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Mixed choir protests at disbanding

20 March 2024

St John’s Voices

St John’s Voices performing

St John’s Voices performing

WOMEN’s participation in the life of the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, will be drastically reduced after the announced disbanding of St John’s Voices (SJV), say the choir’s student presidents.

It was founded as a second chapel choir in 2013 to provide opportunities for female singers.

An email to the choir from the Master of St John’s, Heather Hancock, sent on Monday evening, said that, after considering the recommendations of an ad-hoc committee on music in college and a 2023 report on the chapel’s contribution to the college’s wider life, the College Council had “decided to adopt a broader approach to the provision of co-curricular opportunities in music for our students, including in different genres”.

SJV has sung evensong every Monday. The decision would allow the chapel to move to a six-day week, enabling “other uses of the space and free time for the Dean and Chaplain to progress student programmes for civic engagement and for understanding faith”, she wrote.

The email was sent less than an hour after the choir had completed a three-day recording for Naxos of choral music by Rachmaninov and Golovanov. Ms Hancock wrote that it would “no doubt be a fitting tribute to the high standard the choir has achieved under Graham’s [Graham Walker) excellent and dedicated leadership”.

The choir has recorded two previous CDs and has been nominated for international awards. It currently has 15 women singers. A post from the choir on X/Twitter on Tuesday, expressing the devastation felt at the decision, had been viewed by 168,000 people by Wednesday.

The College Choir admitted girl trebles and female altos in 2022. A statement on Wednesday from the co-presidents of SJV, both undergraduates at St John’s, said: “A British cultural tradition with equal opportunities is something that St John’s should be championing, not looking to diminish.

“It is incredibly disappointing to see what has been a remarkable step forward in the choral world, namely the admission of female singers into the college choir, being weaponised against the very existence of another ensemble to ultimately reduce access to high quality music makers and drastically reduce the participation of women in the life of the Chapel. SJV had become our home. We are devastated at the college’s decision.”

Anna Lapwood, director of music at Pembroke College, described the decision on social media as “simply extraordinary. Why get rid of one of the best mixed-voice choirs in Cambridge? Particularly sad given the strides they have made towards gender equality. Accepting girl choristers doesn’t eliminate the need for more opportunities for adult sopranos. It feels a bit like they’re giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Please reconsider this decision.”

An open letter to the St John’s College, posted on social media on Wednesday evening, decries the decision-making process as unreasonable and declares the decision to be “a fundamentally regressive move for the College, the whole choral community in Cambridge, and the wider arts provision for women in the UK”.

The most troubling aspect, it says, is “the destruction of choral opportunities for female and non-binary singers at St John’s”.

It says that, two years since admitting women to the College Choir (SJCC), the choir has only one student member who identifies as female. It suggests: “Disbanding the College’s more accessible choir will deter young musicians from applying to St John‘s, and it has already harmed the public image of the College; several Old Johnians have cancelled their regular donations in response.”

It points to the choir’s worldwide musical acclaim, and its success both musically and socially:  “In an increasingly stressed and anxious city, SJV offers an essential service of mental well-being to the College. Graham Walker (Director of SJV) values student welfare as highly as musical excellence.”

The letter calls on the college to revoke the decision. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, a former Master of Magdalene Collage, leads the list of supporters named at the end of the letter. Other supporters include a plethora of distinguished figures in the world of choral music and the arts, broadcasting, academia, churches, and cathedrals, and St John’s alumni. .

A petition — “Stop cutting opportunities for female singers in Cambridge — has so far garnered more than 3300 signatures. It aims to reach 5000.

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