Without it, there would not be over 80 cathedral and college choirs throughout Britain, nor hundreds of smaller parish choirs. There would not be thousands of amateur choruses  up and down the country. We wouldn’t stand up for the “Hallelujah” chorus, nor tune in to the carol service from King’s College Cambridge every Christmas, nor sing Jerusalem at sporting occasions.

Bob Porter
Bob Porter

The musical life of Britain would be different in many ways if it were not for the British choral tradition. There would certainly be no Brandenburg Choral Festival, the annual celebration of choral music in central London I run during the first four months of the year. It features around 70 choirs each year, singing a wide range of music from across Europe and beyond. That’s another thing to remember about the British choral tradition: it nourished as much by the music of renaissance Italy, baroque Germany, Enlightenment Austria or Romantic Russia as British music.

There’s something so special about the sound of singing voices, whether big or small in number and whether with accompaniment or a cappella. Add in fabulous church acoustics and you get an experience like no other. Indeed, buildings are a good place to start this little introduction. More specifically, cathedrals and their cousins, the Oxford and Cambridge college chapels. By employing full-time choirs, providing a faithful audience with regular helpings of music written specifically for liturgical settings over the past 500 or so years, these institutions form one of the major pillars of British choral singing.

It’s a practice that has its origins in medieval monastic foundations, in which boys and lay singers joined the regular monks as they observed their religious duties. Over time, and surviving religious upheavals like Henry VIII’s breaking up of the monasteries and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the choirs became increasingly made up of lay singers (many choirs now call their men ‘lay clerks’). Today, cathedral choirs are made up of professional adult singers and children, who will sing several times a week in services: perhaps three times on a Sunday, with the early evening service known as choral evensong on certain other days.

For the young choristers, this represents an unparalleled musical training ground, since they meet to rehearse most days and will become familiar with a huge range of musical styles in the four or five years they typically spend doing the job. It’s an opportunity now open to girls as well as boys; until 1991, when Salisbury Cathedral became the first British cathedral to run a girls’ choir, choristers were only ever boys. Many others have now followed suit.

Salisbury Cathedral Girl Choristers and Men of the Choir © Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral Girl Choristers and Men of the Choir
© Salisbury Cathedral

The main Cambridge and Oxford chapel choirs are much the same. The most obvious difference is that the adult members are students, meaning there is a much higher turnover of singers from year to year. Perhaps this is one reason why Oxbridge is responsible for producing so many of the most highly regarded vocal ensembles in the world, the young singers inspired to carry on the work they started together into the professional world. With the King’s Singers, Monteverdi Choir and Polyphony among those from Cambridge, and the Sixteen, the Clerks and I Fagiolini among the Oxonians (and the Tallis Scholars drawing on both), it’s certainly a remarkable influence, and unique in international terms.

Even if they were not Oxbridge students, many professional singers, particularly those specialising in early music, will have had some contact with the cathedral tradition at some point. But it’s far from being the only breeding ground. One distinctive example is the tradition of Welsh male voice choirs, which have their roots in the particular Welsh fondness for hymn-singing in the 19th century. It’s no surprise that the country has become famous for producing world-class opera singers.

Treorchy Male Voice Choir © Treorchy Male Voice Choir
Treorchy Male Voice Choir
© Treorchy Male Voice Choir

Another pillar of the tradition is amateur singing. A network of choral societies crosses the country, with Yorkshire’s Halifax Choral Society laying claim to be the oldest in continuous existence, not just in Britain but worldwide (it was founded in 1817). Several major orchestras operate large scale choruses alongside their symphonic ensembles, including the Hallé Choir in Manchester (founded in 1858, the same year as the orchestra), City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Philharmonia and London Philharmonic Choruses. The BBC does it too, in the shape of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the smaller professional ensemble, the BBC Singers. But there are many choruses and choral societies that also reach high standards and find themselves regularly invited to major festivals like the Proms.

Sir Edward Elgar
Sir Edward Elgar

Festivals represent another mainstay of the British choral tradition. There are many of them and two, dating back to the 18th century, have played a particularly significant role. The Birmingham Festival ran triennially from 1784 until the First World War brought it to a close. Mendelssohn wrote his oratorio Elijah for the festival in 1846 and Dvořák his Requiem in 1891, the former so popular that it became an annual fixture. It was also for Birmingham that Edward Elgar wrote his trilogy of great choral works, starting with another favourite The Dream of Gerontius in 1900, soon followed by The Apostles and The Kingdom.

Not so far away, the annual Three Choirs Festival, rotating between the cathedral cities of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester, dates back even further, to 1729. By no means an exclusively choral festival, numerous works have nonetheless been premiered there including work by Elgar, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells.

The list of repertoire goes on: William Walton’s extravagant Belshazzar’s Feast of 1931 and Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony of 1910 were both first performed at the Leeds Festival (now no longer in existence, although the Leeds Festival Chorus that it gave rise to still performs); or the powerful War Requiem by Benjamin Britten, written for the opening of Coventry Cathedral, built to replace the 14th century building ruined by wartime air raids; and Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, written during the war years and first performed in 1944. Handel’s numerous oratorios, Purcell’s odes and anthems; the sacred music of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons; the highly popular music written more recently by John Rutter… all go to make up one of the most developed and multi-faceted musical traditions to be found anywhere.