For the first time in nearly two years, the stunning neo-gothic church was filled with several hundred participants who listened to the nine readings and carols and joined in for the five hymns.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill helped the community “sing out” the old year Dec. 19 by marking the fourth and final Sunday of Advent with a “Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.” For the first time in nearly two years, the stunning neo-gothic church was filled with several hundred participants who listened to the nine readings and carols and joined in for the five hymns.
The particular version of Anglican “Choral Evensong,” nowadays known as “Lessons and Carols,” was first celebrated in 1880 by the Rt. Rev. Edward White Benson, Bishop of Truro, which is located in Cornwall, England. Within a decade, its popularity spread throughout the Church of England and then across the Anglican Communion’s provinces inside and beyond the British Empire.
Its best-known practitioners are the choristers of King’s College, Cambridge University, whose first celebration of “Lessons and Carols” following the conclusion of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, took place on Christmas Eve of that year. It instantaneously became the “golden template,” the classic example of the service. It’s that arrangement that has traditionally been followed at St. Paul’s Church.
Although many cathedrals and parishes throughout the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the American province, strive to match that standard, few ever meet the challenge. Chestnut Hillers are lucky that one of the few that does is St. Paul’s.
Parish music director Andrew Kotylo led a choir of 49 singers comprised of seven young choristers and 42 adults, in a program of music composed or arranged by Philip Ledger, Frank Boles, Herbert Howells, Mateo Felcha the Elder, Charles Villiers Stanford, Edvard Grieg, Richard Purvis, Gustav Holst, Matthew Culloton, Paul Edwards, and William Mathias.
Each of the carols prefaced scriptural readings that recall the Christian narrative of the promise of salvation following humanity’s fall, from the perfection of the Garden of Eden through the fulfillment of that promise with the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem.
Kotylo and his singers caught the rustic rhythms and vibrant tempo of Ledger’s “On Christmas Night (Sussex Carol)” with flawless balance and blend between the sections of the choir. They projected the ostinato bass and shifting harmonies of Boles’ “Adam Lay Ybounden.” The long legato line of Howells’ “A Spotless Rose” was sung with sweet lyricism.
The folklike naturalness of Flecha’s “Riu, Riu, Chiu” was delineated with unaffected charm. The young choristers caught the eloquence of Stanford’s “A Song of Peace.” Grieg’s gorgeous “Ave, stella maris, Dei Mater alma” (“Hail, Star of the Sea, loving Mother of God”) was perhaps the evening’s most sublime score, and it received an immaculate rendition.
Purvis’ arrangement of the old Scottish carol, “What Strangers Are These,'' was effectively sung as an engaging dialogue. Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” set to Christina Rosetti’s Victorian poetry, remains a pinnacle of choral writing and was sung with gentle intensity.
Edwards’ “No Small Wonder” catches the wonder of Paul Wigmore’s text and was sung with beautifully sustained and transparent textures. The spikey harmonies of Matthias’s “A Babe Is Born” graced the Offertory in an interpretation that bounced with vitality.
St. Paul’s Church will welcome in the new year with a service of “Lessons and Carols for the Feast of the Epiphany” Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, at 5 p.m.
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