Behind the Scenes: New College Choir

The original and energising sound of one of Oxford’s choirs as listened to by Rosa Schiller-Crawhurst  

New College Choir needs little introduction. Regarded as one of the best choirs in the university and indeed the world, the work of a few dedicated musicians has kept the choir at the top of its game. 

Edward Higginbottom is one of the UK’s most acclaimed musical directors. An expert in Renaissance, Baroque and Classical Choral repertory as well as engaging in twentieth century music, he divides his time as director of the choir and music faculty member. Under his leadership rehearsals are disciplined and controlled. The seriousness of the choir’s rehearsal space allows fast paced practices, a somewhat stark contrast to my own much more light-hearted and sheepish approach to choral singing. It is obviously imperative the reputation of this choir steeped in tradition is maintained to the highest degree. In the decades leading up to the Reformation in England, church choirs were heavily criticised by the state for their sloppy conduct, rowdy behaviour and poor musical knowledge. You get the feeling, however, that this wouldn’t have been an issue here. New College Choir has had a prominent place in British musical history for centuries. Founded by William of Wykeham, who rebuilt Windsor Castle for Edward III, he provided for sixteen choristers and clerks to sing the daily office in his medieval chapel. The choir has maintained its tradition and role as a religious choir as well as developing into an internationally respected company. In the last week alone they have performed Choral Evensong on Radio 3 and a Jubilee concert at St David’s Cathedral featuring works from Handel, Purcell and Boyce. It appears few musical works are beyond the easy capability of such a group of singers. 

There is no need to tell these singers to watch the conductor, barely any tuning is required and entrances are rarely sloppy. The rehearsal is perfunctory and brief – a chance to adjust the balance of sound and texture of the music. Instructions that come from the director refer in an abstract way to how he wants a particular note to “ring”, “brighten”, or “frolic” and his conducting directs the changing pace and dynamic, indicating the arrival points in each phrase subtly and unsettlingly lightly. There is no time or space for mess or fuss. A few cross words are directed to the small, mostly blonde choristers at the front (whose ages range between seven and thirteen), who are occasionally reprimanded for picking their noses during their verse in the psalm. For such small children, their discipline is startling. Used to seeing boys of that age irritating most people in sight with their uncontrollable energy, it was a bizarre experience to see them concentrate for such a long period of time. Their musicality at such a young age is simply extraordinary. They have more practice time than the rest of choir, rehearsing most lunch times as well as before the regular practices. An all male choir produces a very different sound to that of a mixed one. It is simply tradition that means that this practice has survived at New, but it means it has organically become part of the sound they produce. The high pitch of the boys produces an innocent and pure sound, starkly different and separated from the mature, booming and powerful lower parts. Regular practice ensures that this choir sing as a unit – a good singer does not necessarily mean a good choral singer, but the ability of this choir to listen and respond to the voices around them is obvious – being taught to sing by the same person in the same way makes for a unified set of voices, regardless of complication of huge age discrepancies within the group.

New College evensong is always busy (unlike at most colleges which tend to be able to muster a few dedicated CU members and some stragglers looking for a free dinner) and it is during the service that the energy that the singers put into their music becomes apparent. Performing to a different audience most evenings demands huge energy; as a singer in Wadham choir I am very used to the reassuring routine of an evensong. As a stony atheist I was initially dubious about joining a church choir. However, there is something strangely hypnotising about the ethereal nature of sitting in a candle lit, stained glass chapel every Sunday still singing an anthem written hundreds of years ago –  even if I choose to ignore most of the words. When New perform an evensong their professional approach is evident – words of the psalms, Magnificat and Responses are so clear, their expression so precise that the pace of the music is fast. I’ve always thought that an indication of a good choir is their ability to make a psalm interesting and not mechanical, and New manage to zip through it, swelling and dying at the natural points cleverly. New College Choir covers many avenues of musical excellence. Their functional nature of performing daily services to a congregation is stepped in tradition and custom and is overwhelmingly professional. And yet, there is something much more than just function and excellence to this choir. They are original and energising to watch, constantly evolving into a modern choir and exploring new avenues.