Choirs are not just about singing

Canterbury Cathedral

Anyone who is in a choir will tell you that it’s not just about the singing.   Choirs are social organisations and many think of them as an extended family.

A few weeks ago I was in Canterbury for a weekend away.   It was mid August, and an extremely hot weekend.   I’d booked a nice (ish) hotel in the centre of town which had a view of the Cathedral (albeit in the reflection of the window opposite!).  The first thing I did on arrival, being terribly British and all that, was to head to the Cathedral and have tea in the cafe.  As it turns out the Cathedral cafe at Canterbury is in fact a bit of an after thought and nothing more than a shed in the grounds.  Nevertheless it served tea and provided me with a piece of cake. So all was well.

Having had some tea, I then headed into the Cathedral and was greeted by the Archdeacon who showed me to my ‘office’ for the weekend.   I was not running a choir, nor recording one. Instead, I had my organists hat on and was accompanying a weekend of services which were being sung by Quorum Chamber Choir.

Canterbury Cathedral Organ
Jules in Canterbury Cathedral

The Organ at Canterbury

Samuel Green built an organ on the pulpitum in 1784: that instrument was relocated to the south triforium of the quire in 1827, and it was here that Henry Willis built a new four-manual instrument in 1886, with a pioneering form of electro-pneumatic action.

During the twentieth century, alterations were made by Norman & Beard and by Henry Willis & Sons.  In 1976 N.P. Mander carried out a more radical rebuild, which included removal of the Solo Organ.    Attempts were made to simplify the outdated electro-pneumatic mechanisms and complex configuration. As such, the instrument was greatly reduced in size to try and free up space between the overcrowded pipes. This included the largest, 32ft pipes as well as solo voices which added ‘orchestral’ colour including Oboe, Horn and Flutes.

A separate Nave organ was introduced, recognising the impossible task for one organ to provide music to the entire Cathedral. This was confirmed by a detailed acoustic audits in 2009 and 2015. Since its last restoration, and despite a series of patch repairs, our main organ has now reached the end of its performing life.  Much of Father Willis’s pipework survived these interventions and will form the backbone of the new organ, which is due for completion in early 2020

The Cathedral’s most recent Quinquennial Inspection (a survey of its condition required every five years) in 2017 also identified that large areas of the Quire were are in urgent need of repair. The access afforded by the removal of the organ’s pipework present an unmissable chance to make these repairs before the new organ is installed.

Quorum Chamber Choir

Quorum is a small, high quality, chamber choir based in Milton Keynes, specialising in singing Renaissance and contemporary sacred choral music. The choir has an outstanding reputation for singing challenging, unaccompanied repertoire, at the highest standard. The choir is well known for its innovative and imaginative programming of contemporary choral music alongside music from the Renaissance.

The choir is based at St Mary Magdalene Church, Willen in Milton Keynes where each year we sing several evensong services and an annual carol service. The choir has a long tradition of singing services at local churches, and each year Quorum sings weekend services in major cathedrals around the country.

A weekend in Canterbury

And so, as happens approximately twice a year, once again I found myself in a Cathedral with Quorum.  For me, as the organist, this is quite an easy gig.  Everything the choir sing is unaccompanied so all I have to do is play the hymns, a couple of voluntaries and the few congregational items during Eucharist.

Nevertheless that’s not to say I don’t take it seriously.  Music standards in Cathedrals must be maintained regardless of whether you are the visiting Choir / organist or not.  I do not profess to be anywhere near the calibre of musician that you would typically find in the organ loft of an English Cathedral.  But I do like to ensure I am thoroughly prepared.  Voluntaries are normally agreed upon a few months in advance for these events.  The dilemma is whether to use it as a chance to learn something new or indeed to play it safe!  I usually do a bit of both.  There are generally 3 services requiring voluntaries so I tend to play 2 which I know reasonably well – or at least can get back up to scratch fairly easily and then learn a new piece for the occasion.

Outside the services, Quorum spend quite a lot of time in rehearsal.  One of the advantages, if you can call it that, of the choir singing A Capella, is that as the organist I don’t have attend any rehearsals with the choir! Although I am usually available when they are rehearsing in the stalls prior to evensong. This is just in case they want to rehearse the hymns or anything else which might be congregational.  It’s always useful to find out what the signal is to stop playing at the start of services.  Usually it’s fairly obvious, but everywhere is slightly different and has their own preferred way of doing things!

The Social Side

Quorum MK are an extremely competent Chamber Choir who aspire to high standards in everything they perform.    I was recently asked by a friend to produce a choir for a Catholic wedding – she said to me, ‘Jules you must know some good choirs’.  Yes I said, I know an excellent choir!  And so Quorum had a day out in Salisbury.   But back to Canterbury.   Once the Saturday evensong was sung, the choir all headed outside to the nearest pub for some liquid refreshment.  This is not untypical of choirs after they have been singing.  My Male Voice Choir in Cirencester always arrange an ‘afterglow’ following our concerts – basically the men all head to the pub for beer and chips!

It’s not just concerts which give choirs an excuse to go out together.  A lot of the time when we are out and about recording, once the work is done choirs will often decamp either to the nearest pub for a drink, or more often than not to a local restaurant to provide dinner (and alcohol) as a well earned reward for singing all day.

About the Author:  Jules Addison is a Director at 4 Part Music. Outside of his recording work he is Musical Director for The BlueBelles, Blue Notes Jazz Group, Cirencester Male Voice Choir and Organist in residence at St Thomas a Becket Church, Bath.

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