Alexander Armstrong’s address to the Friends of Cathedral Music

Here is the text of the superb address given by Alexander Armstrong at the recent FCM Diamond Jubilee concert in St Paul’s Cathedral. Compulsory reading for all involved in Cathedral Choirs!

Your Royal Highness, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen: good evening! What a spectacular event this is and what a great honour it is to be a part of it. I am thrilled to be here. Moreover, I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you briefly about the tremendous privilege of choristership: the single greatest leg-up a child can be given in life.

Now, I know that sounds overblown and, yes, it is a bold claim but the more I think about it the truer I realise it is. Someone made the mistake of asking me during an interview the other day what the benefits are of being a chorister. Well that interview ended up overrunning by half of an hour and I was barely halfway through my list.

The most obvious benefit is the total submersion in music. This is a ‘compleat’ musical education by process of osmosis. When you come to hang up your cassock for the final time at the age of 13 you will – without even having realised it was happening because you were just having a lovely time singing – have personal experience of every age and fashion of music from the ancient fauxbourdons of plainchant, to the exciting knotty textures of anthems so contemporary that the composers themselves might very well have conducted you. You will have breathed life into everyone from Buxtehude to Britten to Bach to Bridge to Bax to Brahms to Byrd to Bairstow to Bruckner to Bliss (and that’s just the Bs I can think of off the top of my head). But you will know them, know them and love them in the way only a performer truly can. Choral music, to this day, has the power to move me so profoundly that I can lose myself in it for hours and just ride out the happy contemplations it evokes. It is a constant and lifelong tiding of comfort and – euphoric – joy.

Then there is the musicianship you absorb as a chorister, not just the music theory, the maths (the Italian!) all of which is very useful, but elegant musical phrasing, the projection of good diction, the shaping of beautiful vowel sounds for optimum tone, the careful precision singing a psalm, which can only be achieved by listening intently to those around you and blending your tone and rhythm with theirs – all of these skills and sensitivities become second nature and all of them have strange and unexpected use and resonance in later life.

And then there’s the language – and I don’t mean the salty badinage of the vestry but the liturgy you’re immersed in, the psalms, the collects, the canticles – the poetry you get to sing (Herbert, Donne, Milton, Shakespeare, Hardy, Auden are all poets I first learnt to love – Christopher Smart even – by singing and performing their words). Your lexicon at the age of 13 is astounding, and your turn of phrase, taught by endless psalms and hymns, and not just the range of your vocabulary but your innate sense of the poetic. You will have come to know only too well the powerful quiet of an evensong, the sumptuous echo of a final amen sung from an ante-chapel but rolling around the clerestory like wine in a taster’s glass.

And let’s not overlook the discipline of choristership; the order it brings to a young person’s often chaotic life, the friendship, the focus. Punctuality is one of the first lessons you learn: the ignominy of arriving even a minute late is something no chorister wants to experience twice. Then self-possession, decorum and grace are all attributes you quickly learn to fake – in the first instance – before adopting them for real as you gradually mature. But where else in the modern world is a child taught gravitas? Where else is a child taught, for example, to bow with proper dignity and humility?

I owe my entire career to my experience as a chorister. It was where I learnt to perform, where I learnt to use the full range of my voice; where I learnt to listen, where I learnt to write comedy, where I learnt to carry a pencil at all times – but most importantly it was where I learnt the wonderful truth that something exceptional, something as beautiful as anything anywhere, can be created just by you and your friends. I remember on a choir tour to Salamanca (ooh travel there’s another benefit!) exploring the old cathedral with a couple of friends and finding ourselves alone in some sort of chapter house, we fired off a Boyce 3-part canon just to test the acoustics. A terrible, toe-curlingly self-indulgent thing to do but what a sound we made! And what a thing to discover: that we three – children essentially – carried between us all the components of something so joyous, so perfect, so complete. (And Boyce! There we are, there’s another B for my list.)

I was lucky enough to be a chorister at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh which had a good mix of boy and girl choristers as is now fairly typical in cathedrals up and down the country. And both there and at Trinity College, Cambridge where I ended up as a choral scholar, I sang with people from all walks of life (many of whom had their entire educations – at some of the country’s best schools I might add – paid for by the music they had first learnt as choristers). I sang alongside some people of different faiths and plenty of none at all. And I am always heartened by the ethnic diversity in our cathedral and college choir rooms. So you see, you don’t need to be a boy to be a chorister, you don’t need to be a toff to be a chorister, you don’t need to be religious, you don’t even need to be Christian. Although as I say that I’m aware there is a certain spirituality that all choristers come to know well – something that lurks in the silences of a darkening nave while rush-hour traffic chugs about just yards outside the West door. A spirituality that is wrapped up in the ritual, the mystery and the beauty of this ancient tradition we have become part of. And I’m going to call that spirituality The Privilege of Choristership. That is what we are here tonight to celebrate and to preserve for the future, ‘throughout all generations’.

