Asked to recommend my top London tourist destination (this does happen) my unhesitating answer recently has been Hampton Court Palace. A leisurely half-hour suburban train ride from Waterloo brings you to the door of this supremely important historical building, romantically sited on the River Thames where it starts to get beautiful and green. For anyone interested in the history of choral music, a visit to Matins or Evensong on Sundays in the Chapel Royal is a must. Hearing the choir and organists at work, you can remind yourself that in earlier times this group of people would have included (not all at once of course) Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell.
It’s therefore impressive to know that this particularly historical foundation is on the leading edge of accessibility in recruiting choristers. It’s probable that many leading church choirs are finding this increasingly difficult. Even eight-year-olds have busy diaries these days, and fitting in several practices and services every week would be a challenge for a generation of parents who largely aren’t churchgoers. At Hampton Court though, recruitment seems to be a joyous and enlivening process, via events such as Saturday’s Choir Open Day, when local primary schoolboys accompanied by their families were invited along for a couple of hours to sing in entry-level gospel-inspired workshops and later alongside the Choir in the Chapel Royal itself. After a two week interval (“like the cooling-off period after you buy a washing machine” explained the director of development, Michele Price) application forms are sent out and auditions are arranged.
And it is working, with a sizeable cohort of local state and independent schoolchildren involved in the choir. As an ex-chorister, aged about 14, explained to me at the Open Day, “we now have a big squad, which is useful when there are injuries” (I think he was referring to voices breaking rather than legs and arms). The comparison with sport was instructive, as ever. Major football clubs also recruit boys from age nine upwards into Academies – only to discard nearly all of them when it’s time to join the professional game. Choral choristers however join the ‘first team’ almost immediately (and many of our chapel and cathedral choirs are ensembles of international significance.) Furthermore if the young singers wish, their long-term future as a tenor or bass is very promising – even in the short term, many chapel grads earn their keep with scholarships at schools and colleges. Parents of current and past choristers were present during the Open Day, and spoke warmly about the teamwork and personal organisation their sons have absorbed as fully professional members of a 500-year old institution. It’s a remarkable musical and educational opportunity, available in many English towns and cities, which should be celebrated.
Photo (by Richard Champness) with the gracious permission of HM The Queen.