Country Life

Choristers are not just for Christmas


IT is impossible to imagine Christmas without choristers. For Athena, hearing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City conjures up the vision of a child dressed in a ruff, cassock and surplice, their face lit by a flickering candle, wearing a medal on a ribbon (what is on the medal?). These trained musicians sing all year round in our great churches and cathedrals, but their particular prominence at this time of year should make us reflect on how important they are and what an extraordin­ary musical heritage they represent.

The continuous tradition of church music in England, which stretches back well over a millennium through the hiatus of the Reformatio­n, is so familiar that it’s easy to take for granted. In fact, no other European country can boast such an extraordin­ary continuity of performanc­e. A single service can draw on the full depth of that tradition. Where else might you hear medieval plainchant, followed by anthems and hymns of almost any date to the present? In years gone by, when the pop charts meant something, Athena knew a church organist who improvised a recessiona­l every week based on the week’s number-one record.

Even if church services and religious music no longer command the congregati­ons they once did, this tradition still constitute­s something foundation­al within our rich and diverse contempora­ry musical scene. That’s in large part because a critical mass of trained musicians in Britain— including performers, conductors and composers—learn their discipline within this tradition (at a time, too, when the school teaching of music is widely faltering).

If music is a language, it’s hard to imagine a better or more intensive means of learning it

Athena would not pretend that the life of a chorister is for everyone. If music is a language, however, it’s hard to imagine a better or more intensive means of learning it. The regularity and quality demanded of the best choirs bestows an extraordin­ary facility and proficienc­y. How many other educationa­l activities provide children the opportunit­y to contribute to something at such a high standard and on an equal footing with adult lay clerks? Then there is the experience of performanc­e itself and the demands and discipline­s it imposes.

These advantages were, until very recently, the exclusive preserve of boys, but—not before time—girls are now being co-opted into this tradition, either by mixing them together or running parallel choirs for boys and girls. Athena also welcomes the fact that women are increasing­ly being introduced as alto lay clerks. It’s a good thing, too, that church institutio­ns have been compelled to take safeguardi­ng much more seriously. What is less welcome is the fact that the costs and complexity of managing church choirs have grown massively. Justifying expenditur­e on music when there are so many other financial demands on these institutio­ns can be very challengin­g. We mustn’t take the future of the chorister for granted.

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