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Blessed are they that dwell in thy house

by
12 August 2016

Fresh challenges about inclusivity for English cathedral choirs also present new opportunities, David Knowles hears

Bournemouth News & Picture Service

First among equals: Salisbury Cathedral choristers, 1991

First among equals: Salisbury Cathedral choristers, 1991

CATHEDRAL choirs are facing new challenges, 25 years after Salisbury Cathedral changed the face of English choral music by launching a separate girls’ choir.

Girl choristers are now accepted as a normal part of the top line of most cathedral choirs (News, 27 May), but the back row in the choir stalls is still almost entirely male. These lay clerks — professional musicians, paid by the cathedral, who sing the alto, tenor, and bass parts — may be augmented, or re­­placed, by choral scholars: paid positions, offered by some cathedrals to young singers, sometimes as a gap-year opportunity, or while they are still studying, either at sixth-form level, or through university.

Not only do women not normally sing tenor or bass but, traditionally and historically, male counter-tenors are usually preferred to female altos. Even in places which do advertise for altos, the competition is intense as the women are competing not just against each other, but against men too, to get the job.

For adult female sopranos there is often no route into a traditional cath­edral choir, their voice-part be­­ing already occupied by girl or boy choristers. Mixing adult and child female soprano voices is rare: adult women voices usually over­power their younger counter­parts, and they sing with a much more muscular and defined tone. Most directors of music find that the blend detracts from, rather than adding to, the quality of the soprano line (adult males rarely sing falsetto alongside boys, for the same reason).

 

FOR female singers, then, the opportunities dry up quickly. Forced to battle over one of the rare alto lay clerkships (St Paul’s is among the few cathedrals to employ a female alto; both Truro Cathedral and York Minster are offering oppor­tunities for women altos this year), the only alternative is to gain entry to a professional secular choir, or employment singing profes­sionally at a London church such as St Bride’s, Fleet Street.

David Halls, the director of music at Salisbury Cathedral, played a pivotal part in the introduction of female choristers in 1991 when he was the cathedral’s assistant organist. The girls at Salisbury start at eight years old and continue in the choir until their early teens, at which point their options are limited.

”A girl typically will go on to her [secondary] school, which may or may not be musical, and then it’s a bit of a barren period for her,” Mr Halls says. “You could make the case that a lot of the great Anglican cathedral tradition is going to con­tinue in public schools — Charter­house, Marlborough, these sorts of places — where they have good chapels and directors of music, some of whom have been in and out of the cathedral scene. Those [ex-chorister] girls might end up at that sort of place.”

Of course, a place at a top private school (the schools that Mr Halls mentions all have annual fees of more than £20,000) will be restricted to those children whose parents can afford it, although many offer means-tested bursaries, some with a musical element attached.

After singing in a chapel or school choir, Mr Halls says that girls may go on to join some of the great uni­versity choirs. Again, though, com­­petition for a place in top university choirs is intense.

 

A NEW route into professional singing, however, may be opening up for female altos as there are fewer and fewer of their male counterparts. This is a develop­ment that David Halls is en­­coun­tering in Salisbury.

”My question is, ‘Where are the altos going to come from?’ Because at the moment a lot of us have male altos. It’s to come, I think, from your girl choristers. Cathedrals will ap­­point female altos — lay vicars, for want of a better word.”

But the possibility of singing as a lay clerk in a cathedral choir, he points out, is only open to women with lower voices. “For a soprano, that clearly is an avenue closed. How they will ever get back on to the front row of a cathedral choir, I don’t know.”

 

FEMALE altos, then, may have a brighter future, from chorister to university choral scholar to a lay clerkship. Although this route is fiendishly competitive (and almost certainly impossible for singers with­out considerable financial re­­sources), it is at least an option.

The director of music at Rochester Cathedral, Scott Farrell, says that the current arrangement is clearly unfair to female singers. He describes the problems faced by one of his star female choristers, who found her dreams of being a professional
singer cut short. Her complaints echo the comments of Mr Halls: competition is intense, and there is a chronic dearth of soprano-singing jobs.

”Emily wanted to be a choral scholar at a cathedral, but nowhere offers anything. You can do lots of music at some universities. Trinity College, Cambridge, Royal Holloway — places like that are phenomenal, but the competition for those places is intense.

”And you come out of there and then what do you do? Well, you might be lucky and get a London church job on a Sunday; you might be incredibly lucky and be in The Sixteen [one of Britain’s leading chamber choirs], or whatever. But there’s nothing like the opportunities there are for male adults.

”You’ve got some really talented sopranos and altos who actually could be doing cathedral singing, but there are not opportunities available for them.”

 

OTHER changes are afoot in the mission to make An­­glican church music more accessible to everyone, and to widen access to cathedrals. In the past year, both Derby and Rochester Cathed­rals have launched junior choirs.

