This time last year, The Thinking WASP was standing in a queue on the corner of 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue with his wife and children. Anticipation was high. I was taking them to carols at St Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, New York.
Unlike most times of the year on the streets of that bustling metropolis, spirits were joyful, open and welcoming. Two ladies struck up a conversation with us, offering candy and cake to us as the queue slowly shortened.
One lady said she was so excited because the Choir of St Thomas was the second best in the world, only after the Vienna Boys Choir. As if reading my mind, and saving me from the temptation to correct her, the second lady replied, “I’d say the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is undisputed #1.”
The Thinking WASP knows no other choir which competes.
Founded in the fifteenth century, the Choir of King’s College at the University of Cambridge is the pre-eminent representative of the British church music tradition practised throughout the Anglosphere and beyond through the Royal College of Church Music.
It is most famous for singing A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the Christmas Eve service that the BBC has broadcast since 1928.
The Choir exists primarily to sing daily services in King’s College Chapel. But its worldwide fame and reputation, enhanced by its many recordings, has led to invitations to perform throughout the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, the United States and China.
Doubt that claim of worldwide fame? Before you play this gorgeous Christmas service, read the comments section and discover just how far and wide this famous choir is loved. It’s influence goes well beyond our Anglosphere.
When Henry VI founded King’s College in 1441, it was his intention that a choir would provide music for the daily offices and celebrations of the Mass. The College Statutes of 1453 stipulate that the College would consist of a Provost, seventy fellows and scholars, and a choir composed of ten secular chaplains, six stipendiary lay clerks (or ‘singing-men’) and sixteen choristers.
Henry VI specified that the choristers were to be poor boys, of strong constitution and of ‘honest conversation’. They had to be under twelve years of age when admitted, and able to read and sing. In addition to their choral duties, singing daily Matins, Mass and Vespers, they were to wait at table in Hall.
The boys were provided with meals and clothing, and eight pence a week for their board. They were not allowed to wander beyond the College grounds without permission from their Master or the Provost.
Please understand, and especially for my American friends who sometimes make the mistake, this is a thoroughly protestant institution. The Dean of the Chapel is licensed by the Bishop of Ely of the Church of England. Think the Worldwide Anglican Communion of which US Episcopalians are a small part. Don’t make the mistake of assuming this high art is Roman Catholic. You are watching and listening to deeply Anglican culture in action, and that means protestant.
From these traditions, we today have this much loved Choir bringing perfection to the choral arts.
Jingle Bells with Frank Sinatra is one thing. For utterly sublime Christmas carols of the authentic kind, its the Choir of King’s College Cambridge.
As you settle into your own family tradition for Christmas this year, try a little King’s College.
It’s the highest-art of your culture.
Merry Christmas one and all.