The English Choral Tradition – Should we care?

Recently there has been a certain amount of hoo-ha in the press because the Dean and Chapter of Sheffield Cathedral have decided to disband the choir to build a new choir that better reflects the diversity of the area. Personally, with my limited experience of cathedral choirs and clergy, I suspect this to be a whitewash, but this is not the main purpose of this post.

During the Covid crisis, choirs of any form have been suspended, and this has led to anguish in some quarters, where the fear is that the British Choral Tradition, of church and cathedral choirs singing beautiful sacred music, will be lost. The question I want to address here is: “Does this actually matter?”

This is a very dangerous question for me to be asking. I have close family who are very involved in church music, up to cathedral level. I’ve sung in, and directed, a number of church choirs myself. So let’s ease the tension a little by saying that, broadly, the answer is ‘yes’ – with some caveats.

There is something particularly beautiful about the sound a well directed cathedral choir makes. I’m not going to get into the debates about whether boys sound better than girls – I’m not sophisticated enough to tell the difference or care. But choral Evensong on a Saturday afternoon can be uplifting, freeing your mind to contemplate, pray and worship while the music and liturgy wash over you. There is something special about being part of a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years; knowing that voices have filled these (usually ancient) buildings in the same way for centuries makes you feel part of a continuum of worship. I love the unique way that cathedral choirs are able to bring the psalms to life. So far so good.

However, this tradition is not without its problems, and maybe now is a good time to look at them and, hopefully without having to push the Sheffield ‘nuclear’ button, make some changes.

The first problem centres around perceived status. This doesn’t just affect cathedral choirs, but has been a feature – with only one exception* – of every choir I’ve come across or been involved with. Here’s the thing: If you’re in a church or cathedral choir, the chances are you will put on robes for the services you sing at. You may well process, and you’ll often be seated in special stalls in the chancel, from where the congregation can best appreciate your efforts. You will also have rehearsed your anthems and thus have more ‘invested’ in the musical side of the service than the clergy or congregation. This makes you feel special, part of an elite. I will illustrate this point with a real world example: I once had to accompany the choir of a small parish church for a service – I forget what the service was but it meant I had to practice with them. What confronted me was fairly typical of many parish churches – around four people, the youngest of whom must have been in her mid seventies. The noise they made was not great; a couple of them were fairly deaf and reading the music was a challenge. Nonetheless this didn’t stop one of them from replying to some point I made with “You have to understand – we are the musical ones of the parish”.

In the interests of fairness I have to say that I have seen this sense of specialness also descend upon clergy, who also robe (sometimes very elaborately), process and have leadership roles, so it’s not just a choir issue. I’m not saying that we should abandon robed clergy and choirs either, although that is a direction that some churches have taken. My personal preference is for choirs and clergy to be robed, but it’s important to remember that putting on a robe does not, of itself, confer status.

Left unchecked, this sense of specialness on both sides can lead to feelings of entitlement. This inevitably leads the choir into conflict with the clergy. The clergy see the main focal point of the service as the liturgy, the ministry of the word and the sacraments; the music is secondary to the word. The choir, on the other hand, begins to see the spoken liturgy, sermons, prayers and so on as a necessary nuisance – the margarine in their beautiful choral sandwich. I have seen this manifest itself in choristers openly talking or leafing through music during a sermon or prayers. This is, as my (clergy) wife once put it “Disrespectful to the Word of God”. The fact is that the liturgy is made up of both word and music; they are both important.

At its very worst the choir or clergy can become so wrapped up in their specialness that they lose sight of their purpose, which is to lead and enhance the worship of the congregation. The music or liturgy can become ends in themselves; this is, to put it bluntly, idolatry.

Before I move on to some proposals, let me also say that all of these problems may also affect churches that have a worship band instead of a choir; I just haven’t focussed on that because I don’t have any experience in that arena.

So what can be done? In an ideal world church musicians and clergy would work together with a shared vision to serve their congregations through the word and the music – but this requires a huge amount of humility on both sides, the ditching of entrenched views and (sometimes) mutual suspicion.The key here is that both roles are roles of service, as much as they’re roles of leadership. Clergy and musicians are the servants of the congregations that they minister to – Jesus himself modelled servant leadership. So a re-evaluation of roles, and some uncomfortable introspection may be required. What are the true motives at play, and are we doing as much as we can to understand the opposing viewpoint if there is one?

