Choir of King’s College, Cambridge – members, songs and the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

24 December 2021, 15:04 | Updated: 24 December 2021, 15:16

O Holy Night – Choir of King's College Cambridge

By Elizabeth Davis

The choir of King’s College, Cambridge, is one of the most famous in the world. Here’s everything you need to know about the ensemble.

The history of King’s College, Cambridge

The choir can trace its history back to the 15th century. When Henry VI founded the college in 1441, he wanted a choir to provide music for the daily services that would take place in the magnificent chapel.

The college statues of 1453 specified that the choir would be made up of ‘ten secular chaplains, six stipendiary lay clerks (or ‘singing-men’) and sixteen choristers. Henry himself added that the choristers should be poor boys, with strong constitutions and ‘honest conversation’. In addition they had to be under 12 and be able to read and sing.

And so the famous choir was born – and it’s been in service almost continuously ever since (during the Commonwealth in the 17th century, choral services were suppressed).

Read more: What is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – and what is the order of service?

Punting along river Cam in winter snow with Kings College Chapel to the rear Cambridge, England
Punting along river Cam in winter snow with Kings College Chapel to the rear Cambridge, England. Picture: Getty

Who are the members of the choir today?

Today, the choir is still made up of 16 boy choristers (aged between nine and 13), and 14 male undergraduates. The choir’s director is Daniel Hyde, who took over the role from the late Stephen Cleobury in October 2019. Cleobury had held the position since 1982.

The college does also have a mixed voice choir, called King’s Voices, who sing at chapel Evensong every Monday during University term. The mixed choir’s current director is Ben Parry, assistant director of Music at the College.

What songs and carols do they sing?

Every year, the choir’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols opens with a solo chorister – plucked out by the choir director on the day – singing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, perhaps the carol the choir is now most famous for.

The choir has recorded most of the best-known Christmas carols, including ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’.

They are also known for their recordings of best-loved choral repertoire, including Allegri’s Miserere (see spoof version below!) and Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.

Choirboy inhales helium, sings Allegri's 'Miserere'

King’s College Choir at Christmas

Every year King’s College Chapel Choir performs a carol service which is broadcast around the world on Christmas Eve.

But did you know that the televised Christmas carol service that’s broadcast on Christmas Eve around 6pm every year is actually filmed early in December? It’s strictly invitation-only and is a service of readings and carols.

The programme – called Carols from King’s has become a traditional part of the run-up to Christmas for many families. You can find the 2021 order of service here.

Chorister Rehearse For A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols At Kings College Cambridge
Choristers rehearse for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College, Cambridge. Picture: Getty

Nine Lessons and Carols order of service

The choir is also famous for its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – this takes place in the historic chapel on Christmas Eve at 3pm each year and is broadcast live on UK radio.

The service finishes just in time for the choristers to gather round a television to watch the televised version of their early-December service (see above)!

The opening carol is always ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ but the other carols vary from year to year.

How to attend the service

The Christmas Eve service is open to the public, but unsurprisingly it’s very popular. The College distributes tickets from 7am on Christmas Eve. You can find out more about how to attend at the King’s College website.