This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, had been prefaced by two newspaper articles, in the Guardian & the Telegraph, both of which went to some lengths to emphasise choir director Stephen Cleobury’s determination to include new music in the service. It was therefore very disappointing that, while the tally usually runs to at least three, this year’s service featured just a single example of recognisably contemporary music: the newly commissioned carol, which for this occasion was composed by Carl Vine.
Vine chose Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ring out, wild bells as his text, matching its string of adjurations with a simple but rich tonal language, pulling the choir through a never-ending series of smooth harmonic contortions. Vine’s music feels intimately well-matched to the words, his setting thereby becoming a meaningful vehicle for reflection, particularly when the piece veers towards more negative emphases. 2012 has seen more than its fair share of tragedy & loss, & confronted by exhortations such as “Ring out the grief that saps the mind” & “Ring out a slowly dying cause” (it’s tempting to hear these lines as “wring out”), one can only sigh & agree wholeheartedly with their sentiments. But Tennyson’s is a positive text, & Vine’s music too seeks ultimately to strike a resounding cry of hope. Having worked fairly perfunctorily through the verses (& that’s no criticism), Vine repeats the final verse in conjunction with a reprise of the opening words, now rendered as an abstract peal of bells. It’s very effective, emboldening the music through its closing moments, leaving a pronounced sense of optimism hanging in the air. Ring in 2013.