Cantate Domino: singing in an English cathedral choir

  • Added:
    Jan 01, 2013
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My family had always been musical: my earliest memories were of parents, grandparents and other close relatives gathered round the piano singing enthusiastically, and they were all involved with local choirs, especially parish church choirs in the locality. My Dad and older brother started our involvement with our village church choir, and my Mum and I joined when I reached the magical age of seven.  But I had my eye on 'higher things' - I desperately wanted to join the choir at our local cathedral, some 25 miles' distant. There was, however, one major stumbling block: I was a girl, and they only accepted boys into the choir in those days.  My brother had a fantastic treble voice, and the choirmaster encouraged him to audition for a place, but the fees and the travelling precluded this, as my parents were not well-off and we had no car.

Time passed, and I decided to apply for teacher training in York, was accepted at St John's, and duly joined the Chapel Choir there. Here I was delighted to discover that we had the opportunity to sing at the Minster virtually every month. Needless to say, I revelled in this opportunity and loved every minute of it, as it combined my love of music and history (I was taking a history degree), and I particularly enjoyed the quaint traditions associated with a major English cathedral, and being able to view the way in which the different aspects of life there seemed to merge seamlessly together; musicians, clergy and administrators working together to maintain the great traditions of a major English cathedral, dedicated to the glory of God.

Some years later, now married with children of my own, and immersed in teaching music at our local primary school, my brother suggested that I join an 'ad hoc' choir which specialised in deputising for cathedral choirs when they were on holiday. Since it was a while since I had been involved with the Anglican choral tradition, due to work and family committments, I decided to join the group and  subsequently found myself singing with a quality ensemble once more. We have since sung in many of our country's cathedrals: the standard was very good and it proved to be a steep learning curve but was thoroughly enjoyable.

Five years ago I had to finish teaching on grounds of ill-health and suddenly found myself with more time to devote to things I had always wanted to do. The ecumenical choir sang at Chester cathedral just after Christmas, while the regular choir was on holiday, and my old ambition of singing there on a more permanent basis was re-kindled. After some research on the internet, I was delighted to discover that the Nave Choir,( the cathedral's voluntary chamber choir and the longest-established in the country) was looking for new members and, after auditioning, I was thrilled to be invited to join them.

I duly turned up and was intitiated into the idiosyncratic traditions and workings of an English cathedral: surprised to discover how well-equipped and comfortable the 'song school' was , (the area where the choir practises, normally off-limits to visitors) and how complicated the system is for storing and maintaining the music and the cassocks and surplices worn by the choir; how hard the music staff work and how much effort goes into organising the music for each service: sung services are held every day except Wednesday, with at  least three services on Sunday, and regular rehearsals beforehand. Probably the hardest aspect for a novice cathedral chorister like me is learning how to process in and out with some semblance of dignity - not easy when you are singing at the same time and you need glasses to see the music properly, but can't see where you are going because you can't see distances through the lenses; the problem being further compounded by uneven ancient stone floors with potholes to trap the unwary!! And then there are the different ways of processing into the choir stalls, and even different locations of choir stalls according to the service being sung, not to mention traipsing around cloisters and other locations for special services such as Christmas and 'civic' events - regimental services and suchlike. Probably the most difficult aspect, for someone from the 'low-church' wing of the Anglican tradition,is learning not to choke and cough when the incense is swung somewhat over-enthusiastically at the Eucharist (communion) service. I'm always relieved when the cloud of incense finally desperses and you can begin to breathe properly again!

During the run-up to Christmas in December, the life of the cathedral becomes even more frenetic as preparations begin for the great celebrations and the choirs gear themselves up for numerous carol services: in my innocence I assumed there would be just one or two, but this is not the case and the workload for the resident musicians is so heavy that the voluntary choir have to deputise for the main choir while they are singing extra services, to the extent that I have practically lived in the cathedral for the past four weeks and my family have seen very little of me.  The highlight was probably the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve - preceded by carol-singing in the cathedral close (including such exalted places as the Bishop's House) and a goodly number of mince pies and glasses of cheer. I was amazed to find the cathedral was full to bursting: not a single seat vacant as we entered from the cloisters and processed up the nave. I had to pinch myself: it all felt like a dream but it was real: I was singing with my local cathedral choir, celebrating the birth of the most incredible child ever born.  Amazing...

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