Hark, the startled herald will sing

An annual moment of both tension and transcendence that signals the beginning of Christmas

Boris Starling

Rehearsal in full swing – Photo: The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

When does Christmas proper begin? For millions of people, the answer can be narrowed down to the minute: exactly 3.02pm on Christmas Eve, when the Radio 4 news ends and the feed goes live to King’s College, Cambridge. There’s a second or two of silence on the fade from the organ introduction, and then a lone treble voice rings out around the chapel, the country, the world. “Once in Royal David’s City, stood a lowly cattle shed…”

To be chosen as that soloist is the greatest honour any choirboy can have. There are other solos, other performances, other storied occasions throughout the year both here and abroad, but this is the one that people remember. This is the Super Bowl, the World Cup Final, the Last Night of the Proms all rolled into one.

There are sixteen choral scholars at King’s College School, four each year from Years Five through Eight inclusive. Technically any of them can be chosen, but it’s almost always one of those from the most senior year: they’re the most experienced and their voices are strongest. For some, the service comes a month or two too late: their voices have already broken and the dream they’ve had those four years is gone, betrayed by something as random and arbitrary as hormones. Others may find themselves with a cold on this day of all days, and that’s them gone too. So that four might be down to two or three.

When do they find out who’s been chosen? A week out? The night before? During the final rehearsal that morning, when it becomes clear whose voice is best today? None of the above. As they wait for the service to start, dressed like Christmas robins in their red gowns and white neck ruffs and standing close together beneath the chapel’s Tudor carvings, they still don’t know. The choirmaster watches the lights on the cameras go from red to green as the news ends. Then, and only then, does he point to one of those expectant faces. You. You’re the one.

They could probably all do it if they had to – they each perform solos at various points throughout the year, and in technical terms Once In Royal David’s City is an easy one to sing, with short phrases and relatively simple notes – but the pressure is immense, and only one can be chosen. Ten seconds. No time to be nervous, which is of course precisely the point: long enough only to come to the front, take a deep breath, and use the fact that 30 million people around the world are listening as inspiration rather than intimidation.

Music is in a very basic way all about time, and it’s time – past, future and present alike – which makes the service so special. The chapel and choir alike date back to 1441, when Henry VI decreed that sixteen “poor and needy boys, of sound condition and honest conversation” should be enrolled as choristers. The service itself began in 1918, a date which was no accident: the dean of King’s, Eric Milner-White, had seen the horrors of war first hand (“Battle is indescribable, unimaginable: we feel powerless against those splitting cracks and roars,” he wrote to a friend from the Western Front), the college itself had lost more than 200 men in the conflict, and Milner-White wanted something which would allow people to celebrate the end of the war, mark the season and grieve for the dead. That first service was held only six weeks after the armistice and was astonishingly informal for the time: no Latin, no sermon and no psalms, but lots of carols. Milner-White knew song’s power to heal, and the fact that the basic formula of the service, with nine carols and readings, has been more or less unchanged since its second outing in 1919 shows both his wisdom and the extent to which he was ahead of his time.

It was first broadcast on the radio in 1928, and since then has gone out almost every year, including during WWII to remind British troops of their families and of home. It has been carried on the Home Service, on the World Service, on Radio 4 and now of course online: from Marconi valve radios in suburban homes to smartphones on distant beaches, transforming a service which was originally meant for a small Fenland city into one which belongs to the world. But it still sounds as though it could have come from those Marconi days, and there is great comfort in that familiarity: many of those who listen grew up singing the very same carols, and in our heads those carols still come freighted with the excitement that was childhood Christmas. They are a touchstone, an anchor of permanence in a world which is not just ever-changing but changing more quickly and profoundly than ever before.

The future is very much a part of life for the choristers, and indeed is so right from the start of their time at the school: they are originally chosen for acceptance on the grounds of what they will be able to do rather than what they’ve already done. Sir Stephen Cleobury, who was choirmaster for 36 Christmas Eve services between 1982 and 2018, once said that “when we audition, we look above all for potential. A sparkle in the eye. Body language. Do they love the act of singing? At seven or eight, a boy is not expected to be able to sight-read or be advanced technically. Can they sing a song nicely and in tune? We do some simple tests, which helps identify aural perception. If a boy has a naturally easy vocal production we can train him.” Each year, 250 boys apply for four places: competition is fierce, and the successful ones have something special.

Now they’re teetering on the cusp of a long journey towards manhood and all the achievements they have yet to realise: not just in music but outside it too, for in every other respect they are normal kids who follow the usual curriculum, play sports and enjoy their time off. A wide and diverse variety of public figures have been choral scholars. The politician David Lammy went to The King’s School, Peterborough; the actor Simon Russell Beale and former England cricket captain Sir Alastair Cook both sang at St Paul’s Cathedral (Cook credited his experiences with developing his famed powers of concentration at the crease). “What you learn by being a chorister isn’t just about hitting the right notes bang in the middle,” said Aled Jones. “It’s about deportment, it’s about how to breathe, it’s about how to get on with your fellow human beings.”

Alexander Armstrong (St Mary’s Episcopal, Edinburgh) is most eloquent of all about the joys of the choir. “You will have come to know only too well the powerful quiet of an evensong, the sumptuous echo of a final amen sung from an ante-chapel but rolling around the clerestory like wine in a taster’s glass. I owe my entire career to my experience as a chorister. It was where I learnt to perform, where I learnt to use the full range of my voice; where I learnt to listen, where I learnt to write comedy, where I learnt to carry a pencil at all times – but most importantly it was where I learnt the wonderful truth that something exceptional, something as beautiful as anything anywhere, can be created just by you and your friends.”

Most of all there’s no time like the present, and this is the true heart of the service’s appeal. It’s not just for the choristers, for whom this is a bright, pure, shining moment of boyhood perfection that will soon be gone and which they will never get back. It’s for us too. For 364 days a year we rush from pillar to post and back again, our lives of noise and chaos ever busier and more frantic: and this is the moment to step back from all that, to stop, breathe and take stock. The chapel is crammed and quivering with anticipation, yet also strangely and preternaturally calm: the low winter sun making kaleidoscopes of the stained glass windows, the lamps in the choir stalls throwing pools of light which hover like fireflies, the vast gothic fan vault of the ceiling soaring high above a packed congregation, some of whom have queued all night for the best seats. (There was no congregation last year, of course, and if Omicron has its way there may yet be none this time round either: but the choristers will still surely be there.) It is dark, at least in the UK, by the time the service ends, but wherever there is singing like this there are also shafts of luminous gold.

Though the service always begins with Once In Royal David’s City, and almost always ends with O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, it’s a verse of one of the lesser-played carols, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, which best sums up the appeal of this extraordinary occasion, this perfect intersection of precision and transcendence.

“Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.”

Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, “The Law Of The Heart”, is out now

Life

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