WHEN he took over from Dr David Lumsden as Organist of New College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1976, Dr Edward Higginbottom was scarcely 30. Now, with numerous services and acclaimed recordings behind him, including a youthful-sounding and thrilling new version of Handel’s Messiah, he shows no sign of relaxing the pace. New College Choir set the standard for college choirs in the 1980s and ’90s, and remains easily one of the finest in the country.
How does he view all this now, three decades on? “I spend surprisingly little of my time looking over my shoulder: you always have to concentrate on thinking about what’s coming next. Some of my earliest memories have a sort of sepia tone to them. But one looks back with profound gratitude to a huge number of challenging services, recordings, concerts, tours.
“I suppose I feel more confident, nowadays, that I’ve got a good grasp of what the job involves. The past has given me immense pleasure; but I also pray that I’ve got an even more exciting time ahead of me.
“My most compelling ambition of all remains keeping our ‘instrument’ — the choir, on which New College relies to sing its regular evensongs — going. The daily services are the true heart of our work. Everything else that we achieve is built on the back of them. What’s more, the choir constantly has to be renewed.
“With a choir, it’s not as if you’re playing a Steinway grand piano: you’re having to make the instrument as you go along. It matters hugely to me whether evensong has gone well or not. If it’s proved a not particularly good one, it’s difficult to shrug off. You ask yourself why. But when it does go well, as it frequently does, there’s a unique feeling of contentment.
“A special aspect of this music-making”, he emphasises, “is that one is working with children. Many of the lower voices are young men, too. So you’re dealing with people who are learning all sorts of things on the hoof, from each other, from the older lay clerks; and that also means you have rich opportunities of helping people discover things they didn’t previously realise they were capable of doing. . .
“People sometimes claim there’s a New College ‘sound’, but that’s definitely not something I strive
after. I’m not fond of the notion of ‘blend’. Rather, I want everybody in the choir, boys included, to be able to sing as a soloist. I don’t try to impose a sound from the outside, to make them conform. Each voice has its own particular timbre, a unique ingredient that gives it its strength and character.”
Edward Higginbottom was fortunate in his early mentors, who included John Cooper, music master and organ teacher at Leamington College for Boys, who encouraged him to achieve his FRCO before going up to college; and Geoffrey Holroyde, the brilliant choirmaster of St Mary’s, Warwick. He served as assistant there, gaining valuable experience before going up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as organ scholar.
“What was most valuable was having an environment where I could get on and organise ensembles and direct concerts myself. As a graduate student, I ran the University’s Purcell Society: we did a lot of music of that period — I remember one glorious concert performance of Rameau’s Dardanus, with Martyn Hill and Felicity Lott. Preparing for that involved piecing a workable score together, and that probably laid the groundwork for my interest in the French Baroque.”
New College Choir’s recordings of composers such as Desmarest, Mondonville, and Lalande have earned huge acclaim, and were pioneering in their day, just as their early records of Byrd and Taverner included anthems that had never before been committed to disc. Dr Higginbottom’s keen interest in France was kindled when he performed on a magnificent late-18th-century organ by Isnard at a summer school at the Basilique of St Mary Magdalene in St Maximin, in the Var area of southern France.
This proved a fascinating eye-opener, and an introduction to “what made the French musical manner tick”; he has made a speciality of French music ever since.
He benefited from living in Paris for two years, researching French repertoire at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and was attached to St George’s, the English Church in Paris, acting as assistant to Susan Landale, and taking organ lessons from the legendary Marie-Claire Alain.
Dr Higginbottom’s stylish and invigorating interpretation of Handel’s Messiah looks likely to join New College’s recording of Bach’s St John Passion, which sold 25,000 copies, among bestsellers on the Naxos label. “What fascinated me was the idea of reclaiming it for the choral foundation: more of a chamber version, more intimate, and using the medium of young voices in the choruses.”
And for the future? Dr Higginbottom has several projects in mind. “One of them is Estonian music, which we’ll be recording in 2007. I’d like to see us do a bit more of Scandinavian music, and to develop and extend our Italian and Spanish repertoire.”
There are other bold and exciting plans, too: “But I prefer not to specify exactly what, just in case they don’t actually come off,” he says. The modesty is misleading: judging by his record so far, most if not all of them will succeed.