Since 1929, Groton School has gathered for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols, a beloved tradition that changes little from year to year.
This year, however, the service was both familiar and remarkably different. Most students studied on campus this fall, but pandemic protocols prohibited singing. In addition, gatherings in the Chapel were strictly limited to maintain social distancing. So how could a festival focused on carols and the joyful participation of the congregation carry on during COVID-19?
An affection for the tradition and a need for its message—more than ever during uncertain times—inspired innovation and collaboration. The service originated at King’s College in England as World War I ended and when the 1918 influenza pandemic was rampant. “It is in these times that we need these words and we need human song," said The Reverend Allison Read, Groton School's chaplain. “We need this message of love and hope.”
Such practices of "spiritual resistance" exist in all traditions, said Chaplain Read, “and this is one of Groton’s. We are persisting in life and hope.”
Clinching the decision to go forward with Lessons & Carols during the pandemic was students' strong desire to maintain the tradition, combined with the school's technological know-how to, as Chaplain Read put it, “put something together that would present the service with the integrity it deserved.”
“This Episcopal liturgy is timeless, and it stands on its own,” said Chaplain Read. Her prayers and blessing, as well as the nine lessons, were recorded in the Chapel, one reader at a time, before students left for break.
Meanwhile, during Choir rehearsals this fall, Choir Director and Organist Daniel Moriarty shared with students the pieces he had chosen for Lessons & Carols—traditional carols that did not rely on a Chapel full of people. “Things that relied on strong congregational participation were out,” he said. “I strongly considered whether a carol could come off effectively as a virtual recording and whether it would sound vibrant or anemic.” The Choir listened carefully to the selections, but they were not allowed to sing them.
The singing began after students went home for Thanksgiving. They recorded individual pieces at home, on their phones, and Jazz Ensemble Director Kenji Kikuchi, an accomplished musician, mixed the recordings into cohesive carols, using sheet music and Mr. Moriarty’s organ recordings as guides.
The Choir prepared six pieces, and Mr. Moriarty had hoped to use half. In the end, all six were usable—beautiful amalgamations of students' singing talent, moving organ music, and the deeply held emotion for this beloved service.
Choir members first heard their combined efforts in early December, when the full school was studying remotely. “They were really as surprised as we were at the nature of the music,” Mr. Moriarty said. “It sounded joyful, and it sounded like them, and it didn’t sound processed and computer-generated.”
Chaplain Read, who joined Groton School this year, had never heard Groton students sing until she heard the choir’s first Lessons & Carols recording. “When I heard the opening phrase of Once in Royal David’s City, I found it profoundly moving," she said. "For me, that was the power of it. It’s the story and it’s the message of comfort and hope, and it’s hearing our students’ voices sing. Thanks to collaboration and technology, we could keep on singing.”
The Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was broadcast on December 15 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, and it remains available for viewing any time at www.groton.org/lessonsandcarols.
“Because the students had the desire to do this—they would have been bereft without it—because Dan Moriarty had a vision, because Kenji Kikuchi produced beautiful tracks, and because we were able to communicate the service with dignity and beauty, that’s what made it work,” said Chaplain Read. “That’s what created something that reached people’s souls.”