As you are doubtless aware, this has not been a good week for choirs – particularly amateur ones. Following government guidance on singing in church choirs issued on Friday evening, which stipulated that a maximum of only six amateur singers were allowed to rehearse together or sing as part of an act of worship, the world of church music was taken aback by this unexpected announcement. With a further announcement on Tuesday from the DCMS which now extended  this ‘rule of six’ to encompass secular choirs, the entire choral music scene was completely stunned, perplexed and, in many cases, outraged.

This new guidance is supposedly part of the government’s step three on the roadmap to easing lockdown restrictions and gradually opening up the economy. If it is now deemed safe to attend a football match, go to the pub, visit a night club or eat in a restaurant  – let alone hug auntie Flo and great uncle Albert – why is it possible for only six, socially distanced, amateur singers to join together for a rehearsal or church service? At Tewkesbury Abbey, we are blessed in having two totally separate choirs — one professional, and one voluntary. The fact that the former is presently allowed to sing services in our glorious building and the latter is not is indicative of the lunacy and sheer injustice of the present situation. If we are ‘following the science’ as Oliver Dowden feebly claimed when questioned in parliament on this subject on Wednesday, where is the scientific evidence that states that only amateur singers can catch coronavirus and that professionals are immune? Just a few weeks ago our Abbey choir risk assessment was described by the local environmental health officer as robust and approved by the RSCM  – the safety of our singers has always been and will remain the priority. The same will be true of CCS.

I, like others, have written to my local MP and Mr Dowden to express my displeasure with the recent announcements and, in particular, at the way amateur singers are being victimised by this present guidance. If you feel strongly about this subject I would urge you to do the same. There is now, of course, some concern as to what the next set of guidance will say with regard to singing. We are still crossing our fingers for 21 June but, as this past week has highlighted, there are no guarantees.

SINGING IN CATHEDRALS Alison Norris tells us about some of her choral experiences:                                   

Carleton’s piece about S S Wesley in an earlier newsletter reminded me of when I sang “Ascribe unto the Lord” with the Harsnett Choir in Durham Cathedral at Evensong on Sunday 12th August 2012. It was a great way to end our week as the visiting choir when we sang all the services which apart from daily Evensongs included a Sung Eucharist celebrating a Golden Wedding on the Saturday (the Mass setting was Mozart’s Coronation Mass), as well as Eucharist and Matins on the Sunday.

Durham Cathedral

The Harsnett Choir is one of the many visiting choirs welcomed by cathedrals when their own choirs are on holiday and our main focus is on a week in August, but we also cover weekends and Bank Holidays.  The choir was originally formed in 1984 from members of the parish choir in Chigwell, Essex but has expanded to include members from as far afield as Derby but most come from the Home Counties. This is possible because we don’t meet up beforehand but learn most of the music, chosen by our current director Ed Sutton (with the approval of the cathedral), at home, thanks to links to websites like CPDL. This means we are expected to be note perfect before rehearsals and very good at sight reading to learn the rest of the music that isn’t available in advance.

I joined in 2001 and have been privileged to sing in over 30 cathedrals and abbeys all over the country from Durham to Winchester, Hereford to Norwich and some more than once. Of the ones that stand out, I remember Ely as being one of the coldest.  Liverpool was of course the largest (we joined up with another choir as we were double booked, which is not unknown as we have to book years in advance and cathedral administration is not perfect, but it meant a bigger sound!). York was the most terrifying as services were always packed with tourists.  St. Paul’s Cathedral had the most security procedures. 

Exeter Cathedral

Exeter was the most hospitable (drinks at the Precentor’s house after Evensong one day) but my favourite was probably Salisbury as our accommodation was in the Cathedral Close, only minutes from the cathedral so no mad rush in the mornings to get to practices.

Salisbury Cathedral by John Constable

Out of all the music we sung, I will just pick out some of my favourites.  As our week in August generally coincided with the Feast of the Transfiguration on the 6th August, a popular choice for the anthem was O Nata Lux by Tallis but we also sang the version by Morten Lauridsen. The Stanford canticles were a regular feature and sounded particularly well in Liverpool’s vast space. Quieter anthems we sang frequently included the Ave Verum by Mozart as well as Byrd, Purcell’s Thou knowest, Lord, Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre and Bruckner’s Locus Iste .  Over the years our director has always chosen a variety of music reflecting the great traditions of cathedral music from plainsong to contemporary and we have been constantly challenged musically. I have wonderful memories of the cathedrals visited which were always very appreciative and happy memories too of friends, (we did enjoy a good social life too!) but sadly like all choirs and choral societies the Harsnett Choir has had to take an enforced break, but I am very much hoping to sing with them in October this year at Portsmouth Cathedral which will be the first visit there for me. 

Portsmouth Cathedral

(Here are some of the pieces which Alison has mentioned with the music so you can exercise your voice by singing along:

O Nata Lux by Tallis: https://youtu.be/6HFvgjCOo70

O Nata Lux by Lauridsen: https://youtu.be/Rp_aEG3H-1k

Ave Verum by Mozart: https://youtu.be/DsUWFVKJwBM

Thou knowest, Lord by Purcell: https://youtu.be/Pf_84OQgZSg Ed.)


Perhaps it was at one of the Cathedrals mentioned by Alison where a new sound system had been installed and the priest thought he heard an odd noise from a loud speaker as he was about to pray, ‘The Lord be with you.’  He whispered, ‘There’s something wrong with this.’ The entire congregation responded with, ‘And also with you.’