How many people actually know the second verse of "O Come All Ye Faithful?" How about "Joy To The World"? Show of hands, please.
There is a place to learn those songs, in their entirety, at one of the most joyful and popular annual concerts in the area. On Friday and Saturday, December 9 and 10, the Westminster Choir College of Rider University presents "Gifts of the Season: Charity and Love, an Evening of Readings & Carols," at the Princeton University Chapel.
The concert is based on the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a Christmas tradition at the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, which dates back to 1918. "It was intended for the city of Cambridge, rather than just the church community, as a way of making the service a little more interesting," says Steve Pilkington, chairperson of the conducting, organ, and sacred music department at Westminster. "The subtext, I think, was to modernize the service."
The Dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White, was an ex-army chaplain who was convinced that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. The Lessons and Carols event was enthusiastically received, and, when the service was first broadcast on radio in 1928, it received notice all over the United Kingdom, and has been aired on Christmas Eve every year since, except 1930.
"In England, many families plan their day around the hour to listen to it or see it on television," says Pilkington. "One thing I like is that for the last 27 years, they have commissioned a new carol each year. I hope we can start that next year."
In the early 1930s, the BBC began to broadcast the event overseas, and since 1963, there has been a shortened version aired on television. American Episcopal churches, the off-shoot of the Church of England, got into the act as well, and other churches became interested as well.
Westminster College took up the challenge in 1992, the year that the college became part of Rider University. The school’s chapel choir performed the program under the direction of James Jordan. It caught on instantly.
Anne Sears, director of external affairs at Westminster, says, "People wait in line when the tickets go on sale. It’s one of the most popular events in Princeton."
"It’s a bit like our American musicals," says Pilkington, "in that it’s meant to be story-telling. It starts in the Garden of Eden, and then unfolds through original sin, the Fall of Man, and subsequent events. So you tell the story and stop and have some music that reflects on the story. The format is so simple; I think that’s part of the magic. It’s not complicated theater."
Sears says: "For the first few years Jim followed the pattern of the nine lessons to some extent, and augmented them. It grew enormously popular within two or three years. Christmas is the time of year most people want to come to Westminster College, mostly for the music. It’s become such a part of Christmas for so many people. We started with one performance, then it was two. And our students are having their finals at the same time. It was in 1994 that we knew we’d better move this to a larger venue, the Princeton University chapel. And then it became even more of an event."
The show now involves just about all 500 individuals on campus. The Chapel Choir is still prominent, but the Westminster Symphonic Choir, as well as the Westminster Schola Cantorum, the Solid Brass, and the Westminster Concert Bell Choir perform as part of the evening event. (Pilkington says, "I know a lot of people who come just for the Bell Choir").
There have been other changes in Westminster’s version through the years. "Many Christmas events have been reconfigured in the last 30 years around multiculturalism and the inclusion of women. We do have our roots in church music but now we are part of a major university, a huge family, and we have to be inclusive," says Pilkington.
To that end, some of the readings in the program have become a bit more secular. For example, "The Spirit of the Child," by Sara Moores Campbell, a Unitarian minister, begins: "Give us the spirit of the child, Give us the child that lives within." It’s a message that works in the context of the Christ Child but also has a more universal feel," says Pilkington.
Sears says: "The readings change, they evolve, we add and subtract. People bring us things, submit things. We vary readers; we try to invite members of the community. Karen Jezierny, the director of public affairs for Princeton University, a terrific reader, will be there. So will Anne Reeves, director of the Arts Council of Princeton. In the past, we’ve had the mayors of both Princeton and Princeton Borough. When we ask people, they are always thrilled and honored."
Changes in the reading doesn’t mean that Christmas has left the building. You’ll still hear "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "The First Noel," and of course, that most peaceful and soul-fulfilling of all seasonal hymns," Silent Night." Nor is this a passive audience event. You’ll need to pay attention to your program – there are several points where the audience joins in, and watch out for the parts stating men or women only; you don’t want to embarrass yourself. Although no one ever does.
As Pilkington says, "Christmas touches people so many ways, it’s a mystical thing, the fact that people have so many traditions. Most people can sing the first verse of most carols by memory. So all the music you hear is still the commentary on the Christmas story."
"The readings still have that theme of giving and birth and renewal," Sears says, adding that a great attraction of the evening is also the visual presentation. "There is definitely theater and drama involved. The program starts with the chapel very dark. The chapel choir is up in the balcony, and they sing ‘I Wonder As I Wander.’ It’s just very mysterious, with a star illuminated on the ceiling of the chapel. Then the brass comes in playing medieval ceremonial music. There’s constant moving, there’s always something happening, in front of you, behind you. It moves; it flows. At the end, ‘Silent Night’ ends with just one bell, and then it gets louder and louder until the entire place bursts into ‘Joy to the World.’ It’s a magical night."
"Part of the thrill is singing with 2,000 other people," says Pilkington. "It’s not much in our culture anymore."
Except at Christmas.
Gifts of the Season: Charity and Love, an Evening of Lessons and Carols, Westminster Choir College of Rider University, Friday and Saturday, December 9 and 10, 8 p.m., Princeton University Chapel. $35, $20 and $15. 609-921-2663.