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

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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