The annual carol service is an institution at Eton College. Each year, choristers rehearse for hours to perfect a selection of songs, ranging from classical to modern arrangements, and perform these for parents, pupils and members of the community. At the close of last half, we were lucky to have been able to record this service to share with a virtual audience. ‘Carols from Eton’ was filmed in our beautiful College Chapel and featured four separate choirs singing traditional carols, interspersed with Bible lessons. 

Mr Johnson, Precentor and Director of Music at Eton, spoke to the Press Office about the experience. He explained that current government guidelines meant large choirs are not allowed, so four individual choirs were formed to continue Eton’s choral tradition, as mandated by Henry VI’s founding charter. These choirs were named after four of Eton’s distinguished music scholars, Parry, Butterworth, Warlock and Grier. Mr Johnson conducted the Grier and Butterworth choirs, with Mr Yeo and Mr Goode conducting the Warlock and Parry choirs respectively. Singers had to observe social distancing, standing at least 2 metres away from each other, and sung facing the same direction (rather than the traditional stalls format) to prevent the likelihood of airborne transmission. Any issues of balance or unison arising from this unorthodox arrangement also had to be achieved within rehearsals lasting no more than 30 minutes! In the midst of these new arrangements, however, finding opportunities to develop new musical skills was paramount. All of the music had to be memorised, which as Mr Johnson suggests, “is so good for musicians. With the amount of music the choir normally gets through in a week, it’s not something we usually have time to experiment with.” 

One of the main challenges we faced was putting together a carol service without the traditional rip-roaring congregational carols. The solution we came up with was to make sure there were plenty of traditional choir-only carols included, pieces that people know and love, such as Silent Night and ‘Ding Dong! Merrily on high’. This meant that the selection was, inevitably, a little more conservative this year, though we also tried to include a couple of pieces which were less well known, such as the medieval Spanish carol ‘Riu, Riu, Chiu’

Tim Johnson, Precentor and Director of Music

Rick Zhou, who sang a solo in ‘Riu, Riu, Chiu’, commented that, “there was a sense of responsibility riding on this one and we definitely rose to the occasion.’ 

‘Riu, Riu, Chiu’ was a particular highlight, with its joyful and highly rhythmic solos and similarly vibrant choir passages. Moreover, the pronunciation of the piece’s mediaeval Spanish was immaculate, thanks to the generous help of Eton’s Spanish assistant, Mr Ortega. 

Year 12 chorister Henry Butlin told the Press Office 

I loved making music in a small group, and enjoyed making the most of the musical challenges. I am delighted to have continued Eton’s tradition of an annual carol service. 

Henry Butlin, Year 12 Chorister

The Provost, Lord Waldegrave, spoke to the Press Office about this year’s Carol Service. ‘I was worried that this year we might fall short: no congregation singing the old carols, and no sense of the drama of Chapel in the evening light. But I was wrong. The wonderful programme of singing, expertly filmed and put together with the readings, made a very different but equally powerful statement. I was hugely impressed by the hard work it all took, with many hours of rehearsal and long periods of waiting in Chapel by the choir members. The result, of course, was seen and enjoyed by an enormous virtual congregation – far larger than could have been accommodated in the Chapel in reality – who loved it and appreciated what had been achieved. So good came out of it all, thanks to the hard work and imagination, as well as musical talent, of all those concerned’.