Scott Farrell explains that Ro­­chester Cathedral had been “stuck in a position of wanting to do a children’s choir for years and years, and I’ve been looking at the viability of doing it over and over again”. The arrival of a new assistant musical director last year provided the im­­petus needed to ensure that the project was finally given the go-­ahead, and Mr Farrell is delighted with the result. “We’ve got this very loyal group of around 25 kids, who really love it.”

Besides performing at edu­cational projects in the cathedral, the choir hopes to host its first solo concert this summer. But what exactly does a junior choir sing? Mr Farrell’s laugh is infectious. “We are singing lots of [music by] Alan Simmons, who writes cantatas for kids. We’re also singing ‘The Man with Many Names’, about Robin Hood, and some songs about ghosts.”

Is that really sacred enough though, to please those who think that anything run by a cathedral should at least nod towards the Anglican tradition? “We sang at the Crib service on Christmas Eve, but we sang ‘The Snowman’.

”I don’t think we’ve sung anything religious; we’ve not done anything from the Anglican choral tradition yet. Bizarrely, we did have one girl leave because we weren’t singing anything religious, which I found quite interesting.”

 

DESPITE Mr Farrell’s enthu­siastic explanation, the precise function of the choir is still unclear. Where, exactly, is its place within the life of the cathedral?

For Rochester, an ancient cathed­ral situated in the heart of a deprived area, the key word is outreach: “It’s an essential piece of outreach work; an essential part of what we should be doing.”

Derby Cathedral’s new junior choir is currently made up of 12 children, and the director of music, Hugh Morris, also sees outreach as one of the choir’s main functions. “It’s both outreach and recruitment. It means that we can access, and offer to, a wider number of children some kind of encounter with our music department, and all the skills and training we can offer.”

Part of the reason he set up the choir was to cater for those children who were talented enough to be invited to chorister auditions, but who failed to gain a place in the choir. Mr Morris hated encouraging children to audition and then reject­ing them.

”It feels awful to say, ‘Well, we wanted you to come but actually we don’t really want you,’ and I felt really bad about that. So, one of the things we can say now is, ‘At this moment, the cathedral choir is not quite right for you, but here’s some­thing else you can do.’”

 

THE creation of a children’s choir has also enabled Mr Morris to address the needs of girls aged between seven and nine, since the cathedral does not accept girl choristers until they are ten years old.

He explains that the junior choir provides an opportunity to sing for children who may not have the financial resources to attend a ca­­thed­­ral school. “There’s also the fact that some children can’t commit to the whole cathedral scene, so it’s a means of engaging them in a kind of ‘choir-lite’ way. Obviously, what they get from it is less, but then what they put into it is [also] less.”

Mr Morris’s aim is that the junior choir should play a different part from that of the main cathedral choir: “I’m not trying to make Ca­­thed­­ral Choir Two. I’m trying to make something that is comple­mentary to it. Another longer-term goal is to use this branch of the cathedral music department to go out and resource other churches in the city.”

Although it does not currently sing any Anglican music, Mr Farrell envisages his children’s choir in Rochester singing both secular and sacred music in the future. “I want it to be getting children in because they enjoy sing­ing, and introducing them to more and more repertoire of [both] sacred and secular nature; and then trying to get them to sing with good technique — that kind of thing.

”In five years’ time, I hope to have a choir that could do little concerts, but which also might do the occasional service — if not on its own, then alongside the choristers. It would sit astride the secular and the sacred and be a bit of both.”

 

IN BLACKBURN CATHEDRAL, other exciting plans are afoot. Having recently completed a new building, Cathedral Court (News, 15 January), the Dean and Chapter have become the first to advertise for a choral scholar who may have a disability. The director of music, Samuel Hud­son, explains that the deci­sion to make the new develop­ment (which includes the choral scholars’ accom­modation) disabled-friendly was to offer singing oppor­tunities to all members of the com­munity.

”We were always going to provide accommodation for the scholars, so it seemed a sensible idea to provide some disabled access for the scholars’ accommodation as well as for the whole cathedral. It’s a move to bring the entire community together in a cloister environment.”

The practical challenges facing a movement-impaired choral scholar seem immense: how might they take part in processions, access the choir stalls, or join in the numerous other actions any member of the choir has to perform?

Mr Hudson is confident that the cathedral can be flexible.

”We’d have to discuss all that with individuals. We could make what­ever arrangements we needed to, really: they don’t have to process, or if they do they could process in a particular way, or take a particular route. That would be a new dis­cussion for us to have.”

 

IN ITS offer of a choral scholarship for a disabled person, Mr Hudson suggests, Blackburn Cathedral is blazing a trail today, as Salisbury did for girls, back in the 1990s.

”We want to do everything we can to support cathedral music, to involve the highest number of people pos­sible, and offer opportunities, too. The choral scholarships are aimed at training and getting experience as much as anything else; so the more people we can open that up to — and give access to the training — the better.”

If contemporary directors of music in English cathedrals succeed in pro­viding more opportunities for a new generation of female choristers, and involving in choirs children who might never before have entered their local cathedral, the Anglican choral tradition will flourish far into the future.

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