The organ is playing

In response to Richard Morrison’s article in The Times, June 4th 2020

You don't know what you've got till it's gone

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

When I was growing up, on the weekends when I visited my father we would attend Sunday services together at Guildford cathedral. Completed in 1961, only 10 years before I was born, the brown-brick structure may not be in the same league visually as, say, my local cathedral of St Albans Abbey, with its heady mix of Norman/Romanesque/Gothic architecture, but it has its own charm.  Along with the rest of the congregation, we would file in via the west door and be greeted first by a smiling cathedral warden handing out service sheets, next by the stunning vaulted ceiling and finally by the sound of gentle organ music filling the incense-scented space. My father, Sebastian Forbes, sometimes deputised for the then regular organist, Philip Moore, on which occasions I would have the honour of following him up the steep spiral steps to the console and perching next to him on the long organ stool, my legs dangling safely out of reach of the pedals. I would watch in awe as he pushed and pulled the stops in and out, moved his hands deftly about on the multiple manuals and danced his feet over the pedals, waiting with bated breath for the all-important slow nod which indicated that I should turn the page. On the Sundays when we were sitting in the pews, even when I wasn’t yet tall enough to glimpse the organist’s head poking out of the top of the organ console way up above us, I was fully aware that he was there and my father took great pains to tell me that it wasn’t right ever to say that ‘the organ is playing’ but always to say that ‘someone is playing the organ.’

It’s an important distinction to make. We may not always be able to see the organist but this doesn’t mean that the organ is playing itself. At St John’s College in Cambridge, where my sons were choristers, there’s a lovely tradition of a Sunday evening organ recital, given by the current or former organ scholars or by visiting organists from other cathedrals, which takes place just before choral evensong. Regular attendees know to sit quietly and listen, as one would during any recital, but occasionally visitors arrive early for the service and, assuming that the organ music is merely ambient background music, continue their conversation (until they are politely shushed by a neighbour.) Despite the fact that choirs are generally not hidden from view, they can suffer a similar fate if the distinction between ‘there’s a choir singing’ and ‘people are singing in a choir’ is not observed. Whereas the former carries with it an implied disregard for the circumstances which enabled there to be a choir, the latter acknowledges that choirs do not simply happen, as anybody who has sung in one, be it as a hobby or as a living, will know. When couples want a professional choir to sing at their wedding, they are often surprised to learn that they will have to budget for this alongside the venue hire, florist and catering. Surely it’s just a few singers standing up and singing a few hymns? And don’t get me started on the music to accompany the signing of the register; there can’t be many professional singers who haven’t experienced the humiliation of delivering an aria or song to a congregation chatting loudly throughout. Just after graduating from Oxford and before becoming a professional performer, I was a secondary school music teacher for three years; my Headmaster expected the school choir, which I conducted, to perform at the Open Day but refused my request to have one lesson off teaching in order to prepare for this, assuming it could and would just happen.

The photograph accompanying Richard Morrison’s excellent article in The Times two days ago carries the caption ‘The award-winning Tenebrae choir is among Britain’s world-renowned groups awaiting advice on how to resume.’ I am well-acquainted with this choir (being second in from the left in the photo) and can assure you from personal experience that choirs of this calibre don’t happen by accident. They are the product not only of years of vocal training, of regular and detailed rehearsal and of performing together so often that the singers in them literally breathe as one, but of artistic vision, of skilled leadership, of long committee meetings, of forward planning, persistent fundraising and patrons’ generosity. Likewise with our cathedral choirs, they don’t sound the way they do as a result of singers simply rocking up just before the service begins, throwing on a cassock and surplice and grabbing a pile of music. For starters, the boys and girls singing on the front rows will have rehearsed for an hour every day before school and for another after school and will have sung weekday as well as weekend services, all of which will have been made possible by the support of a choral foundation and/or choir school. It’s a 500-year-old tradition, one which is respected and revered by choral enthusiasts the world over but which, even before the arrival of Covid-19, was struggling to survive financially, hence the need for wonderful organisations such as the Friends of Cathedral Music. (They’ve recently created the Cathedral Choirs Emergency Fund.)

