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  • Writer's picturePatrick Allies

If the church doesn't cherish its choral tradition, it will thrive elsewhere

It's been a difficult year for traditional church music in England. Resignations and closures have rocked choirs and choirs schools across the country. The cumulative effect has been to reveal the fragility of these musical institutions. How long can cathedral-style choirs survive if they are likely to be accused – by their own administrators – of being too costly, requiring too demanding a schedule for their younger members, or not representative of the communities they serve? If the churches that have housed these choirs until now are no longer willing or able to sustain them, I think we can be sure of that the musical legacies of these choirs will survive – elsewhere.

Even before the pandemic hit there had been bad news. In January, Martin Baker, Master of the Music at Westminster Cathedral since 2000, resigned in protest after significant changes were made to the schedule of child choristers at the cathedral’s boarding school. The new timetable required chorister families to collect their children on Fridays at 4pm and return them on Sunday mornings. The Choir School argued that this was an obligatory change, as parents of prospective choristers were unhappy about their children being away from home every weekend. But musicians such as the late Colin Mawby, a former Master of the Music at Westminster Cathedral, argued that this scaling down would “gravely affect standards and repertoire”.

Then once COVID-19 had reached the UK, a stream of negative announcements were made. Some were explicitly linked to the lack of income cause by the lockdown. For example, the June closure of York Minster School, which had traditionally educated the Minster's choristers, was blamed on the temporary closure of the Minster to visitors. Similarly in July, the professional choirs of St Margaret's Westminster and Holy Trinity Sloane Square were disbanded, apparently due to financial problems. Soon after, Sheffield Cathedral announced that it was folding its choir. In this case the chapter's hand was not forced – rather it had decided that the Cathedral’s music department needed a “fresh start” which would involve a clean break with the dozens current choir members and their parents, and the severance of a decades-long tradition. All in all, a bleak year so far.

I think at this point I should declare an interest: I'm a former chorister of the Temple Church in London, and a ex-choral scholar of Gloucester Cathedral and King's College London. I've been very fortunate to have amazing experiences within this tradition. This training started me on the path to becoming a professional musician, as it has countless others. And the values of dedication, discipline and teamwork in this choral tradition have also been cited by those who go on to non-musical careers, including the famous examples of England Cricket Captain Alastair Cook (formerly a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral), and Labour MP David Lammy (a one-time treble at Peterborough Cathedral).

I'm passionate about the choral institutions at the UK's churches, chapels and cathedrals, and I want them to continue. And I also appreciate that for many church musicians, the motivation from their work comes from a deeply-held faith. But if choirs are no longer welcome in the churches they have long served, then I think we will see some of the same musicians (perhaps even the same choirs) finding an alternative, secular context where their great skill will be appreciated and rewarded, and where the training of young singers will continue. But what will this look like?

Well, for collegiate choirs, secular alternatives to traditional religious institutions already exist. Take for example, The 24, York University's flagship choral ensemble, led by I Fagiolini's Robert Hollingworth. A first-rate collegiate choir, performing regularly, whose alumni have gone on to professional singing careers. But no religious output required. Or take the Choir of Somerville College Oxford (director Will Dawes). This is an excellent Oxbridge choir with a difference - they sing at the college's weekly Choral Contemplation, a non-denominational act that is deliberately inclusive and inter-faith. Both of these ensembles have a great deal of the finest Anglican music in their repertoire – and a lot of other things besides.

In London, while we have lost two excellent professional church choirs, perhaps we will see more ensembles like Voces8 establish themselves in former churches. Of course, vast entrepreneurial skill is required to do this successfully, but it's not impossible. Also, I think a non-denominational Choral Contemplation in the style of Somerville College might be pretty popular in parts of the city, if it were offered.

But these scenarios only benefit university undergraduates and professional singers. What about the child choristers? What lies ahead for them if their institutions are under threat?

A possible alternative to choir schools and cathedral choirs is the French “Maîtrise,” a choir school that provides a high quality of musical education to its students. Pupils have the opportunity to sing at a similar level to their UK cathedral counterparts, often alongside adult professional singers. The major difference is that the Maîtrises are secular institutions: they receive government funding at a local and national level, and they do not take part in church services. They are often based in or have links to a local conservatoire, theatre or radio station. There are in some cases fees to pay for this special education, but these are means-tested and can be as little as 100 euros per year. Take a look at the work of Mark Opstad,

the Anglo-French director of the Maîtrise de Toulouse, as one example.

Even if the Maîtrise model isn't followed in the UK, I think it may be only a matter of time before we see choral institutions established in other secular contexts. There have been promising signs - such as the National Portrait Gallery Choir - that suggest such a thing is possible. Perhaps other museums or galleries would consider this? It seems to me that choral music can often pair well with their collections, and can be a new and direct way to engage with their visitors.

To be sure, establishing a secular version of something doesn’t necessarily make it any better, or more secure. Nor does it guarantee successful and happy relationships between music leaders, administrators, and mainstream teachers. It is likely that the challenges of balancing demands on children’s time, the cost of professional adult singers, and of opening up this tradition underrepresented groups would remain. But these issues would probably be more manageable without the added responsibility of being an institution with religious responsibilities as well as musical and educational ones.

Hopefully this dark year for traditional church choirs will be one-off. Funding streams will return, and the choir at Sheffield Cathedral will be rebuilt (even if that takes a decade). If those in authority have any sense, they will see the value of these choirs. This doesn't mean they need to stay exactly as they are, but it does mean they must be nourished and supported and funded. And if churches don't cherish their choral tradition, I think we can be confident that the choirs will thrive elsewhere.

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