Concentrating now on the choir, the next thing to confront is knowing your limits. Listening to a cathedral choir singing a psalm is usually (see “know your congregation”) a beautiful thing – the cadence, the harmony, the stereophonic switching between the cantoris and decani. But that doesn’t mean every parish church choir can do it. In fact I can’t think of a single experience of hearing a parish choir attempt a psalm that wasn’t a car crash in slow motion. Psalms are difficult to sing, and beyond the capabilities of most choirs. Unfortunately, because they are the “musical” ones of the parish, most choirs think they can do it. Trust me: You can’t. Please stop. Also review your plainsong. Is it beautiful, or does it sound like someone dragging a nail down a blackboard? Choirs attempting things that are beyond them, and doing them badly, detract from the congregation’s worship experience. This could lead to accusations of elitism – why should some choirs have access to music that others don’t have – but it’s important to be realistic about what you can do, and do it well.

You also need to know your congregation. This applies to cathedral and church choirs alike. In a quest to provide variety, extend the capabilities of the choir or even just because they can, some choir directors seek out anthems, psalm arrangements or responses that are technically challenging. These are often hard to sing, and equally hard to listen to, which means that they’re only palatable to a small group of people. I’m going to illustrate this with a few examples. One of my favourite wine merchants is currently offering a 2010 Petrus Pomerol for £8,285. Petrus is one of the great French wines, so this is probably a fair price, but it would be wasted on me as my palate isn’t clever enough to tell it apart from (probably) a £20 bottle of Groot Constantia. Similarly, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis is considered a choral masterpiece by those in the know because of its challenging 40 part harmony. To my untrained ear I’m afraid it sounds like choral white noise that never goes anywhere. I’m not saying that choirs should only stick to a few well known crowd pleasers; that would be the equivalent of eating McDonald’s for every meal, with the only variation being a different burger. But the challenging stuff needs to be applied sparingly, like scotch bonnet chillies.

Finally, and this is the most controversial question of all, do you actually need a regular choir? Obviously at a cathedral level the answer to this is “Yes”, for a variety of reasons, but at a parish level I’m not so sure. Again, a couple of examples to illustrate this. I was a member of a regular choir in a parish church for many years. We robed and sang at every Sunday service and we rehearsed every week. There were between 4 and 6 of us and we weren’t very good (although we were still required to butcher the occasional psalm). Our choir director would try to bolster the numbers for special services (for example Christmas and Easter) but this didn’t work very well because the regular choir members tended to look down on the “temps”, and people were put off because they saw it all as too much commitment. I have to say I found choir practice a chore, because most of the time we were just singing through hymns we knew; I would find almost any excuse not to go. I see a lot of parish choirs in this boat.

In the parish where we are now we don’t have a regular choir. Instead a scratch choir is formed for festivals, and it disbands immediately afterwards. I think this is inspired (and I’m not the director of music so can take no credit). If you think about it most Sunday services are made up of 4 hymns that the congregation should already know, so what value are the choir actually adding? When we do have a choir it’s a time bound thing with a defined end. This means that, instead of 4 or 6, we get between 20 and 30 because people know they’re only signing up for a short term commitment – a maximum of around 6 weeks. On top of that we get variety – it’s not always the same people. There isn’t a ‘core’ who feel that they should get preferential treatment because everyone is on the same level. Yes, we may be limited in some ways because we haven’t been training week in week out, but it’s joyful and gets knocked on the head before entitlement and ennui have a chance to creep in.

Before I launch this blog on an unsuspecting internet, let me finish by saying that these are, of course, just my perceptions which are likely coloured by my own experiences and prejudices. I’ve thought long and hard about whether to write this blog at all, for fear of the whirlwind I might reap. But if nobody asks these questions then we just carry on doing what we’ve always done and I’m not sure whether that’s good enough any more.

*the one choir was the London Adventist Chorale directed by Ken Burton.

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