There is a long held belief in some circles that choral singing was invented in the UK. Certainly Britain is home to some of the finest choirs in the world; The Choir of Kings Cambridge, The Monteverdi Choir, The Sixteen and The Tallis Scholars to name but a few. And this is before you consider the 40 or so Cathedral choirs up and down the country.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the British Choral tradition dates from. An obvious point is the founding of the Chapel Royal in the 11th century in Scotland. It’s important to note that the chapel royal refers not to a building but to an establishment in the Royal Household; a body of priests and singers to explicitly serve the spiritual needs of the sovereign. In 1501 James IV of Scotland established a base for the choir in Stirling Castle.
In England there was a separate Chapel Royal although it followed the same principle as that in Scotland. Increasingly in the seventeeth Century, the English Chapel Royal became closely associated with Westminster Abbey to the extent that around half the Gentlemen were also members of the Abbey Choir. It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that the choir achieved its greatest prominence. This was in no small part due to the fact that William Byrd and Thomas Tallis were joint organists during this period.
By the Eighteenth century there was also a Children’s Choir and some of the boy trebles would sing the soprano parts in Handel’s Oratorios. This period, under the influence of Handel, and later Haydn, saw the rise of choral societies which established the tradition of amateur singing in the UK. A network of choral societies started around the country, with Yorkshire’s Halifax Choral Society laying claim to be the oldest in continuous existence, not just in Britain but worldwide (it was founded in 1817).
As a result of all this long established tradition, British choral singing has an almost magical cachet abroad. The fascination for our Cathedral Choirs and their survival, verges on the incredulous. But the question remains, are British choirs actually the best in the world? To consider this we must consider what defines ‘best’ and go beyond the cathedral tradition to look at the many thousands of amateur choirs which now exist in the UK.
One of the biggest challenges faced by choirs in the UK is attracting an audience to concerts. In part I believe this is due to the huge numbers of choirs now in existence. I started my first community choir back in 2010 – by which time choirs were already popular. But today just a mere 8 years later new choirs are springing up almost daily. The challenge of bringing in an audience is not just limited to community choirs. Even the Collegium Vocale Gent who are one of the best choirs in Europe recently sang to a half-full concert hall, after which their conductor, Philippe Herreweghe, said that coming to London was too difficult.
Part of the problem therefore is we cannot actually know whether our choirs are comparable to others across the world because no one has actually gone to a concert given by a foreign choir to find out whether they are any good. In 2014, in part to address this issue, Peter Phillips started the London International A Capella Choral Competition. In 2014 and 2017 the competition was won by choirs from outside the UK, one in Spain and the other in Denmark. This alone of course does not necessarily confirm anything other than there are good choirs all over Europe.
However, what it does highlight is the difference in funding between the UK and our European counterparts. Many European choirs receive Government funding which allow people too dedicate themselves to the choir and therefore raising the performance standards. Here, funding for musicians has always been limited. Indeed the British orchestras have only recently achieved proper funding, in part due to the influence and assistance from Thomas Beecham. But choirs still remain woefully underfunded. Consequently most choirs rely on their abilities to sightread and produce concert ready performances from very few rehearsals.
Sadly it would appear that the British Government is far to occupied with other matters, mostly centred around disengaging us from our European friends, to consider the merits of a properly funded choral tradition in the UK. For the moment then we shall have to hope that the increasing trend towards joining a community choir continues to remind people that Britain has a rich heritage of choral singing and one which should be nurtured and developed so it continues to be enjoyed by future generations.
Jules Addison has recently started a new Chamber Choir for Upper Voices in Bath called ‘Nuance‘ which focusses on French Music of the 19th and 20th century.