Arts feature

How we became a nation of choirs and carollers

Alexandra Coghlan on how we became a nation of choirs and carollers

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

Between the ages of 15 and 17 I had a secret. Every Monday night I’d gulp down dinner before rushing out to the scrubby patch of ground just past the playing fields, where a car would be waiting. Hours later — long after the ceremonial nightly locking of the boarding house — I’d sneak back, knocking softly on a window to be let in.

I’d love to say that it was alcohol or drugs that lured me out. It wasn’t even boys — or, at least, not like that. My weekly assignation was with Joseph and Johann, Henry, Ben and Ralph. My addiction? Choral music.

Better than some and worse than many, the Calne Choral Society was exactly the blend of lino floors and plastic chairs, too-strong cups of tea on unsteady trestle tables and past-their-prime tenors that you could have found in any hall in the country. But it was my Royal Albert Hall.

Haydn’s Creation, Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Gibbons: after the bowdlerised, black and white sounds of an all-girls’ school choir it was musical technicolour. And those tunes. I still can’t hear the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ from the B Minor — that dogged, trudging melody returning gilded, transformed by the trumpets, our quavering voices suddenly gleaming and powerful — without a quiver.

As the child of immigrants I didn’t realise that what I took for a weekly rehearsal was, in fact, a ritual — social, as much as musical — a rite of passage in English life. From first school concerts to choral societies in retirement, Handel’s Messiah to Mozart’s Requiem, Carols from King’s to Choral Evensong, we measure out our lives in music.

And it’s not just the middle classes. A 2017 census by Voices Now discovered that more of us than ever are singing in choirs. Some two million people (a figure rising year on year) are regularly involved in one of the 40,000 classical, folk, gospel and contemporary choirs across the country. And if each of those participants generates just a handful of audience, then we’re looking at numbers similar to the annual attendance at Premier League football.


Harry Christophers, newly appointed president of the Cathedral Music Trust and founder of the Sixteen — one of the world’s great professional choirs — has seen the change first-hand. ‘When we started our Choral Pilgrimage in 2000 you felt that audiences were the precious few, the die-hard enthusiasts. But that has really broadened. Over the past decade there has been this absolute surge in choral music and singing — not just professional ensembles, of which there are many, many more, but also amateur groups. Every small town has something going on now.’

Pragmatically, Christophers ascribes the impetus to Gareth Malone — the nation’s floppy-haired choirmaster-in-chief — whose television programmes have done ‘a vast amount’ to raise the profile of choral singing, harnessing it once again to ideas of community and identity as well as newer notions of emotional wellbeing. But the Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage — an annual tour that seems to get further round the UK each year, from Carlisle to Truro, Blackburn to Croydon —has generated its own new audiences for the group’s once-niche repertoire.

‘We often end up doing four or five concerts on the trot, and by the fourth you can feel a bit knackered. But once you walk in that disappears. The reception is always so eager; people are really hungry for this music — and not just the classics. We did a programme pairing Allegri’s Miserere with contemporary composer James MacMillan’s setting. At the end of the concerts it was the MacMillan everyone wanted to talk about.’ But then this March everything stopped. ‘There’s no beating around the bush. For everyone working in the arts our lives were ripped apart by Covid. I talked to members of the group, and for the first few months no one could bring themselves to sing at all. It was just too emotional.’ As the crisis has dragged on several of the Sixteen’s singers have taken jobs at Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s; another has retrained as a plumber.

Devastating though Covid has been for choral singing — stealing livelihoods and leisure, closing some choirs for good and leaving others in limbo — it has also been an unexpected measure of its centrality to English life. Fears swirling around choral super-spreader events led to official Ministry of Defence testing and research at Porton Down, while at the same time groups barred from meeting in person mobilised in unprecedented numbers online.

Christophers himself is an accidental musician. The son of a pub landlord from ‘the depths of Kent’, a lucky move to Canterbury where his parents took over a tobacconist’s led to an audition for the cathedral choir school, and he never looked back. His story is far from the exception; any conversation about or career in choral music in the UK leads back to our cathedrals, to a tradition of music-making — of commissioning, rehearsing and performing music, training and employing musicians — that is as unique as it is unbroken. Or at least, that’s the legend.

Choral music certainly has long roots in England. Its extraordinarily rich flourishing in the renaissance — when composers such as Robert Fayrfax were proudly showcased at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when Taverner, Tallis and Byrd were known across Europe for the distinctive ‘sweetness’ of their harmonies, and when so many of our choral foundations were established — has created an illusion of continuity.

But England’s relationship with singing has been a complicated one. Skills prized in the 16th century were later treated with suspicion. Music, now believed to ‘effeminate the mind’ and ‘enervate the more Manly Faculties’, was no longer the province of gentlemen, and singers employed by the colleges and cathedrals were increasingly at the very bottom of the hierarchy, drawn from the lowest and the poorest. The result was a dramatic collapse in standards and reputation.

Choristers at Magdalen College, Oxford (none of them more than 14 years old), were typical of the ‘young ruffians’ of the national treble line, pelting congregants at the outdoor service on May Morning with rotten eggs, engaging in bloody fights with the town boys, and sitting around drinking and smoking when not actively engaged in their duties. The same roughness characterised both their singing and that of the men, and as late as 1849 composer Samuel Wesley was lamenting English cathedral music as a ‘source of grief and shame’, where ‘disorder reigned’.

Two historical moments turned the tide: romanticism, with its new reverence for music among the arts, and later the rise of recording and broadcast technology, which coincided precisely with the flourishing of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. It’s here in the 20th century that we see the real invention of a tradition often described as ancient, the making of the ‘English choral sound’ with its distinctive white-pure trebles and haloed blend, its exquisite, other-worldly beauty.

It’s a sound Christophers has ‘a real love-hate relationship with’, at once the aspiration of choirs all over the world and a piece of sonic artifice, ‘beautiful but a little precious’. Crucially, it’s a sound in which individuals are erased, human specificity and grubbiness dissolved into a greater, glossier whole.

There is an unbroken line through England’s choral history, but it doesn’t run through our cathedrals. It’s in the alehouses, where 17th-century gentlemen who shunned music in polite company let rip with the latest and dirtiest Purcell catches; it’s in the streets where carollers shouted so rowdily on their way home from the pub on Christmas Eve that the bishop was forced to invent the service of Nine Lessons and Carols to get them singing in church instead; and it’s in halls where choral societies and symphony choruses get out the same scruffy copies of Messiah and the B Minor Mass year after year.

Choral music can be ethereal, transporting, a moment apart, but it must also be the stuff of the everyday. So while we listen to broadcasts from King’s Cambridge and one day queue again for concerts by the Sixteen, we’re a nation of amateur choirs, whose valiant top notes and occasional scuffed entries are a musical mirror not for the angels but ourselves.

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The Sixteen’s six-part series A Choral Odyssey is now available to watch online until 31 January 2021 at thesixteen.com/a-choral-odyssey.

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