Picture credit: @stjohnsvoices
Artillery Row

Save St John’s Voices

The glorious tradition of British choral singing should be defended

For what is Oxbridge best known? Academic high standards, it goes without saying, and a tutorial system that is the envy of the world. Beautiful architecture and manicured lawns. Producing countless much-loved actors, and countless rather-less-well-loved Prime Ministers. But the other thing that Oxford and Cambridge both do superlatively is choral singing.

For centuries, of course, this was a male preserve: adult male choristers, plus boy trebles. At the Oxford choral foundations (Christ Church, Magdalen, New) and colleges such as King’s Cambridge, this format remains intact – with arguments periodically raging about whether this is a glorious tradition or a sexist relic unbefitting the twenty-first century. But in recent decades, Oxford and Cambridge colleges have augmented their reputation for choral excellence by setting up highly rated mixed-voice choirs. Leading mixed choirs at Oxford include those at Merton and Queen’s, and in Cambridge, those at Trinity, Caius and Clare.

St John’s College, Cambridge has a chapel choir of the traditional type, though in 2021 it announced plans to go mixed, becoming the first such choir, in either city, to admit girl trebles (alongside boys) and female altos. There is no place in this line-up for adult sopranos drawn from the student body, but the college has another forum where talented female students can sing: St John’s Voices, a mixed-voice choir that has been running for just over a decade. In concert it performs a broad range of repertory, from Bach to contemporary composers, as well as participating in chapel evensongs, and it has toured internationally.

Last week the choir announced that the College has decided to disband it in June, and to make its paid director redundant. Why? Isn’t the choir good enough? Enthusiastic endorsements of its recordings from Gramophone magazine and Radio 3’s Record Review, the numerous distinguished signatures on an open letter protesting the closure, and indeed the College’s own statement categorically confirm this not to be the case. Are students having to be dragged along reluctantly to participate? Far from it: their Twitter/X account suggests they are devastated at the news. And there is no suggestion that the choir cannot attract audiences, so what is going on?

The College Council — a management committee appointed by the Governing Body — has conducted a “comprehensive review” of college music and concluded that the money that funds the choir should be diverted to other activities, including individual music lessons, masterclasses in songwriting, community music-making, supporting non-auditioned singing opportunities, and extending the musician-in-residence scheme to jazz and pop. There is nothing wrong with this, though some activities will surely not require much funding, and in any case, it is hard to believe the College could not have afforded to do it all. (St John’s may be at pains to stress that it is merely “breaking even”, but it is nevertheless the second richest college in Cambridge.) The College argues that there are plenty of other singing opportunities in the city, and no doubt there are, but it is hard to quantify what membership of a close-knit choir means to the specific people involved. To break up this cherished community, which brings happiness and fulfilment to many at relatively modest cost, is quite simply a saddening thing. Why not leave it be?

I hoped fervently that this wasn’t ideologically driven, but depressingly it would appear that in part at least it is. A distinctly corporate-sounding statement (“co-curricular opportunities”, “changing needs”) makes the College’s nervousness about classical music abundantly clear, notwithstanding its protestations that it will maintain the main chapel choir and defend academic music. Particularly disheartening — not least in its predictability — is a lame paragraph about student feedback, “needs and aspirations”, and the need to take into account the wider “musical landscape”. 

In the wider higher-education sector, music departments are under threat of closure and the line is being spun that today’s young people don’t want classical music. But how can a university like Cambridge spout this sort of thing? Saying that “students’ preferences and experiences in music today are different from those of previous generations” is not an excuse to disband a choir. Its existence should not hinge on a popularity poll, provided there are enough keen participants. It is similarly feeble to fall back on the excuse that “many [students] have had fewer musical opportunities in school than might have been the case in the past”. So why not give them these opportunities when they reach university? Why compound the failings of the school system? 

All too often nowadays, “broadening opportunities” means closing things down. We are all becoming adept at deciphering this sort of code. Venerable institutions that used to advocate for the arts have fallen into the hands of people who sneer at them or who are fearful of being accused of elitism. We have already seen the BBC’s senior managers do their damnedest to get rid of the BBC Singers, before a public outcry and external financial support forced a U-turn. The Arts Council does not even try to conceal its contempt for what some would call “highbrow” art forms, as its recent swingeing funding cuts make clear, whilst a report it recently commissioned on opera posits the art form’s existing audience as “a challenge”.

Yes, St John’s Voices is only one choir, in a city overflowing with choirs. But that a Cambridge college should become uneasy about supporting the glorious tradition of British choral singing, even to this relatively small degree, sends out a worrying signal. Oxbridge is a rare environment in which choral music is still cultivated to an outstanding level, for the benefit not only of students but of local residents, and wider audiences via broadcasting and recordings. These universities should be the last refuge of things that are serious and of high quality, yet not necessarily fashionable. There is surely no need to pander to “market forces” or “relatability” in this context. Those of us who value classical music are looking to you, Oxford and Cambridge, to hold your nerve. 

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