BOOK REVIEW / Angelic upstarts: Like ploughman's lunch and Christmas trees, carol services are a young tradition, but a new book shows the age and variety of the music

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THIRTY years ago this Christmas, at the age of 13, at the end of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols - a ceremony that always caused much weeping among both parents and boys - I left my first job.

I had been a cathedral chorister, which was a job in the sense that it helped my family finance my education. In another sense it resembled a vocation, since we choristers were obliged to suffer for it, spending Easter and Christmas (most of our lives, in fact) away from home. We were a tiny, sacrificial aristocracy in a school divided into choristers, boarders and day bugs. As Christmas approached, the boarders and day bugs left and we had the school to ourselves. Academic work stopped, rules were relaxed. We felt, in essence, that the school existed for our benefit, and that we were there for the Christmas Eve Carol Service. That was the heart of our mystery.

Although we lived under a rigid musical discipline, we were not considered a very good choir. We knew this, and were exercised by the fact. Some people attributed our decline to National Health orange juice: our voices tended to break earlier than those of our parents' generation: suddenly the head chorister would be screeching out of control, and we knew that his time was up. But we also knew that we would all be leaving the choir, for educational reasons, shortly before our fourteenth birthdays, whereas our fathers had gone on for as long as their voices were good, which might be another two or three years. Their education had just had to fend for itself.

Another reason why we in Durham felt we could hardly compete with King's College, Cambridge was that our choir had, at that time, no adult choral scholars. Traditionally, the other voices had been supplied by tradesmen who would come to the cathedral after work, or who worked around the close as stonemasons, plasterers, and so forth. This may sound very Hardyesque, but it was a source of friction with those who had ambitions for the choir, the ones who swooned over the first verse of 'Once in Royal David's City' as broadcast from King's, who wanted to hear the glamorous treble solos like 'Oh for the Wings of a Dove'. Against them was ranged the full power and personality of our organist and choir-master, Conrad Eden, who abhorred the turning of little boys into singing stars, and who usually set two boys to sing a solo together, in order to make them less vain about their voices. The soloist was deemed to be singing for the glory of God - not for a recording contract or a broadcasting company.

The fact that many people came to our carol service having already listened in to King's in the afternoon (as we ourselves used to do, awestruck) must have been an irritating part of the pressure on us to copy the trend. For it was only a trend, not some ancient tradition. The service of Nine Lessons and Carols is the Church of England's ploughman's lunch - we think of it as much older than it is. It was first performed in Truro in 1880, having been invented by the bishop, E W Benson. The King's tradition began in 1918. The first broadcast was in 1928, and the tradition has been maintained every year since, with the exception of 1930.

According to the New Oxford Book of Carols, 'outside such remote and conservative regions as Cornwall, Yorkshire and Wales, Christmas itself was still (in the mid-19th century) little regarded among British Protestants'. But then came H R Bramley and John Stainer, chaplain and organist of Magdalen College, Oxford, who made Magdalen the King's of its day, and who produced a collection called Christmas Carols New and Old. Stainer and Bramley were evangelicals, but the folklorist side of the carol revival tended to have an Anglo-Catholic flavour, which went perhaps with the High Church flair for liturgy and ceremonial.

This half-century or so of carol-singing was nothing. The psalm-singing, the anthems and the services in our repertoire went back to the 17th century, and it was not unusual for us to handle 18th-century scores. Indeed there was a bench in the Song School reserved for the repair of these ancient texts, with pots of something called gum mucilage. The heaviest of these tomes were the full-choir versions of what were always referred to as the Boyce scores. Every year on Shrove Tuesday, the morning choir-practice was taken by the assistant organist. Two senior boys were made to stand on chairs, holding a pile of three or four Boyce scores between them. Each new member of the choir was made to stand in turn under the pile of books and to sight-read a passage of music. At a signal from the assistant organist he was then bumped on the head, rather hard, once for every mistake he made. Boyce was knocked into us. We hated Boyce.

And so it may be that Boyce did need rescuing from the Song School, just as it may be that the carol needed rescuing from the ploughman's-

lunch Anglican tradition. Still, it is easy to see that the great revival of ancient music which has taken place in the last few decades is nothing more than a continuation of the tradition of revival and preservation stretching back to the 18th century.

