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Cathedral music is facing a sustainability crisis, report warns

04 October 2022

Truro Cathedral

Truro Cathedral choristers, pictured last year

Truro Cathedral choristers, pictured last year

CATHEDRAL music faces a serious sustainability crisis and is in danger of losing credibility with the public, unless it faces up to the challenges of widening participation and increasing affordability, a comprehensive report from the Cathedral Music Trust, published on Sunday, has concluded.

The report acknowledges that cathedral music — “one of the glories of English cultural heritage” — has an importance in British national life which goes far beyond its place in daily worship. “The UK’s flagship cathedral choirs are renowned worldwide and consistently perform to the highest standards of excellence. Cathedral music is one of the UK’s greatest and most distinctive cultural assets,” it says.

It also emphasises: “Cathedral music and particularly the service of choral evensong have seen a sustained surge in popularity even at a time of decreasing church attendance overall. Many people love cathedral music for its transcendent beauty and numinous quality, whether or not they are religiously active, and there is strong support and engagement for cathedral music from those interested in heritage, the artistic value of the music and its place in education.”

But, without compromising on excellence, it must evolve to meet the challenges of the context in which it now operates, the report concludes. Cathedral choirs are “expensive to run and difficult to manage”, it acknowledges. “There is a risk that cathedral music becomes polarised between well-endowed choral foundations with linked choir schools which produce music of the highest quality but are perceived as exclusive, and those cathedrals which recruit their choristers from local schools but struggle to find the time and money to reach similar standards of excellence.”

So, cathedrals, it says, must grapple with the question whether the pathways to joining a cathedral choir offer opportunities that are inclusive enough. It points out that, while much continues to be achieved in gender diversity, there is less evidence that cathedral choirs have made significant progress on increasing the socio-economic and ethnic diversity of their choirs to reflect better the make-up of the communities that they serve.

“As private schooling becomes increasingly unaffordable, so the pool of potential choristers may be drawn from an unacceptably narrow sector of society. It raises the question of whether the independent choir school model is ultimately sustainable or justifiable,” it suggests.

In 2019, 1500 choristers (770 girls and 730 boys) and 510 lay clerks or choral scholars were providing music in the 42 C of E cathedrals and Westminster Abbey. In that year (the latest for which figures are available), 37,300 people weekly were attending usual cathedral services: a 13-per-cent rise over a decade, acompanied by evidence to show that choral music was driving the increase in attendance.

A significant proportion were reported to be under 40, and many were at or beyond the fringes of the Church. There was also a growing audience for streamed choral services.

The average annual cost of running a cathedral choir was estimated in 2014 to be £250,000, but the range was acknowledged to be huge. Westminster Abbey spent £3.3 million on “choirs and music” in 2020; Coventry Cathedral budgeted to spend £50,000 on music in 2022. The biggest cost predictor was whether the cathedral had a linked independent (fee-paying) choir school. Supporting scholarships for choristers accounted for between 35 and 40 per cent of their music department budgets.

The shock to cathedral finances caused by the pandemic also has implications for the longer-term sustainability of cathedral music, the report notes. “Cathedrals may question whether they are getting an adequate return on their investment in music.”

The UK is renowned worldwide for the level of excellence achieved by its cathedral choirs: the result of “excellent process and excellent leadership”, the report says. But “the risk . . . for cathedral music is that if it is seen as elitist — in other words if it is seen as unfairly exclusive and believes itself to be superior — it loses credibility with the public.”

So, cathedrals must be able to “demonstrate a pathway from the grassroots of singing through to the excellence represented by cathedral choirs. This could be from different genres and standards of singing in parish churches, but is more likely to be through partnerships with local schools or music hubs in the provision of music education.”

The report refers to many examples of community engagement and partnership work with schools. But it acknowledges that cathedrals drawing their choristers from a linked independent school “have to work hard to reposition cathedral music from a current perception where elite in music is an embarrassment, elite in sport is a celebration”.

On gender parity, the historical pathway to choristership through an independent private school linked to a cathedral still favours boys, and “cathedrals have been much slower to embrace female singers in the back row than to enrol girl choristers.”

On the question of ethnic and socio-economic diversity, while the public perception of cathedral music is often one of “a bastion of white male privilege”, information from Leeds, Leicester, Bradford, and Southwark Cathedrals — all of which recruit from the local community and schools — shows otherwise. None of the current directors of music in the 42 cathedrals is known to come from a minority-ethnic background.

Choristers at half the cathedrals attend independent schools linked to their cathedral. Choristers at Bristol, Peterborough, and Southwell Minster attend state-funded choir schools. The 19 remaining cathedrals recruit their choristers from local schools.

Fees are only part of the story, the report suggests. Many families might need help to become familiar with, and feel comfortable in, a cathedral setting. Independent schools “have to work extremely hard to integrate children from very different socio-economic backgrounds”.

In the state sector, Bristol Cathedral Choir School is the first government-funded C of E choir academy in the country. It selects ten per cent of its Year 7 intake according to musical aptitude. The Liverpool Cathedral School Singing Programme works with 12 primary schools each term.

In the past decade, Ripon Cathedral School and the Minster School, York, have closed: Ripon now draws its choristers from local schools, while the education of York Minster’s choristers was transferred to the fee-paying St Peter’s School. “These are unlikely to be the last choir schools to get into difficulty,” the report suggests.

It concludes that the association with independent schools is one factor with which cathedrals must grapple in formulating their future strategy. “They also have to balance requirements of cost, quality and diversity, which may all pull in different directions. It is not enough for cathedrals to rely on the intrinsic value of their music to justify its existence.

“This review has analysed the emphasis placed on excellence in cathedral music. But in order to thrive, cathedral music may need to embrace a broader concept of excellence, one which might be termed ‘happy excellence’: not striving for purely musical perfection but offering a holistic, inclusive experience which finds a satisfactory compromise between the competing priorities cathedral music faces.”

The Director of Music of Pembroke College, Cambridge, Anna Lapwood, who is a newly appointed ambassador for the Cathedral Music Trust, said: “The lack of diversity in cathedral music is tightly bound with the dwindling presence of music in schools.

“This report should serve as a rallying cry; for cathedral music to survive, we all must work to make this world and its traditions accessible to everyone and appealing to the young people of today. Elite sport is a point of pride for our nation, steeped in history with roots running deep in schools across the country. Elite music should be just the same: not something to be feared, but something to celebrate, enhancing the lives of all involved.”

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