Perhaps people who aren’t fortunate enough to have sat in organ lofts or sung in choirs genuinely don’t know how special this tradition is in Britain. Or perhaps they’ve never made the distinction between ‘the organ is playing’ and ‘someone is playing the organ.’ Perhaps they have become so accustomed to music being in the background that they’ve stopped noticing it’s there at all. Perhaps they don’t go to many concerts. Perhaps they’re unaware that, while the country has been in lockdown, so have all of the people who make live music happen. Perhaps they think that, when lockdown is eventually lifted, it’ll all miraculously return to normal and they’ll be able to wander into a church or cathedral and hear organ music and a choir singing. As a professional musician who’s from a family of professional musicians and whose friendship circles are full of musicians, perhaps I have a skewed sense of the importance of live music in this country. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more a case of, in the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, from her song Big Yellow Taxi, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ We’ve been taking it for granted that live music, in concert halls, theatres, opera houses, churches and cathedrals, will always be there; unless we act now, I’m with Richard Morrison in fearing that we may lose it altogether as we witness this government paving over Paradise and putting a car park in its place.

Joanna Forbes L’Estrange
June 6th 2020

Twenty-first-century Woman: girls can’t be choristers

Alexander L'Estrange as a chorister at New College, Oxford

Alexander L’Estrange as a chorister at
New College, Oxford

There’s something unique about the sound of a boy’s unbroken, treble singing voice. Theirs has been the soaring top line in cathedrals the length and breadth of the UK since the middle ages and long may it continue for another millennium and beyond. Nowadays a boy chorister not only has the joyous and incomparable experience of being trained to sing from as young as 7 within the context of a professional choir, but the scholarships offered by many choir schools also enable him to have a world-class education at a fraction of the price. I know this because my sons are currently benefiting from this system (St John’s College, Cambridge) as did my brother (Guildford Cathedral), my husband and my brother-in-law (New College, Oxford) and, last time I counted, at least 90% of my male singing colleagues. My nephews (St Albans Abbey and Peterborough Cathedral) and my father and uncle (Hampstead Parish Church) also had the experience of being choristers; my father says that he learnt all he knows about music – this is a lot – from Martindale Sidwell, the then director of music at Hampstead.

My husband, when invited by the Choir Schools Association a few years ago to write a sentence about the impact his chorister experience had had on his life, wrote
My years as a chorister at New College, Oxford, have informed everything I have done since, both musically and otherwise.
Harry L'Estrange with Tasmin Little

Harry L’Estrange with Tasmin Little

For him, it wasn’t just the professional singing training, the coaching in different languages (Latin, German, Russian, French, Mandarin…), the foreign tours and CD recordings, it was the prep school education that went with it that made it all so worthwhile: the team sports, the drama productions, the trips, the subsidised instrumental lessons and on it goes. Our son Harry plays the violin and, through being a chorister, has had the opportunity to have masterclasses with world-renowned violinists Jack Liebeck and Tasmin Little. He also took part in the CSA chorister composition competition this year and was joint winner. He’s still only 10! What a lucky boy. (And, don’t you worry, he knows it.)

If only their voices had the same unique beauty, I’m certain that girls would have been given the same opportunities for the past 1,000 years. And if women had only been clever enough they’d have been doing all of the jobs which men have been doing for centuries too. Hm. The fact of the matter is rather that boys’ choirs were borne out of the male-only monastic establishments of the medieval age where boys were given music lessons and also a rudimentary education by the choir master and, once their voices had broken, they became the singing men of the next generation (not to mention the priests, lay vicars etc) and so and so on. Since girls weren’t allowed anywhere near those medieval monasteries, they weren’t on the scene when choir schools were founded and choral scholarships established and, consequently, were forgotten about.
Nobody thought to question this until, in 1966, on the morning of a planned BBC broadcast of evensong from St Davids Cathedral in Wales, the organist suddenly found that he had no choristers – they were all off sick. So he brought in the all-girls choir of a neighbouring grammar school to save the day and, shock horror, they were pretty good! Three months later, the cathedral formally admitted girls to the choir and set the ball rolling. St Mary’s Cathedral in Scotland followed suit by admitting girls to their choir in 1978. England joined the party when the brand new girls’ choir at Salisbury Cathedral sang its first evensong on October 7th 1991* [see footnote]. I remember it well as I had just arrived for my second year as a music undergraduate at Oxford when news filtered through. I recall having conflicting emotions: while I was delighted for those girl choristers I also felt somewhat cheated out of an experience for which I’d have given anything as a child. When I’d asked if I could be a chorister I’d received the response “girls can’t be choristers.” Until the age of 18, my sole experience of choral singing had been in my little village church choir where my younger sister and I helped to bring down the average age by several decades. My foster father, Richard, loves to tell the story of how I had recently declared myself “too old for Sunday school” – I was 7 – and so he thought I could join the choir instead. I am eternally grateful to him for this decision; cathedral-standard we certainly were not, but there I learnt to sing Psalms, hymns and, most crucially of all, to sightread, a skill which got me successfully through an otherwise terrifying audition for Schola Cantorum of Oxford in my first term as a student and set me on course for 25 years (and counting) of singing in professional choirs.
Peterborough Choir Tweet

