Is there anything more essential to one’s well-being than the sound of an English choir at evensong? Is there, for that matter, any word in our language more beautiful than ‘evensong’, with its evocation of architecture, music and the Anglican liturgy? This is the season to reflect on such matters. On Christmas Eve, Cambridge once again becomes the centre of the world for two hours as the choristers of King’s College celebrate the famous festival of carols and lessons and two days before, in St John’s, Smith Square, the choir of Trinity College will perform Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment.
Moreover, they will be singing from memory. ‘It is a work we have spent a lot of time on,’ says Stephen Layton, the choir’s music director, ‘and we shall never tire of it. One never tires of Bach.’
In his six years with the 30-strong mixed-voice choir, Layton has helped them add another layer to their reputation. Earlier this year they became the first Cambridge choir to win a Gramophone award for their Hyperion recording of the Requiem by Herbert Howells. A real feather in his chapeau, that. But Layton, an organ scholar at King’s in his undergraduate days, is happy to speak on behalf of the great tradition he has inherited, not only his own singers.
‘What you can hear today, every day, in a college chapel in Cambridge has been going on since 1480 or 90, and those two giants of Elizabethan and Tudor music, Tallis and Byrd. It is difficult to argue against the fact that when they were writing that music it was the greatest of its kind in the world. A piece like Spem in Alium, Tallis’s 40-part motet, is one of the wonders of western civilisation. And you must remember, when it was composed it reflected the political uncertainty of that world. A good burgher in Derby could wake up one morning a Protestant, the next as a Catholic.
‘And, think, you can hear this music between four o’clock and seven o’clock every day of the week in cathedrals all over England, entirely free, no ticket required. From Gloucester up to Ripon and Carlisle, down to Exeter, across to Chichester, everywhere. Where else in the world can you enjoy that privilege?’
Nowhere, is the answer. The English choral tradition, rooted in cathedral choirs and the colleges of our two greatest seats of learning, gives the lie to the absurd nostrum that this is ‘a land without music’. It is one of our greatest achievements and is still very much alive, despite the efforts of successive governments to overlook musical education (in the broadest sense) in favour of more practical studies.
‘The moment of transition between speaking and singing is fascinating,’ says Layton, growing lyrical. ‘Your innermost thoughts are given a voice that could not be articulated any other way. It is comparable perhaps with hearing the Tristan prelude, and the feelings that may arouse. It is trying to describe the indescribable. Singing is good not only for developing vocal muscles but also for all those other reasons that help to develop the personality, create a personal hinterland, and enable Johnny to grow into a rounded person.’
It is a great tribute to the musical education his choristers have enjoyed before they go up to college that Layton reckons it takes a matter of hours to knock the choir into shape each September, when ten or so new members replace the outgoing members. ‘We give a public performance, for the old members of the college, and I tell them, “We formed this choir only two days ago.” We can do this because obviously they are bright and also because many of them have attended cathedral schools, which have inherited and maintained the great tradition of choral singing.
‘The student culture of these choirs really is a world leader. You will find that many of the great choral works of the great composers have been performed here, and that keeps the tradition alive. At the National Gallery they preserve their Holbeins in an air-conditioned gallery. We do that with Tallis and Byrd by doing new works. As a performing vehicle our choirs are unique.’ They produce great individual singers, too. Simon Keenlyside, Gerald Finley, Mark Padmore and Ian Bostridge are all Cambridge men.
In his quest to find modern music that will ripen with the years, and become part of that tradition, Layton has cast his ropes across the globe. The Trinity choristers have recorded a CD of songs by American composers, Beyond All Mortal Dreams, and their director has a particular affinity with the choral music of the Baltic states, which can be heard on another recording, the startlingly impressive Baltic Exchange.
‘When I first visited Estonia in the 1990s I found the astonishing fervour of their singing quite an eye-opener. It was tied up with their sense of identity at a time of unrest, with the Soviet Union breaking up, and I had never associated singing with anything political although, if I had thought about it, I would have realised that Byrd was a Catholic recusant in a Protestant country. I fell in love with the country and its culture, and I have returned there many times.’
On that first visit, to a collective farm in Vigilla, ‘where Tchaikovsky had a summer house’, Layton took the sheet music of Purcell’s ‘Hear My Prayer’. ‘I also played recordings of the work, by Emma Kirkby and Victoria de los Angeles, which moved many of them, who had never heard it, to tears. When I returned a few years later I found that the sheet music had gone all over the country!’
Ah, the power of the human voice. What next for the Trinity singers, after the Christmas Oratorio? Silly question! The B minor Mass. ‘It seems to me,’ says Layton, ‘to be every student’s birthright to sing it.’
And not just students. ‘I think that if we all sang in school every day there would be fewer social problems. You don’t need money to sing. You don’t need to buy an instrument. You have one. Singing develops talent, brings comradeship and enhances lives.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012