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This modest-looking publication belies its contents: namely, a wealth of information concerning the repertoire of the celebrated service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, which reached its centenary in December 2018. Compiler Timothy Rogers has thoroughly digested the annual Christmas Eve service sheets in the King’s archive and presented the results as clearly as possible. Thus, we can see at a glance that while the processional hymn has always been Once in Royal David’s City, Rogers’s research is detailed enough for us to learn, for example, that it was not until 1970 that it was given in David Willcocks’s arrangement. Similarly, we can observe that there were traditions surrounding the choice of invitatory carol following the bidding prayer until 1974, when the newly appointed director of music Philip Ledger broke free, as it were, of previous directors’ limited options, from which time he and his successor, Stephen Cleobury, were far more varied in their choices.

Recently retired, Stephen Cleobury is the longest-serving director of music at King’s, and Rogers’s digest does much to reveal how he has broadened the repertoire of the service. From the outset of his tenure, he has used the occasion as an opportunity to commission a carol from leading, mostly British, composers. Rogers helpfully gives the commissioned carols an independent list. It’s good to be reminded that Lennox Berkeley fulfilled the first commission, in 1983, with his In Wintertime, and the roster includes figures as different in approach as Judith Weir (twice commissioned), John Rutter, Tansy Davies, Thomas Adès and Huw Watkins.

Rogers contextualises his volume with an introductory essay that analyses some of the recurring patterns as well as differences that have emerged down the years, and touches on the differing attitudes of the directors of music. For example, it’s of interest to learn that Willcocks’s annotated service sheets show his concern for the quality of the readers as well as the music.

A better proof-read would have erased some obvious typos: for example, Judith Weir’s first King’s commission is entitled Illuminare, Jerusalem (not Illiminare); it’s Dominic (not Donimic) Muldowney; and a lack of accents in foreign-language titles is questionable. Equally unhelpful to the reader of the Introduction is the non-use of italics (or even single quotations) for carol titles, whose inclusion would have been a distinct improvement.

But setting aside such irritations, any musician who loves the King’s Christmas Eve service will find in this book things to intrigue and in which to delight.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica

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