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Column: The Pursuit of Perfection

Choristers rehearse at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, Britain, in Dec. 2012. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is an annual tradition that has been performed on Christmas Eve since 1918. (Rex Features  Geoffrey Robinson)

Choristers rehearse at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, Britain, in Dec. 2012. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is an annual tradition that has been performed on Christmas Eve since 1918. (Rex Features Geoffrey Robinson)

White River Junction

It starts with a single voice piercing the darkness.

Once in royal David’s city

Stood a lowly cattle shed,

Where a mother laid her Baby

In a manger for His bed:

Mary was that mother mild,

J esus Christ her little Child.

The voice of the boy soprano, pure and otherworldly, fills the candlelight space of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, England. The choir joins for the second verse as they process, robed in scarlet cassocks topped by white cottas, past the rood screen and into the chancel. The congregation joins in on the third stanza, and the organ rumbles before the final verse. Glorious music filling glorious space.

Thus opens the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, a British institution begun in 1918, just a few weeks after Armistice Day brought World War I to a close. The Bidding Prayer for this service, read by the dean of the chapel, takes on a poignancy in light of the fearsome casualties of what was then known as the Great War: “Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom we for evermore are one.”

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in Cambridge has been on my bucket list for years now, and last Christmas, the first with no parish responsibilities in a long time, provided the opportunity. I’d listened to the service every year on National Public Radio, of course, but I was interested not only in the service itself; I also wanted to take a look behind the scenes.

King’s College Choir was founded by Henry VI for the singing of daily services in the magnificent Gothic chapel, which was completed in 1515. The choir itself consists of 14 adult male choral scholars and 16 boy choristers, who are students at King’s College School. They sing regularly at the chapel and tour around the world, but their signature performance is Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.

The service has been transmitted around the globe by the British Broadcasting Corp. since 1928. These days, approximately 30 million people listen to the live Christmas Eve broadcast on BBC, NPR and through the Internet. The broadcast illustrates the tentacular reach of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which in turn is a vestige — perhaps the final vestige — of the British Empire.

The Nine Lessons and Carols liturgy interweaves Christmas carols with readings from the scriptures. Many of the carols, like O Come, All Ye Faithful, are familiar, and Once in Royal David’s City has been a staple since 1919. But the service also includes new carols commissioned every year.

The impresario behind Nine Lessons and Carols is Stephen Cleobury, director of music for King’s College since 1982. Cleobury makes New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick look like a finalist for Mr. Congeniality, but he is just as passionate about music as Belichick is about football. Cleobury demands perfection and goes to extremes to attain it, as I learned in the BBC truck during rehearsal the day before the Christmas Eve performance.

Cleobury (the Brits pronounce it KLEE-bree) leaves nothing to chance. He insists that both the music and the readings be rendered in precise English elocution. Even the Lord’s Prayer is rehearsed with regimental precision.

Throughout the rehearsal, Cleobury was communicating with Simon Vivian, the producer in the BBC truck parked just outside of the King’s College quadrangle. Following each song, Cleobury and Vivian conferred by intercom.

“Is that too loud?” Cleobury asked. “In the middle of the verses they seem to bloom up,” Vivian responded. “It’s always that penultimate bar, isn’t it?” Then Cleobury instructed the members of the choir, “Could you write please on page 80 ‘Wait’? In capital letters?” The two exchanged observations about sibilants and worries about whether a particular passage was too percussive. “Boys, there are one or two of you scooping on bar 10,” Cleobury cautioned. Another time, Cleobury provided remedial instruction on French pronunciation.

Assessing a baritone solo, Vivian said, “I think he’s too wet,” meaning that the sound was too lush and wouldn’t translate well on the broadcast. On Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Cleobury sternly instructed, “The basses will omit the quaver ‘A’ in the second bar.” And on another carol, “Let’s have a good forte at bar 41.” Vivian chimed in: “Nice bright ‘A’s from the front row, please.” At times, now several hours into the rehearsal, Cleobury dealt with restive choristers. “I might have a talk-to at the end about this proceeding,” he warned.

During a break for tea, Vivian briefed me on the challenges of broadcasting the King’s College Choir around the globe. No recording, and certainly no broadcast, he said, can capture the full range of sound coming from the choir, so the control truck must compress the sound. “It’s my job to read the scores and mitigate the quietist and loudest sections,” he said. “You can’t get a machine to do that.”

Following tea, the rehearsal continued. The opening stanza of Once in Royal David’s City is, without question, the star turn in Lessons and Carols, and Cleobury prepares four or five sopranos for that role. Only minutes before the performance, he nods to one, signaling that he is the chosen one. During rehearsal, one of the singers sang the part beautifully, but his voice cracked, almost imperceptibly, on the final line.

In the BBC truck, I wondered if that meant what I thought it meant. “Did he blow his chance?” I asked. “I suspect so,” Vivian responded.

“Thereby hangs a career,” Steve Richards, the sound engineer, added ruefully.

Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College represents the pursuit of a platonic ideal: perfection in choral music. The Anglican choral tradition is one of the glories of Western civilization, and if there is a more heavenly sound than a soaring descant, I have no clue what it might be. Cleobury may be a martinet, but he has devoted his entire career to the pursuit of ethereal music.

A few minutes after 3 o’clock on Christmas Eve, with the whole world listening, a flawless soprano sang the opening lines, h is voice rising to the fan-vaulted ceiling and beyond into the cold night air. Once again, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was underway, amid candlelight and the smell of damp wool. The organ rumbled and the descants soared. When it was over, Cleobury even allowed himself a smile. “It’s always a great feeling when we get to the end,” he told me the day before.

On the way back to the hotel, beneath a nearly full moon, I stopped at the BBC truck for another opinion. “Excellent,” Simon Vivian said. “The choir were in superb form.” He said he’d already received a congratulatory call from the NPR producer in New York. “There were some magical moments,” Vivian said.

Magic indeed. Can perfection be far behind?

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College. His column appears monthly in Perspectives. New Hampshire Public Radio will carry a live broadcast of this year’s Nine Lessons and Carols at 10 on Tuesday, the morning of Christmas Eve.