Jeremy Pound asks you to check out your local cathedral choir… even after the Christmas decorations have been taken down
The last month has seen the BBC Music Magazine team wallow in all things choral. In compiling our list of 20 choirs that we’d love you to hear this festive season (see our Christmas issue, out now), we’ve been reflecting on that unique magic you get when a packed cathedral or church resounds to the likes of 'Once in Royal' or 'Of The Father’s Heart Begotten'.
You know the scene. Mighty organ rumbling away, congregation belting out the tune and treble descant soaring majestically above… How else could we describe it other than by popping up into the verbal loft and taking those once-a-year choral clichés out of the box?
But enough festive indulgence. Killjoy/anorak that I am, I’m going to recommend that, to really hear our choirs at their best, you need to look beyond 25 December. Just as you’ll find football supporters – usually bearded and thermos-flask wielding ones, admittedly – who’ll tell you that you haven’t properly experienced the game until you’ve stood on the windswept terraces at Barrow on a bitterly cold Tuesday evening in December, I’d suggest that the heart and soul of British choral music lies not in 'Ding Dong Merrily' on Christmas Eve, but when Tallis and Byrd motets echo round the near-empty pews in, say, mid-February.
It’s a little ironic that in a country that boasts so regularly and frequently about its magnificent choral tradition, 90 per cent of cathedral and Oxbridge chapel evensongs seem to be attended by little more than a mere handful of doughty regulars (and even some of those are parents of choristers who are there mainly to provide a lift home afterwards).
And yet, the standard of singing at these services is so often staggeringly accomplished. Boys being boys – and, increasingly, girls being girls – they simply don’t do ‘run-of-the-mill’ just because it’s midweek and virtually no-one’s listening. If the music inspires them, they’ll give it both barrels. And, wonderful though Radio 3’s Choral Evensong is, it’s a mistake to believe that our best choirs take the level up a notch because of the high profile of the occasion. Most sound this good, day-in, day-out.
In fact, I’d venture that in many cases they sound better. In an interview for our article, I asked David Hill, director of the BBC Singers and former choirmaster and Winchester Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral and St John’s College, Cambridge, to name his ideal choral music venue. In terms of acoustic, he replied, it would have to be the chapel of St John’s… on a Tuesday evening when nobody’s there. His reason? The fewer people that are there to absorb the sound, the better the chapel’s sound.
He could have added that there’s that wonderful feeling of space that a sparsely populated cathedral or chapel provides, and, for that tiny congregation, the privilege of enjoying a first-class musical experience that is shared by so few. And, of course, it’s all free.
So, do enjoy Christmas at your local cathedral. But then, when the crowds have disappeared, make a return journey in the depths of Lent. You can’t beat it. I promise.
Jeremy Pound is the deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was a chorister at New College, Oxford from 1979 to 1985.
Main image: Chichester Cathedral