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Angela Tilby: Music is not a luxury for the elites

31 March 2023

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THE opera singer Brindley Sherratt wrote in The Guardian this month of his time in the BBC Singers, and praised its immense immense variety, consistency, and professionalism. He recalled the Daily Service, when a choral octet would sing two hymns and a psalm, an experience that he recalls as “live, early, and terrifying”.

I remember those days well, as a 22-year-old recruit to the BBC, presenting the Daily Service from All Souls’, Langham Place, the singers rehearsing as I scrabbled to choose the prayers that I would say from New Every Morning. Mostly self-confessed agnostics, the singers sat in front of the altar in their jeans and T-shirts, sounding like a pious, robed, and standing church choir. Then, the light pulsed, and we held our breath, the light went steady, and out of the hush came the first notes of a sung introit.

The BBC has paused its plan to scrap the BBC Singers (News, 10 March) after several organisations offered to fund it, although I suspect that the devil is in the detail. In my cynical moments, I wonder whether the announcement that the choir would disband before the Proms season was a way of testing the water to see whether the professional music world would indeed rise up in protest, enabling the BBC to receive a new source of income from those willing to help to fund its chamber choir.

What dismays me is the cynicism of the BBC. Of course, it should be supporting its chamber choir and its orchestras, who are not to be spared from redundancies. It seems part of a wider trend to downgrade our cultural heritage. Many schools have abandoned music. Some of our cathedrals are disbanding their choirs, or cutting back on the professionals.

I find it depressing that two institutions with which I have been involved during my working life, the BBC and the Church of England, should take so little pride in our musical heritage, in spite of the evidence that singing and participation in music-making is good for our health and well-being. I write this as our own choirs at Portsmouth Cathedral have just given a performance of Handel’s Messiah, a well-attended event in our annual calendar. Five of the arias were sung by our own choristers. It is good to think that, besides enriching lives in the present, we may be nurturing great voices for the future. I hope that the BBC Singers will still be around for those who have the talent, nerve, and versatility to join them.

We have to give up thinking of music as a luxury. We have to stop dismissing musical quality as elitism. There are a range of recent theories that human beings communicated with musical sounds before the evolution of speech. Music is a human necessity, and we should value it “as well for the body as for soul”.

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