Last weekend I spent a weekend camped out in Lichfield Cathedral, and I don’t mean sleeping in the cathedral. I was part of a reunion choir, the St Teilo’s singers. We’ve sung together for the past 15 years, taking our name from the church we were originally based at, St Andrew and St Teilo’s, closely associated with the Cardiff University Anglican Chaplaincy.
[simage=23,200,n,left,]I’ve written before about my feelings on choral singing, but this weekend reminded my of how different it is almost any other sort of choir I’ve been in and how much I love it.
The members of St Teilo’s singers are spread out around the country, so we only rehearse at the start of the weekend. During the course of the weekend we sing for 3 services at a cathedral, drink rather a lot by way of celebration, and have a jolly time. Saturday Evensong, Sunday Eucharist, Sunday Evensong. Its actually rather a lot of music, similar to doing 3 x 20 minute concerts from scratch.
Evensong is one of the great traditions of the Anglican church and is uniquely British. Romans have something called Vespers which is similar. It derives from an ‘office’ (a name given to any church service which doesn’t involve communion) called evening prayer, with some parts of it sung instead of read. Originally it would have been plainchant but because the Church of England were not shackled to the church of Rome, it was more flexible about the type of music it allowed to be performed as part of worship, leading to some of the most beautiful music in existence.
This service is actually quite short lasting 30 – 45 minutes depending on the choice of music. Only the 2 readings (one new and one old testament) and the prayers are said, everything else is sung. There is actually provision for whoever is in charge of the service to sing those, if they so wanted. The sung parts are usually sung by a choir while the congregation sits quietly, hopefully being inspired into a higher plane of existential thought. These parts are:
- Responses and Preces – Bits where a ‘cantor’ (usually a priest, but can just be someone in the choir with a nice voice) sings something like “the lord be with you” and the choir respond with “and with your spirit” in glorious harmony or simple plainchant.
- Psalms – Sung in a homophonic style where all the voices are in harmony but ‘move’ or change note and words together. The A former Bishop of Llandaff always said in his west-wales drawl “Sing your psalms and you can keep the rest”
- Canticles – These are hymns which are made from words taken directly from the bible. The words are always the same in evensong, 2 passages from Luke’s gospel called Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis.
- Anthem – This a religious text, either from the bible or a religious poem set to music.
Many composers, particularly British ones have made their entire careers out of composing music for these different parts of evensong. Famous composers like Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar, and Thomas Tallis have all made stunning contributions but so have other composers who would never normally see the light of day like Harold Darke, James Turle and Sir Edward Cuthbert Bairstow. Many of them were organists and choir masters for either prominent church choirs or cathedrals. While they are champions of music to almost everyone who has sung in a church choir, sadly many are largely unknown outside those circles and because of that their music is seldom heard.
Cathedrals are great places to sing evensong because they mostly have terrific organs and sumptuous acoustics. If it is too echoey in a cathedral you don’t get to hear the music terribly well, and end up with a sort of blanc-mange of sound (St Paul’s in London is particularly guilty of this if you sit in the wrong place). The best place to sit is next to the choir in a part of the church rather perversely called the ‘Quire’.
There is nothing quite like choral singing. Seriously, there isn’t. Most choirs will receive applause for the performances, no such luck for choral singing. Rarely is there an announcement when the music begins, and when it finishes the best you can hope for is a satisfied sigh as you half-sit, pretending to kneel before the vicar says “let us pray”.
One of the settings we performed this weekend was Harold Darke’s mass in E major. The organ was slightly sharp so it was more like F major, leading to the age old chorister joke of “Darke in F” or “F-in Darke”. I can tell you, we’ve sung plenty of Scheidt in our time!
Singing in some of the most sumptuous acoustics, beautiful buildings in the land, then getting delightfully tipsy on gin afterwards is truly wonderful.
St Teilo’s singers
Clearly a group I’ve sung with for 15 years must be pretty special. Sometimes it feels more special needs. One constant factor is our conductor, Dr Christopher Maxim who I have known since he was a PhD student and I was an undergraduate. It is simple to see that the reason there is a large core membership who turn out year after year because of his demand for high quality and a genuine enjoyment for the challenging music we sing.
Anyone who knows me, knows how much I detest team sports. The only redeeming part of them is the selfless ‘team’ aspect. Some of my best friendships have been born out from years of being in a different sort of team, where everyone has to support each other and keep the music sounding heavenly.
If you fancy a listen to us, go to Chris’ website.
Next time you have a couple of hours to spare kicking about in one of the many great cathedral cities of UK, pop into the cathedral and give evensong a try. Make sure there are people sitting in front of you because there are odd times where standing up happens without warning. No-one will bother you afterwards and you can slip out without putting your hand in your pocket. You might just experience one of the hidden gems that British choral music has to offer.
Alternatively you could tune into BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday afternoons for Choral Evensong brought from one of the cathedrals of the UK. Its perfect when you’re in need of something to accompany a nice cup of tea.
We received the high accolade from a Cathedral. Not “You sang beautifully”, or “your choice of music was excellent” but “you’d be welcome back any time”.