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The ultimate carol concert - Cambridge-style

As he prepares to direct his first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – the famed Christmas Eve service beamed to millions worldwide – Velvet’s Sarah Ingram talks to Daniel Hyde, new director of music at King’s College, Cambridge

Founded by King Henry VI in 1441, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is one of the most renowned choral groups in the world. Every Christmas Eve millions of people around the globe tune into A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a service that has been broadcast on the BBC every year since 1928.

The festival was introduced in 1918 by Eric Milner-White, a former Army chaplain who had just been appointed dean of King’s College. Those who took part in that first service would have been filled with memories of their comrades killed in the Great War. Since 1919, the service has begun with the hauntingly beautiful opening notes of Once in Royal David’s City, and although each year some carols have been changed and some new ones added, the heart of the service, the lessons and prayers, has remained virtually unchanged.

choir (23511616)
choir (23511616)

In October, King’s College appointed a new director of music, Daniel Hyde. Schooled as a chorister at Durham Cathedral, Daniel won the organ scholarship to King’s College at the age of 17, graduating with a First in Music. He has directed the choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge and Magdalen College, Oxford, and in 2016 moved to the USA to take up the post of Organist and Director of Music at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City.

As a choral and orchestral conductor, Daniel has worked with many of the world’s leading ensembles, including the BBC Singers, the London Bach Choir, Britten Sinfonia and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Congratulations on your appointment! First of all, could you tell us what your new job entails?

Thank you! My main responsibility involves the recruitment and training of the world-famous Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. The boys and men of the choir are drawn from all over the country and abroad, and it is my job to nurture and educate them both as a group and as individuals. We sing daily in the awesome college chapel, and we broadcast to millions around the world on Christmas Eve every year.

How does it feel to know that millions of people will be tuning in to the service across the globe?

It’s wonderfully exciting to know that for many the festival signals the start of Christmas. While it’s daunting to think that we are broadcasting live worldwide, it’s also comforting to know that what we do can reach millions of people beyond our own four walls.

PIC BY GEOFF ROBINSON PHOTOGRAPHY 07976 880732. Picture shows Choristers from King's College Cambridge on Saturday afternoon (Dec 8) in the Chapel before the final rehearsal for the recording of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols which is broadcast on BBC on Christmas Eve. (23511611)
PIC BY GEOFF ROBINSON PHOTOGRAPHY 07976 880732. Picture shows Choristers from King's College Cambridge on Saturday afternoon (Dec 8) in the Chapel before the final rehearsal for the recording of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols which is broadcast on BBC on Christmas Eve. (23511611)

Your predecessor held the post for 37 years, and there have only been nine substantive incumbents since 1799. Is that weight of history a burden or an exciting challenge?

I think it’s both a challenge and a responsibility. It’s my job to act as steward and guardian of this rich tradition, but as with any tradition, one can’t simply preserve everything from the past; in order for the tradition to survive I know I need to inject it with fresh ideas and creative thought.

You’re a distinguished conductor and organist. Is music in your genes?

Both my parents were amateur musicians at a high level. Music was always a part of my childhood, and so it was logical that I was a boy chorister myself, at Durham Cathedral. I then went on to a music scholarship at secondary school, and music has been my main focus ever since those early days.

When you were Organ Scholar in 2000, did you imagine that one day you would be Director of Music?

The experience of being an organ scholar at King’s was life-changing; I’m convinced the time spent here as a student gave me many of the skills that I have used in my professional life every day since. I certainly thought it would be lovely to come back to King’s, but then I also knew many people would harbour similar ambitions. It’s therefore a huge honour and a privilege to be back here with these new responsibilities.

182369560 (23511623)
182369560 (23511623)

What’s it like being back in Cambridge after the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple?

It’s certainly a lot quieter in Cambridge after the hustle and bustle of NYC. I loved my time living in Manhattan, and the opportunity to go to the States and to work in the only choral foundation in that country is an experience I shall always remember. Different places present different challenges, and working in the middle of the busiest city on earth certainly required stamina and a high level of organisation. They’re attributes that I already find myself calling upon at King’s.

Once the excitement of the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning services is over, how will you be spending the rest of Christmas?

I aim to be home by 12.30 on Christmas Day; I will shut the front door and cook dinner for two, most likely in my pyjamas, and there may also be quite a bit of Netflix involved! On December 27 we will fly to New York for a couple of weeks, and as yet I don’t have a return flight booked, I suppose I’ll see how the Christmas season goes before deciding when I’ll come back!

Members of the public may attend the service on Christmas Eve but should be prepared to arrive early (very early) in the morning. Tickets are distributed at 7am but in some years, the maximum number available (approximately 500) has been reached before then. Tickets are one per person and are for a specific seat in the Chapel. Photographic identification is required and the ticket is only valid for the person who collects it. Admission into the Chapel begins at 1.30pm and the service begins at 3pm.

Alternatively, listen to a live broadcast of the service on BBC Radio 4. It is also broadcast on Radio 3 at 2pm on Christmas Day, and at various times on the BBC World Service. For more information visit kings.cam.ac.uk

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