A new tradition: girls in the choir

Canterbury Cathedral’s David Newsholme on how his Girls’ Choir have taken ownership of a gendered musical heritage

A new tradition: girls in the choir
Canterbury cathedral choir record a cover CD for BBC Music Magazine (credit: Canterbury Cathedral)

Despite there being precedent for girls singing at cathedrals throughout Britain, the foundation in 2014 of a Girls’ Choir at Canterbury, ‘the Mother Church’, attracted international attention.

The choir’s first service was held, perhaps appropriately, on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul and was attended by a vast congregation of more than 600 people, many of whom sat on the altar steps once the seats were filled.

Preparation time was short: 16 girls aged between 12 and 16, from a variety of local schools, were admitted to the choir following auditions in November 2013. Rehearsals started after Christmas, during which time robes were fitted, interviews given, photoshoots held… and music was learnt. To add to the excitement, much of this preparation was filmed by the BBC for inclusion in a three-part TV documentary about life at the Cathedral.

After only four sessions, the girls were ready to perform. They made a terrific job of their first service and the congregation showed their approval at the end with a rapturous standing ovation as the choir filed out.

The Girls and Men of Canterbury Cathedral record a disc for BBC Music Magazine (credit: Canterbury Cathedral)

Since then, they have performed at numerous special occasions at the Cathedral, including a service attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, and the consecration service of the Church of England’s first female Diocesan Bishop.

Perhaps inevitably in the Church, which can be resistant to change, there have been voices of doubt and certain expectations to grapple with.

There are those people who would rather hear girls (if there must be girls at all!) sing ‘girly’ music. I struggle to define exactly what this means, beyond some vague notion of music that is simple and easy on the ear. Partly in defiance of this attitude, and partly because I love his music, our debut recording was a disc of Henry Purcell, perhaps the greatest of all English composers. I wanted the girls to take ownership of the rich sacred choral heritage, to which they are now heirs every bit as much as their male counterparts. They did not disappoint.

Another misguided expectation has been the belief that thin and wispy sounds should emerge from the mouth of the ‘fairer sex’. I should add that there’s a pretty large following for a similar sound among boy choristers – the sort of wallpaper music that provides an ideal backdrop for sanctimony. It has been my intention with the girls – as in all music-making – to encourage a rich and committed sound, full of colour and contrast. If this music was indeed written to be uplifting, to inspire, to connect people with the spiritual, then it must surely carry that conviction in the energy and beauty of its performance.  

The Girls and Men of Canterbury Cathedral appear on our April issue cover CD. Click here to find out more.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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