Tweet from February 2019

Happily, most of the UK’s cathedrals now have girls’ choirs as well as boys’ and some are admitting female altos too. Things are definitely looking up. Not all of the girls’ choirs get to sing an equal number of services a week to the boys’ choirs but at least girls now do have the opportunity to have the chorister experience. Peterborough Cathedral this week tweeted that one of their girl choristers was going to be conducting an anthem during evensong; what an absolutely brilliant experience for her. Who knows? That may well be a defining moment in her career as a choral conductor. Within the Oxbridge collegiate and choir school system the wheels of change turn more slowly but they are turning: ten years ago St Catharine’s College in Cambridge blazed the trail for collegiate girls’ choirs and, in September 2018, Pembroke College in Cambridge launched its girls’ choir, directed by the brilliant Anna Lapwood. As an organist, she is also an important role model for any girls who may still be wondering if “girls can’t be organists”. Oxford has been slower to catch up but, in 2014, a group of forward-thinking parents helped to set up Frideswide Voices which gives girls the opportunity to sing evensongs in Oxford college chapels and, two years later, Merton College set up its girls’ choir.

This is all well and good but anyone in the UK choral scene knows full well the boys’ choirs continue to dominate. Since 1928, when ‘Carols from King’s’ was first broadcast, it has been a mainstay of Christmas and now millions are able to listen to it across the world. For girl choristers, there are still no scholarships or other financial incentives towards their education which are equivalent to those offered to boys. The good news is that people have started to notice the inequality; the bad news is that polemical articles, designed to sell newspapers rather than to effect change, do more damage than good because they risk alienating or even vilifying the very people we need to get on side. As someone who spends a lot of time in Cambridge, attending evensongs at St John’s, conducting my all-female a cappella group Aquila and coaching the choir of Trinity College in their jazz repertoire, I can confirm that there is genuine fear that introducing girl choral scholarships will somehow dilute or spoil the boys’ experience or, even worse, kill it off completely. Don’t forget that in state primary schools it’s near on impossible to get boys to sing at all, hence the need for the brilliant initiative Sing Up , and so we must tread carefully (and get our facts straight). What we need, if girls in Oxford and Cambridge are ever going to be offered a chorister experience which is on a par with that afforded to boys, is a level-headed, well thought through, properly organised and brilliantly executed plan. Plans are afoot and nobody need worry. The future is bright. Watch this space.

* It has been pointed out to me since the publication of this article that there were other girls’ choirs in England before 1991, including at Leicester Cathedral in 1978. However, Salisbury Cathedral was, I believe, the first to form a separate girls’ foundation. Thank you for your comments.
I welcome any comments which are helpful to the discussion from people who understand the complexity of this matter better than I do. The more informed we are, the better chance we stand of finding a solution which is good for boys and girls. Thank you.

• King’s College Service (RSCM) world premiere is on 4 March 2019 at King’s College, Cambridge, as part of their celebration of women composers for International Women’s Day.
Twenty-first-century Woman is available to download from all music platforms on 8 March 2019, International Women’s Day, raising money for girls’ education globally.
A place for us maids world premiere is on 28 April 2019 at Trinity College, Cambridge, celebrating 40 years of women being admitted as undergraduates at Trinity.