A fine New College farewell

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Jeremy Pound returns to his old choir for a goodbye evensong to music director Edward Higginbottom

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A fine New College farewell

Given that the last time I sang properly in a choir was as a treble somewhere around the back end of 1985, committing myself to sing evensong in the chapel of New College, Oxford was possibly a bit on the foolhardy side. Three decades is a long time and, bar one brief sing-through with the Parliamentary Choir a couple of years back, I’ve never even set foot in the murky world occupied by the lower voice parts. I’m not even entirely sure whether I’m a tenor or a bass.

However, this – Saturday, 28 June 2014 – is not just any evensong. Having racked up an exceptional 38 years as director of music of New College Choir, Dr Edward Higginbottom has reached the age of retirement, and so, to give him the best possible send-off, choristers, choral scholars and organists from his lengthy spell in charge have gathered in the chapel for a farewell service. Everyone will, of course, be singing. I could hardly be the sole former chorister watching on from the sidelines, could I? No, I couldn’t.

And besides, I’ve done my homework. Not only have I given myself a little test at the piano to establish what part I should be singing – bass, it seems – but, to give me a headstart, I’ve also managed to get hold of the scores of the music: Howells’s sublime St Paul’s Service for the canticles, followed by that great galumphing lump of Victoriana that is Wesley’s Ascribe unto the Lord as the anthem. The Wesley looks a doddle, the Howells considerably less so. However, by placing myself among the serried ranks of fellow basses and following their lead, even the latter should prove doable. No probs. Bring it on.

Hmmm. Best laid plans, and all that. No sooner do we enter the chapel for rehearsal than my ‘mix it with the basses’ scheme falls by the wayside. ‘Don’t worry about trying to sort yourself into voice types,’ calls Dr Higginbottom cheerily as we wander aimlessly around the pews. ‘You all know what you’re doing, so I don’t think that will be necessary!’ Ha. Yes. Quite right.

Still, surely I’ll still be able to hear my fellow basses clearly enough, wherever they are? Actually, no. As we launch into the Wesley, and the unison opening splits into four-part harmony, I rapidly realise that I’m surrounded by tenors. Lots and lots of tenors, all seemingly in fine vocal fettle and with immaculately polished technique. I’m on my own here. Nor has my tactic of bring my own copy of the music done me any favours. As Dr H brings things to a brief halt and invites us to resume from the ‘top of page 8’, I find myself lost – having a score with the same page numbers as everyone else’s might have been a help…

Eventually, though, I find my feet and start to take in the occasion. As I look across the chapel, some of the immensely impressive musical talent standing opposite me bears testimony to New College’s clout. In the front row, for instance, is Toby Spence, whose tenor voice is more usually heard these days gracing the stages of the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and all. A couple of rows behind him is Ryan Wigglesworth, acclaimed composer and pianist and the new principal guest conductor of the Hallé. I can also see David Clegg, counter-tenor with The Sixteen and, behind me, hear Christopher Jay, tenor with the Swingle Singers – if the latter is tempted to indulge in a little freestyle ‘doodle-doo’ or two above Wesley’s workaday efforts, he’s admirably reining himself in.

The majority of us, of course, lead more mundane existences, and I find myself wondering what Dr Higginbottom is making of this motley selection of schoolteachers, lawyers, bankers, journalists and co in front of him today. Is he looking at us all as our adult selves? Or is he picturing us from yesteryear – that brilliant but naughty treble, that affable tenor with the daft student haircut, that highly reliable if slightly dull bass, and so on? I suspect the former. Singers come, singers go and, with around 4,560 evensongs to his name, memories of all but the most outstanding individuals must be comparatively fleeting.

As it turns out, come the big moment itself, this final evensong of the 4,560 turns out to be really rather good, with the vast choral forces buckling down, concentrating and even taking on board some of the things Dr H reminded us of in rehearsal (‘Do bear in mind, Gents, that Howells marked that bit piano for a reason…’). Admittedly, my own efforts may suffer from one or two errant notes along the way, but I just about hold things together. And, while it may have left my vocal cords feeling as if they’ve been attacked with a cheese-grater, the thrill of the fortissimo ending to Howells’s Nunc dimittis will last with me for a long time.

But appropriately, given that it is his occasion, the final word goes to Higginbottom himself, who slips away from the chapel during the last hymn and makes his way up to the organ loft to play the outgoing voluntary: the fiendishly tricky Fugue from Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm. In a normal evensong, everyone would file out at this stage. But we all stay seated until Reubke’s final chord, which is greeted with a standing ovation – nominally for such a virtuoso display, but really in recognition of a someone who, over two score years, has turned his choir from a functional evensong outfit to an ensemble that not only enjoys worldwide recognition but has arguably changed the very perception and outlook of British cathedral and collegiate choirs in general. It’s been quite an innings.

With evensong over, it’s time for the black-tie dinner, and everyone’s thoughts turn to eating, drinking, gossiping and reminiscing. Again, the standard here is impressively high, though on this occasion I feel a little less out of my depth. At one point, I find myself chatting to counter-tenor James Bowman, and we recall recording Handel’s Athalia with Dame Joan Sutherland back in ’85. (Yes, name-dropping is more than acceptable once a couple of glasses of Gigondas have made their way down the track.)

The evening’s music is not entirely over, though. With the clock having ticked past midnight and the last of the port quaffed, loud singing is heard from the choir’s practice room (the ‘Songroom’). With Ryan Wigglesworth at the piano and Toby Spence leading the way, a number of the evening’s participants, Higginbottom included, have reconvened for an ad hoc, alcohol-inspired run-through of Handel’s Messiah.

I stay to listen until Handel’s sheep have started to go astray, at which point I decide it’s probably time to do likewise. I suspect the singing may well go on long into the night…

Jeremy Pound, BBC Music Magazine's deputy editor, was a chorister at New College, Oxford from 1979-85

Photo: Michael Owen/Warner Classics