We know relatively little about Covid-19, but some studies have concluded that it is especially likely to be spread via singing – a possibility which has had serious consequences for choirs. Official Government guidelines relating to the safe uses of places of worship during the pandemic have advised “there should be no group singing inside places of worship when worshippers are present”. Non-professionals (meaning the congregation) “should not engage in group singing at all” and recorded music is encouraged as “as an alternative to live singing”. Indoor performances “to a live audience” have resumed this month – but for how long, nobody can say.
Fr Christopher Colven, parish priest at the church of St James, Spanish Place in London, told the Catholic Herald there is “a real sense of loss at the moment”. “People want to sing and people want to hear good music”, he added. “All the way through the history of Christianity, there has been an element of music. The Mass is designed to be sung: just the verbal is not enough”.
One of Fr Colven’s parishioners is John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall and chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society. He has been attending Mass at St James’s for over 20 years. “The choral tradition in this country is so much part of our international identity,” he says. “All Mass is wonderful but the churches are fuller for the sung services. A particular Mass by a particular composer gives us a glimpse of heaven. We had a teacher in Ireland who used to say ‘When you sing, you pray twice.’ Your voice is raised and it’s a union with the rest of the congregation.”
Singing can also play a huge role in introducing young people to church life. “Young people are open to all sorts of music”, he says; “young ears are not corrupted.” Music can also help explain the teachings of the Catholic Church to children, he says: a hymn like “Sweet Sacrament Divine” “begins to explain the mystery of Transubstantiation and why we honour the Blessed Sacrament.”
Iestyn Evans, Director of Music at St James’s, feels the same. “Since the start of the lockdown, the choir has not met. What has struck me is how musicians’ main complaint isn’t about money, but rather about how they miss singing and playing together in a group.” Music has been provided, however, by a soloist from the choir and Evans on the organ, and has been livestreamed for audiences over the past four months. “We have been fortunate in Spanish Place to enjoy the support of our Rector, Fr Colven, as well as having a building which is large enough to allow singers to be socially distanced from each other”, he says.
Some singers are coming up with new ideas. In the wake of the pandemic, Iuno Connolly, 33, has founded the London Memorial Singers, a quartet who sing at funerals and memorials within social distancing guidelines. “We wanted to keep the number of singers down to ensure we can be socially distanced”, Connolly says. “I am a freelance opera singer and when coronavirus happened, I lost all of my work.” Like so many other singers and musicians, she still does not know when they will be able to work again. “Music is a huge source of comfort and consolation”, she says. “It is a huge part of our religious life”.