Political Harmony: Inside the Parliament Choir

From barons singing Bach to motet-loving MPs, the Parliament Choir brings politicians together in rare harmony

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Political Harmony: Inside the Parliament Choir
Parliament Choir (Credit: Johnny Millar)
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In December 2011, I headed to Central Hall in Westminster to hear the Parliament Choir perform its Christmas concert, complete with pre-recorded readings by Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and, in person, by Speaker John Bercow. In the choir that day were familiar Peers and MPs – not least Alun Michael, Alan Beith and, singing the soprano solo in In The Bleak Midwinter, Sarah Teather. As a choral music-lover and self-confessed political nerd, I was in Parliamentary carolling heaven.

So, imagine my excitement when, ten months later, came an invitation to sing with the choir in rehearsal!
Time: 6.15pm, Tuesday.
Place: The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, Houses of Parliament.
Work: Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem.
My answer was, of course, an unequivocal ‘Aye’.

Started up in 2000, it is open to anyone who works in the Palace of Westminster, from the highest ranking ministers to general staff. There are no auditions, and everyone is welcome to turn up and sing. But the standard is impressively high, and performances over the years have included Britten’s challenging War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral.

For choirmaster Simon Over, General Elections come with the possibility that he may lose some of his best talent as choir members lose their seats – though there is also the possibility of fine singers coming in the other direction. Cabinet reshuffles can have a similar impact, too, as promotion to a ministerial position leaves little time for anything else. Again, though, the door opens both ways here, with ex-ministers suddenly finding their diary freed up for a little Bach and Brahms.

Caroline Spelman, Conservative MP for Meriden, was someone who fit the latter description. ‘I’m very glad to be back!’ she told me before the rehearsal. ‘There’s very little life-work balance as a minister, but pretty much the first thing I did afterwards was come back to the choir.’

As choir practice began, I discovered that even within a rehearsal itself the choir’s make-up is subject to change. Over paused his baton for an announcement from the back of the room: ‘Division in the Lords!’. At which point, cue exit of several Peers, as they headed up to the chamber to vote. ‘I wonder how many will return?’ chortled one wag in the basses. ‘That depends how many Zimmer Frames they’ve got available…’ grinned Bernard Jenkin MP.

Banter aside, Jenkin, Tory MP and a founder member of the choir, clearly knew what he was doing when it came to singing. At one point, after the basses had piled almost uniformly onto an intuitive but incorrect G, he was quick to put things right. ‘“Freude” is in fact a B flat.’ We all took note and marked our scores obediently. He’d have make a good Chief Whip.

‘I trained as a professional singer, so it’s very much in my repertoire,’ he explained. ‘That also gives me the luxury of being able to miss some rehearsals. That said, when we did the War Requiem, a complicated piece that I’d never sung before, I obviously had to go to every one.’

Jenkin might well have pursued a choral career. ‘I got a choral exhibition to Cambridge, where I read music for my first two terms with the intention of going to music college. However, I got distracted by other things. If I was a Heldentenor or a basso profundo, I might have stuck with it.’

I reminded former London Symphony chorus member Sarah Teather of her Bleak Midwinter solo the previous year. ‘I’d actually had a cold and the run up to Christmas is so busy that I hadn’t done any practice!’ reflected the Lib Dem MP. ‘It’s hard to maintain the singing if you’re doing a 100-hour week and, more to the point, the skills that are required in politics are not always amenable to singing well, such as relaxing the right muscles and so on.’

I looked around and took in the mix of those singing. Around 40 per cent of the choir came from the Commons and Lords, I’d guess, with the rest made up of staff, including the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, as well as a wide mixture of ages and political parties.

‘It’s great for relationships between Parliamentarians of different parties,’ said Spelman. ‘I’ve become a great friend of Sarah, so much so that when we appeared on Question Time, David Dimbleby said that we were far too pally!’ 

At the end of our two-hour rehearsal, I got chatting to Simon Over. Partly about his time at Oxford when he encouraged Ed Balls to explore the works of Howells, but also about getting the choir into shape. ‘The pros are so big that I’m prepared to work with the cons!’ he said, ‘People who sing in the choir, they breathe more easily and they start to smile – you really see how music can revitalise people.’

Over, who also founded and conducts the Southbank Sinfonia, was enthusiastic about just how much the Parliament Choir’s performances had improved, while Lord German, who had joined us, pointed out how it was set to move on in other ways too. ‘There are two things I’d like to do,’ he said. ‘One is outreach work, with disadvantaged groups of children. The other is international work. For instance, we’re working on doing joint concerts in 2014 with the Bundestag Choir (which would go on to happen in July 2014) to the centenary of the beginning of the First World War and 300 years since the arrival of the Hanoverian monarchy to the UK throne.’

I was about to ask Lord German another question but, alas, would have to wait a few minutes. Tapping him on the shoulder was his fellow Peer, Lord Strasburger, who said they both had to head off. Another vote had just been called in the Lords…

This was originally featured in the December 2012 issue of BBC Music. Later this year, Parliament Choir are performing at Cadogan Hall on 8 November and St John’s on 7 December; see www.parliamentchoir.org

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