Magazine article The Spectator

The Music of Innocence

Magazine article The Spectator

The Music of Innocence

Article excerpt

The most celebrated Christmas carol, 'Silent Night', belongs to Austria. Father Joseph Mohr, the priest at Oberndorf, a small village near Salzburg, wrote it in 1818. Set to music by Franz Xaver Gruber, it was sung on Christmas Eve at the church of St Nicholas:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. It is the most celebrated carol for it captures the stillness of a winter night, the wonder of Christ's birth, and the hope of all mankind for peace.

But when it comes to the celebration of that birth nothing surpasses the English tradition. On Christmas Eve millions of people all over the world will tune in not to Oberndorf but to King's College, Cambridge, where the choristers take us, as they have since 1918, through the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. For many of those watching on television, and listening on the radio, it will be the highlight of the season.

The splendour of carols lies mainly in the beautiful music. Only mainly, though.

Johann Sebastian Bach composed the greatest choral music, but it is not Bach we sing at Christmas. Choirs perform his Christmas Oratorio, certainly, but it is carols that people like to hear. Here is the music of innocence, which brings out the child in us all. In a handful of verses, often sentimental, sometimes a bit slushy, we are transported back to childhood, away from the commercial distractions of a secular world.

Old-fashioned words assist this transformation. The liturgy of the Anglican Church has been altered so much by the unnecessary process of modernisation that the prayers and responses, as well as many of the hymns, have become a trap for the unwary.

Carols belong to the old dispensation, and we are the better for it. Who cannot respond to 'the first Noel the angels did sing'? Or the poor man who came in sight of good king Wenceslas 'gathering winter fu-u-el'? Give 'em time, and they'll probably change that to 'heating allowance'. It won't sound quite the same.

The doors are not closed to those who want to maintain the tradition. Last year the King's choristers sang 'All Bells in Paradise' by John Rutter, a touching carol that sounded as though it had always been there. All praise to Rutter, and to King's, for issuing the invitation that added another layer to the famous ceremony.

Besides, where tradition is concerned, carols are a moveable feast. There is, obviously, a Christian representation of Christmas, yet the festival also has pagan roots. …

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