Are you a budding Pavarotti?

We have a vacancy for a new tenor to join the Chamber Choir from Easter 2016. Anyone interested should contact Andrew Russell, our membership secretary, for further information.

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Love Came Down at Christmas – concert

Break out the mince pies – we’re spreading the festive cheer in our forthcoming seasonal concert.

This time we’re swapping the Cathedral for Cradley, in Herefordshire. The village’s St James the Great church is the venue for a sparkling evening of seasonal music and readings.

Traditional carols, some new workings of old favourites and contemporary classics will all feature in our Sunday, December 13 performance.

Interspersed with Christmassy readings and an interval filled with seasonal refreshments, we’re sure the audience will leave feeling suitably festive!

The music 2015cradleymaking begins at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £10 and £5 (students and under 16s) and are available on 01886 880402 or on the door.

Concert focuses on hope and remembrance

THE theme of Hope and Remembrance is very much behind Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir’s concert, taking place in St Martin’s Church on November 7.
Fauré’s Requiem, could not be more fitting for Remembrance Weekend, while JS Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude, containing passages from the scriptures which speak of Christ freeing man from sin and death, represents hope.
Both also offer some of the most sublime music.  Musical director Stephen Shellard conducts the choir, accompanied by Christopher Allsop on the organ.
The concert begins at 7.30pm and tickets (£10 or £5 to students and under 16s), are available on 01386 860389 or on the door.

All Souls’ Day Eucharist

There may be a concert to prepare for, but before that we have an important Worcester Cathedral duty to perform.
We will be taking part in the evening Requiem Eucharist for All Souls Day, November 2, which will involve some wonderful Plainsong and the Contakion of the Dead. The Preacher is Canon Dr Michael Brierley.
The service is always a rather wonderful and contemplative occasion which we all very much enjoy being a part of.
It begins at 7.30pm

Israel in Egypt – concert dedicated to the very special Ian Bell

OUR performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt is now being held in memory of popular Lay Clerk Ian Bell who was due to take one of the solo roles.

Ian, who had been a friend and colleague of our Musical Director Stephen Shellard for nearly 25 years, had been battling a terminal illness for some time and had been expected to sing on Saturday, June 13.

However his health suddenly deteriorated and he died in St Richard’s Hospice at the end of April. His memorial service last month saw Worcester Cathedral packed in tribute with family, colleagues and friends from across the UK.

Ian’s part is now being sung by his long-time friend Steve Grice who joins fellow soloists Vicki Field, David Barclay, Tom Hunt, Sebastian Field and Kirsten Offer.

Dedicating the performance of this magnificent oratorio was the natural thing for us as Ian had often fulfilled the role of solo bass in many previous Chamber Choir concerts.

Stephen says: “On his move to St Richard’s Hospice Ian had asked me for a copy of the Handel so that he might begin to prepare for the performance. He also talked about making an appearance with the Cathedral Choir at Evensong before long. However, fate stepped in and denied us one last chance to hear his superb bass voice.

“It was a pleasure and privilege to have known and worked with him for all those years”

The Worcester Chamber Orchestra will be accompanying on period instruments and we are particularly pleased to be joined by Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir who are the second choir for the many exciting double choir choruses.

This is a rare chance to hear one of Handel’s most exciting oratorios – described as ‘fierce and fabulous’ when it appeared on The Times’ recent Hot 50 list of things critics would pay to see this summer – in the beautiful surroundings of Worcester Cathedral. The concert begins at 7.30pm and tickets cost £15 (students and under 18s, £5).
They are available from the cathedral shop, on 01386 860389 or via www.worcestercathedralchamberchoir.co.uk

Ian Bell

Ian Bell

 

Israel

Become a Patron through our sponsorship scheme

Rehearsals are now well under way for our June 13, 2015 concert, Handel’s Israel in Egypt, which promises to be truly spectacular.

It’s a monumental work and we’re proud and delighted to be able to perform it in partnership with the Lichfield Chamber Choir as well as some superb soloists and the Worcester Chamber Orchestra on authentic period instruments.

Of course, this kind of bold and spectacular kind of event comes at a price.  That’s why, for the first time ever, we are inviting sponsorship through a special Patrons’ Scheme.

For full details see the letter below – we would love to have your support and would very much welcome you in Worcester Cathedral for what promises to be a memorable night of music making.

 

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Teaming up with Elgar Chorale and ESO for special concert

We’re delighted to be performing with the Elgar Chorale and English Symphony Orchestra in a very special concert celebrating Dr Donald Hunt’s 40 years of music making in Worcester.

Featuring soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Tom Hunt, the programme features Sir Edward Elgar’s The Music Makers and Enigma Variations, Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams and Donald Hunt’s own Song of Joy.

Taking place in Worcester Cathedral on October 18 – it should be a great evening!

Oct 18th Poster UPDATED FOR APPROVAL v2