A history of Cambridge mixed choirs

How Peter Dennison revolutionised Cambridge's choirs by introducing women undergraduates

A history of Cambridge mixed choirs
Published: November 16, 2021 at 11:05 am

Cambridge is renowned for its all-male collegiate choirs, most famously of King’s College and St John’s College. Yet a number of other Cambridge colleges, such as Corpus Christi, have hosted mixed voiced choirs in their chapels since at least the 1960s.


Typically, though, these were recruited not only from the chapel’s own college, but also from neighbouring colleges (a practice which continues today, voices from all-women’s colleges such as Newnham typically joining mixed choirs in other colleges).

The real breakthrough in public perception, though, came in 1971 when Clare College appointed the visionary Peter Dennison as its director of music. He promptly founded the first dedicated mixed-voice college choir in Cambridge, a year ahead of Clare’s first admission of women undergraduates; when Dennison left for Melbourne in 1975, John Rutter took over and made Clare College Choir famous through several acclaimed recordings.


Other colleges soon followed Clare’s inspiring example: first Selwyn College in 1976, then in 1979 both Christ’s College and Gonville & Caius, as they also admitted women students. In 1982, Trinity College belatedly launched a superlative mixed choir under the direction of Richard Marlow, which for a while set a new standard in its precision and musicality. Even King’s and St John’s had to look to their laurels, and have since launched their own mixed choirs: King’s Voices in 1997, and St John’s Voices in 2014.


daniel jaffe
Daniel JafféJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé has been associated with BBC Music Magazine since 2004 when he was the reviews editor, working in that post until he went freelance in 2011. Previously he was on the editorial teams of Classic CD and Gramophone. He is a specialist in both Russian and 20th-century British music.

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