At home in New York, my husband and I always celebrated the Christmas holidays with music. He would make a list of recordings for each day during the holiday week. On Christmas Eve, we would settle down in our living room. Then, as if from a far corner of heaven, the angelic voice of a chorister would sound in the opening hymn of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols by the King’s College Chapel Choir in Cambridge. "Once in royal David’s city/Stood a lowly cattle shed..." As the music from the CD swelled with the descant of the boys’ voices, I wished I could go there someday and listen in the chapel itself.
A week later, my husband would lead me in a waltz around his study to the music of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual concert to bring in the New Year. Just before the music crescendoed into Johann Strauss’s "Blue Danube," the conductor, Willi Boskovsky, would offer New Year’s wishes, and again I would think of being there. As with most fantasies, the fulfillment of mine came as a surprise. On the Christmas Eve following my husband’s death, as I listened to a live broadcast of the King’s College Chapel Choir, I resolved that next year I would trade in my living room for theaters abroad—to join the audience at the public performances of those tradition-steeped programs on which we had built our private rituals.
I arrived in London the day before Christmas Eve to catch Patrick Stewart’s one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Luckily, I had given myself some extra time to get to the Albery Theatre. On the way through Chelsea streets decorated with puffs of blue light, I stopped by Somerset House, the great 18th-century pile, to watch skaters circling its immense courtyard turned ice rink, which was lit only by torches. The walk put me into the world of the play.
By nine the next morning, I was in line outside King’s College Chapel in Cambridge (an hour’s train ride from London). Already the queue of town and gown was reaching its maximum, but waiting was pleasant on that sunny day beside winter-flowering cherry trees dotting green lawns.
The tradition of choral singing at King’s College began with its founding in 1441 by Henry VI. The king stipulated that there be a choir of 16 boys, and there are 16 to this day, now bolstered by 14 choral scholars, attending the college. A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was introduced to the college in 1918, after the Armistice, by a liturgically innovative dean.
My seat in the sanctuary was between the choir stalls and the altar with its Rubens masterpiece, The Adoration of the Magi. During the organ preludes, by the daylight that remained I studied the vaulting and the brilliant colors of the 16th-century Flemish stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the New and Old Testaments. A short period of quiet was broken by an unseen boy soprano singing the processional hymn, "Once in Royal David’s City." The volume of the choir, who entered dressed in white surplices over red cassocks, grew steadily as children and students moved through the candlelit chapel into their places in the stalls. The lessons proceeded all the way from the story of Adam and Eve to the mystery of the Incarnation, interspersed with ancient and modern carols.
At the conclusion, the chapel resounded with "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," with voices in descant rising seemingly to the full height of the 90-foot vault. I had anticipated the majesty of this ceremony, but not its spiritual reverberations.
From London I flew to Paris, spent Christmas with friends, then left for Geneva and the next event on my tour: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, staged by Benjamin Millepied. Attending George Balanchine’s classic staging at the New York City Ballet had been a family tradition, but I was keen to see this new version by Millepied, a principal dancer at NYCB and an up-and-coming choreographer.