Arts & Books Books

How English choirs recovered from the Reformation – eventually

Choristers rehearse A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Chapel (Getty)

The idea of an unbroken choral tradition dating back to the Middle Ages is not quite true, says Michael White

I Saw Eternity the Other Night
By Timothy Day,
Allen Lane, 416pp, £25/$30

In a few weeks’ time, on Christmas Eve, the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols will be broadcast from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and listeners throughout the world will think how wonderful it is that, in these crazy times of Brexit, Trump and other nightmares, the great English choral tradition carries on: soothing, consoling, with the same exquisite beauty that it’s cultivated since the Middle Ages.

The idea is an attractive one, but not quite true. And this book tells you in no uncertain terms how far from the truth it is. Undoubtedly, the choir at King’s has been around for centuries, begun in 1441. But after the Reformation things went downhill – to the point where, by the mid 19th century, the musical standards at King’s were as haphazard as they appear to have been throughout the entire Anglican establishment.

Overseas visitors to English cathedrals recorded their disappointment at singing that didn’t compare to that of the choirs of Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin. The boys were rough, shrill-voiced and ill-behaved. The singing men were ageing, often disaffected vicars choral or lay clerks. And what you heard was a reflection of the disregard for music that obtained in England, tending to associate performance with effeminacy – which the nation’s youth had to be shielded from at all costs.

Back in the 16th century, the scholar Roger Ascham only approved the teaching of music to the extent that it produced a “manly, stout sound”. Anything more sweet would dull the wits, making boys so “tender and quaisy that they be less able to brook strong study”. And it was no better by the 1830s of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, where a new boy is warned never to admit to his contemporaries that he can sing.

The earliest indications of a shift in attitude came with the Oxford Movement, which sought to inspire the Church of England with a sense of its own origins, however romantically embellished. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that what we recognise today as the excellence of English cathedral singing truly established itself – with the choir of King’s, Cambridge, reinvented as a focus of attention, engine of change, and setter of standards. And even then, it was a gradual process.

In the first years of the 1900s, music was still an undervalued activity at King’s, run by an organist, AH Mann, whose college status was equivocal and not deemed worthy of a fellowship. It was only with the arrival of a dean of chapel straight out of the trenches of the Great War, Eric Milner-White, that change began in earnest. And it’s interesting that Milner-White’s ambitions for King’s to be a beacon of English worship, on terms both liturgical and musical, were not uninfluenced by what was going on at Westminster Cathedral under RR Terry, a former Kingsman and Catholic convert.

Catholicism had played no part in English choral history since the Reformation. But at the new Westminster Cathedral the clergy were being serious about liturgy, and Terry was reviving pre-Reformation English polyphony – albeit with a choral sound that would be developed by his successor, George Malcolm, as something very different to the restrained purity that became the hallmark of Anglican style.

Anglican sound was based on boys singing without force or vibrato, in a head rather than chest voice. And however raucous they may have been in mid 19th-century cathedrals, they were transformed into something more disciplined, angelic and ethereal by the time that Boris Ord was running King’s choir in the 1930s and positioning it as the arbiter of excellence. More than anyone, it was Ord – an anti-Romantic and a soberly repressed gay man with what his fellow Kingsman EM Forster would have called an “undeveloped heart” – who established the disciplined, dispassionate reserve that King’s made its ideal. And when David Willcocks succeeded him in 1957, an increase in recordings and broadcasts spread that ideal throughout the world – albeit with resistance from rival establishments such as Christ Church, Oxford (where drier acoustics encouraged a more assertive, less ethereal sound), and from Westminster Cathedral, which pursued different goals.

The Willcocks era was undoubtedly a golden one for English choral singing – and it’s no coincidence that the 1960s to the 1980s witnessed an explosion of new, young, professional ensembles largely drawn from former Oxbridge choral scholars – who by now included women from the mixed-voice choirs at Trinity, Clare, Caius and other colleges that were admitting female students.

The enduring issue of girls’ voices as opposed to boys’ is one of many subjects that this book duly acknowledges but doesn’t really get to grips with; its delivery of information can feel sketchily disordered and in need of a more ruthless edit. But that said, there is a lot of information. If you’re interested in singing, it’s a good and often entertaining read. And if you cling to that romantic idea of a great English tradition sustained since the Middle Ages, it’s revelatory, if discomforting.