Sweetness and restraint
Ysenda Maxtone Graham is fascinated to learn how the singing style of King’s College, Cambridge, came to be perceived as the quintessence of English choral music
Dishevelled lay clerks wandered in to sing the wrong notes out of tune
I Saw Eternity the Other Night
Timothy Day (Allen Lane, £25)
How pleasing that a ‘niche’ book such as this one, about King’s College choir and the ‘english singing style’, should be published by a mainstream publisher! it gives one faith in British civilisation —just as its subject does. The knowledge that choral evensong is being sung by well-rehearsed choirs of men and children on at least six evenings a week in our 42 cathedrals and five oxbridge choral foundations is, for many of us, what makes life in this country worth living and emigration a non-possibility. no other country maintains this tradition.
However, is it a tradition? That’s what Timothy Day examines head on in this extensively researched and drily witty book. Deans and directors of music sometimes tell us that our great choral tradition has ‘continued unbroken for 500 years’, but they are wrong, as mr Day discovered on looking at the dreadful state of affairs in cathedrals and colleges in the 1840s.
A ‘hardened impiety’ had set in. Dishevelled, dissolute lay clerks wandered into the choir stalls to sing the wrong notes out of tune. There were no regular practices. Choristers sat around smoking pipes and consuming alcohol. Asthmatic old basses in filthy surplices lolled about during the prayers; at Christ Church, oxford, the singers were drawn mainly from the ranks of ‘old, infirm and exhausted college servants and bedmakers’ and it wasn’t unusual for a bass to carry on singing until the age of 84.
What or who was it that changed this situation and made it ‘an improving story’, to use weather-forecaster parlance? Well, there were a number of factors. The oxford movement revived an interest in plainsong, which was all very well, but some thought that men singing it was effeminate, the kind of thing that should only happen in Belgium. The association of musicmaking with effeminacy took a long time to die out: mr Day notes that no man ever sings in a Jane Austen novel and that, when Tom Brown is being bullied, one of the boys says to him: ‘Don’t you say you can sing.’
The High Church musicologist and priest Sir frederick gore ouseley had enough private income to build a church at Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire in the 1850s, founding the College of St michael and All Angels, which became a model for choral foundations to imitate.
Then, in the 1870s, boarding facilities were built at King’s— and Austen’s forward-looking nephews, the Austen-leighs, offered to donate money to establish choral scholarships there. in 1876, A. H. mann (nickname ‘Daddy’ mann) became director of music, a post he would remain in for the next 53 years. poor man: the fellows treated him as ‘a menial’ and he wasn’t allowed to become a fellow himself until 45 years into the job.
The microphone was another factor. Towards the end of the fourth decade of mann’s tenure, the Dean of King’s, eric milnerwhite, devised the festival of nine Lessons and Carols service, first broadcast in 1918. in a country recovering from the horrors of war, this was the new era of reticence and repressing of emotion.
milner-white used to pray that god would ‘weaken, humble and annihilate in me self-will, selfrighteousness, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, self-assertion and vainglory’. These virtues became the tenets of the new King’s sound. As mr Day writes, ‘reticence acted as a kind of filter allowing emotion to be communicated purged of any taint of sentimentality and exhibitionism’. What better vessel for this sound than the innocence and purity of the boy-treble voice, with absolutely no vibrato?
The ideal choral director to perfect and immortalise this sound, and to establish it as the quintessential ‘english singing style’, was David Willcocks, a superb musician whose hallmark was restraint. He’d won the military Cross in 1944 and ‘ran his choir like an Army battalion’. When one of the choral scholars said to him ‘i’m just beginning to sing out,’ Willcocks replied: ‘oh yes… don’t.’
The advent of radio brought choral music to a glad public