On singing in choirs

Last Friday I arrived early for evensong at St John’s College, and so sat in the antechapel for 15 minutes listening to the choir practising the evening’s anthem, Bruckner’s ‘Christus factus est’, and then singing through the hymn Bow Brickhill to ‘aah’. Thus it was that I came to think of Mr Wright.

As a little boy, I liked to sing. If you doubt it, here I am struggling through Harold Fraser-Simson’s setting of A.A. Milne’s ‘Missing’ at the age of two. I get a bit lost in the middle, but the very end sees me on surer ground.

Has anybody seen my mouse?

I opened his box for half a minute,
Just to make sure he was really in it,
And while I was looking, he jumped outside!
I tried to catch him, I tried, I tried. . . .
I think he’s somewhere about the house.
Has anyone seen my mouse?

Uncle John, have you seen my mouse?

Just a small sort of mouse, a dear little brown one,
He came from the country, he wasn’t a town one,
So he’ll feel all lonely in a London street;
Why, what could he possibly find to eat?

He must be somewhere. I’ll ask Aunt Rose:
Have you seen a mouse with a woffelly nose?
Oh, somewhere about —
He’s just got out. . . .

Hasn’t anybody seen my mouse?

When I started going to school, though, I didn’t join the choir. I was embarrassed at having a weedy girly voice, in spite of all the other boys being in the same predicament, and in assembly tried to sing in my chest voice as much as possible (or not at all if we were singing something shameful like ‘We are climbing Jesus’ ladder’ which entailed much waving about of arms and, on my part, prayer for imminent death). Though I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, I was also terrified of being asked to sing a solo, which, as far as I could discern, happened a lot to the boys and girls in the choir. Looking back on it now, I’m sure I would never have been forced to do anything against my will, and certainly not by kindly Mrs Cooper who ran the choir (and now sings with me in other ones occasionally).

Anyway, with one thing and another, it wasn’t until after my voice broke at 13 that I became interested in choral singing. I was lucky that my college had two choirs, the main one and the chamber one, run independently and covering different repertoire. With the larger choir, we sang popular stuff – songs and medleys from musicals, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Abba (happy memories here of the basses singing with relish ‘And if he happens to be free / I bet he wouldn’t fancy me’ à la Anni-Frid) and so on – and we had a great time too. If there was the odd duff singer, it didn’t really matter, because young voices generally make a nice sound anyway. It’s a shame that I never thought to make any clandestine recordings of the choir, but I still have old programmes (and illegal photocopies of music) stowed away as reminders in some dark recess of my bedroom.

The chamber choir was run by Mr Wright, a semi-retired teacher of geography and keen amateur musician, and consisted of perhaps ten regulars, mainly students but also some staff, with a handful of irregulars. We were hardcore. You wouldn’t have got just anyone turning up to sing ‘The Silver Swan’ on a Friday lunchtime. And not just madrigals, but also Palestrina’s sublime Missa Brevis, Byrd’s Mass for five voices, bits of Tchaikovsky, and Bruckner’s graduals (see paragraph 1) — even ‘Os justi’, which is not a walk in the park. Mr Wright’s choice of music inspired us to strive for transcendence. He even pulled some strings to get us a little lunchtime concert in Wells Cathedral.

So I salute you, Mr Wright. I may have impersonated you mercilessly in my teens, but I now acknowledge you as an influence as important as the teacher who first played me bits of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes in primary school or the teacher who encouraged my awful poetry when I was about twelve. So much of the music I sang then is still in my blood now, and I am enormously grateful for it.

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