Certain things have changed fundamentally, none more so than the attitude towards instrumentation. But even the seeds of that attitude were sown long ago. Certain things haven't changed at all. The voice of Emma Kirkby, for instance, seems to me to represent exactly the kind of musicianship and sound that was the ideal, in its field, 30 years ago. And the sound of the Tallis Scholars on their CD Christmas Carols and Motets (Gimell CDIGM 010) is exactly the kind of sound that has leaked out of college chapels on foggy nights since time immemorial, even if there are now women's voices in the choir. The two collections put together by the Taverner Consort (The Carol Album and The Christines Album EMI CDC 7 49809 2 and CDC 7 54529 2), which between them cover about 20 per cent of the New Oxford Book of Carols, illustrate an approach to carol-singing that goes consciously against the cathedral tradition, which is considered horribly affected. One of the things which goes straight out of the window is standard pronunciation, something highly valued in the cathedrals, not only in the English language (one was supposed to come across as well brought up) but also in Latin. But the carols in the New Oxford Book come from New England, Mexico, the Tyrol, all over the shop, and over a period of seven centuries. Each musical item is therefore considered as a separate dramatic event, both in the matter of accent and voice production, and in the question of instrumentation.

And yet I was interested to find, in Percy Dearmer's introduction to the old Oxford Book of Carols, as good a justification for the Taverner Consort approach as could be wished. Dearmer and Vaughan Williams (whose collection appeared in the same year as the first King's broadcast) were concerned to emphasise that 'carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular and modern'. The new Oxford editors gloss that word 'hilarious' to make it mean happy, and they do not want us to think of what they have revived from the gallery tradition (the rural church tradition) as simply amusingly nave: if the harmonies seem to break rules, it is because they represent an old tradition suppressed by previous editors.

Yes, yes, but I think it is still no disrespect to say that some of what they have achieved has its hilarious side. It's the kind of laughter provoked by a pleasant surprise (when one had perhaps feared that one was going to have to throw up). No doubt the pronunciation is very expert, but that doesn't stop the Taverner Consort's rendition of 'Adeste Fideles' being an absolute scream, or 'Stille Nacht' provoking a grin. John Foster's Handelian 'While shepherds watched' proceeds from the pleasantly surprising level to the thrilling.

Carols, according to Percy Dearmer, are among those developments in the church which we know of through the authorities' complaints about them. Drama found its way into the church service, so that 'even in the 12th century and even in the church the instinct for dramatic expression was in revolt and we find Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx complaining of chanters who gesticulated and grimaced while singing the sacred offices, and imitated the sound of thunder, of women's voices, and of the neighing of horses. In other and more seemly ways anthems, sequences and tropes were sung with increasing dramatic emphasis, till from them the mystery play developed.' St Francis of Assisi went in for jovial singing (and invented the Christmas crib). Eventually the mystery plays were suppressed; eventually the Puritans banned carols and Christmas. But it wasn't solely a question of Puritans versus the rest; there was the whole question of the church versus the secular muse.

A part of the achievement of the ancient music revival over the past decades has been to take what was once only heard in a religious context and to present it for consideration in a non-religious setting, so that Tallis, Gibbons, Weelkes, Byrd and the rest came also to be considered for their own sakes as composers. With the carol tradition, this is a matter of handing back to the secular what came from a secular contribution to the church repertoire. The Taverner approach to the dramatisation of the carols thus seems to me absolutely appropriate, not just to the material but also to the material as conceived by Dearmer and Vaughan Williams.

So why supplant the old Oxford Book, now in its 37th impression? The answer lies partly in the new additions to the repertoire, including the striking music from the American tradition, and partly in the fact that the old arrangers of the carols assumed a certain harmonic conventionality, which denatured the originals. If we think of the carol as something for four male voices in which the melody is taken by the treble, we ignore the gallery tradition in which, as Hugh Keyte explains, it was the tenor who took the melody.

What we think of, in the cathedral carol service, as being quintessentially English, is neither for the most part English, nor for the most part quintessential. But the old and new Oxford Books are identifiably part of the same, various, profound inquiry into tradition.

'The New Oxford Book of Carols' ed Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, is priced at pounds 60 till 31 Dec, then pounds 75.

(Photograph omitted)