If you’re interested in historic architecture, being a choral composer is one of the best jobs to have. Few other occupations afford so many opportunities to sit in unusual buildings for several hours at a time, staring into space purposefully.
My latest architectural visit, quite incidental to the choral rehearsal I was meant to be attending inside, was to the wonderful Rudolf Steiner House in Park Road, London NW1, part of a traffic gyratory system which I’ve only ever sped round in a car, up to now. Obliged to approach on foot, I thought the building’s street frontage (pictured) looked like a magical few yards of Vienna. Architect Montague Wheeler was an anthroposophical believer, and this unusual place went up during a decade starting in the mid-1920s (around the time of Steiner’s death.) Steiner’s abhorrence of right-angles is just about all I knew of his architectural philosophy, and squareness-avoiding details abound all over this pleasant space; the completely curvy staircase is a particularly fine invention. Our rehearsal took place in the theatre; climbing behind the platform curtains in search of extra seating, we found ourselves in a remarkably deep stage with proper wings. We later realised it must have been constructed for performances of eurhythmy, another famous Steiner activity.
I made my visit in company with six postgrad composition students from the RAM. We’d come to hear Barts Choir in rehearsal, directed by Hilary Campbell, with whom I’m leading a RAM course about choral composition this term. We’ve decided to acclimatise ourselves by visiting amateur choirs in rehearsal – to remind ourselves what it might be like in the early stages when our new choral music is rehearsed. Barts Choir describe themselves as “London’s largest professionally rehearsed choir”, and it was the sheer numbers (around 200 members present that evening out of a possible maximum of 300) that interested me aurally as I sat listening to stretches of Carmina Burana. All of us composers were struck that the vast foundation of the choir was its alto section – an inner voice which we often overlook when composing for chorus. All the other sections were greatly in a numerical minority, and womens’ voices combined (sopranos plus altos) made up 75% of the total. Helping out the outnumbered gents were several women tenors, whom Hilary described as ‘very useful’. Listening and looking at the singers, hard at musical work after a no doubt tiring day spent at their actual jobs, was a real education; and left me with admiration for their cheerful-but-serious concentration over a two-hour period.
[Hilary Campbell was preparing Barts Choir for their musical director Ivor Setterfield. Their usual rehearsal venue is St Cyprian’s Church, Glentworth Street, also well worth a visit.]