service of Nine Lessons and Carols and Webcast the Results

Article excerpt

Every Christmas somebody pops up to remind us that the iconic service of Nine Lessons and Carols originated not at King's College, Cambridge, but at England's most remote and westerly cathedral-Truro. You even get a nice little story into the bargain, interwoven with a heartening dose of Yuletide cheer and cheek: the Nine Lessons service was devised to curb the locals' Christmas Eve debauchery, to stop them singing in the pubs and get them singing in the church, sobering them up in time for the service of Midnight Mass which followed later the same evening. All nice and neat--the redemption of mankind represented by a group of Cornishmen's 30-yard stagger from house of ale to house of God.

Unfortunately, it's almost certainly a fiction. When Cornwall's charismatic Bishop Benson introduced his Nine Lessons and Carols service to Truro and the world at 10pm on December 24, 1880, Midnight Mass was more than 70 years away, a 1950s Catholic import. And there's no evidence that the Nine Lessons service was set up as a rival entertainment to pub drinking--or, as is widely reported, that Truro Cathedral Choir toured the local pubs offering a bespoke 'trailer' to increase its headcount.

What you do get when you look into the circumstances of Benson's brainwave of 1880--as Truro Cathedral staff have been doing this year in preparation for a live reconstruction of the first Nine Lessons and Carols service--is a far more complex and fascinating picture of local politics, liturgical vision and musical development.

In 1880, Truro Cathedral wasn't the spiky, Gothic Revival church designed to order by John Loughborough Pearson. It was a temporary wooden shack occupying a patch of land cleared to make way for Pearson's building. 'Here there is a dirtier part of our history that's rarely brought up,' explains Truro's organist and director of music, Christopher Gray. 'The new diocese of Truro was created in 1876, and it has been a constant source of bitterness from other towns--Bodmin, St Austell, Penzance--that they weren't chosen.' But in a sense, Truro townspeople had it worse. First came the disappearance of their medieval parish church, pulled down to make way for the new structure, and then the loss of a good number of homes. 'The diocese had to repossess houses and knock them down to create space, and this caused great animosity among the locals,' says Gray. 'There was certainly a feeling of loss, but it was a little more than that, actually--it was a feeling of anger and resentment as well.'

So Cornwall wasn't a happy place in 1880, and you don't have to look far into the letters pages of The West Briton to see the finger pointed resolutely at the church. Nor were the bad vibes lost on Benson. He might have arrived in Truro with connections, respect and the ear of the elite, but Benson wasn't in an ivory tower: he had hauled himself up from near penniless beginnings in Birmingham--a man with a flair for evangelism and an active social conscience who, according to researcher Richard Longman, 'never forgot the charity and teaching that had played such a part in his personal transformation'. Benson had to get his diocese and parishioners back on side--to ingratiate them to the wooden box that would be their principal place of worship for the next six years, and to rekindle some sense of community. His Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols was designed to do that as much as it was to reflect his idiosyncratic ideas about theology and liturgy and the theatrical potential inherent in both.

The beauty of Benson's service was its simplicity, whether prompted by a short 10-week timescale, the modest architectural surroundings or his sure instinct for teaching. The idea of alternating nine readings with nine thematically linked carols caught the attention of Eric Milner-White at King's College, Cambridge, who in 1918 adapted Benson's model by altering the pattern of readings and adding some eloquent prayers. …

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