Founded in 1924, only two years after the BBC itself, the BBC Singers were the first radio chorus in the world. They remain the only full-time salaried choir in the UK. Approaching their centenary, the group have been thrust into the national limelight in a way few anticipated: by their proposed shuttering. 

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the BBC Singers
© BBC | Mark Allan

The national response and outcry to this abrupt decision was heartening. Yet despite the BBC subsequently backtracking on its decision, the future of the group is by no means certain.

These events have ironically done much to attract attention to the Singers’ distinctive role – both as a part of the BBC’s fleet of musical ensembles, and in the UK music world generally. The group has a rich history of presenting new works, including many BBC commissions. Premieres given by the group include important pieces by Webern, Poulenc, Milhaud, Boulez, Birtwistle and Judith Weir.

Curious to know more about what being a member of the Singers is like, I spoke to mezzo-soprano Jessica Gillingwater, who has been a member of the group for six and a half years. “We sing such a huge variety of music,” she says. “In the last couple of weeks, we’ve done everything from synthy backing vocals, to very full-blooded Poulenc; we have opera choruses coming up in the Last Night of the Proms, we’ve got an entirely a cappella programme after that. So within the course of two weeks, we’ve got four wildly different programmes.”

Mezzo-soprano Jessica Gillingwater, on the right
© BBC | Mark Allan

Preparing such a range and quantity of music can take a toll on the body too. “Very often we sing for five hours a day. That can be quite tiring, quite fatiguing! I don’t think even many opera singers sing for five hours a day.” Despite having regularly sung with the group as freelancer, becoming a full staff member initially posed some problems. “I found the first year quite devastating, I was so knackered all the time!”

The full-blooded Poulenc that Gillingwater alludes to is Figure humaine – we spoke only a few days after the Singers’ performance at the Proms with Sir Simon Rattle. One of Poulenc’s most remarkable works, it sets texts by Paul Éluard, written in the midst of the German occupation of France. Its final song Liberté is especially poignant, combining Éluard’s playful surrealism with a sincere yearning for liberation. Éluard’s litany of anaphora is set as an ever-accelerating cascade, passed between the two six-part choruses, before a heart-stopping ending.

The BBC Singers perform Poulenc’s Figure humaine at the Proms on 27th August

Premiered in a radio broadcast in March 1945 while the liberation of France was still ongoing, it’s an emblematic work in the history of the Singers. The two recent performances have been standout moments in an emotional and testing year for the group. “The invitation to sing with the LSO in April was something that we all felt absolutely overwhelmed by,” Gillingwater says. “Sir Simon is just a compelling musician, but he’s also extremely personable and kind, and also engaged industrially, which means a lot to all of us at the moment.” At that time in April, the continued existence of the group was still very much in doubt.

Tenor Peter Davoren adds: “A huge amount of thanks also have to go to our chief conductor Sofi Jeannin, who was essentially our chorus master for Figure humaine. Her deep knowledge of this music, and the text, has really allowed us to be text-led. It was great preparation.” Éluard’s “poetry is so extraordinary and resonant in a modern context, but also in its historic context,” Gillingwater says. Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the whole piece comes right at the end, with the spine-chilling top E.

The ending of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine
© Salabert | IMSLP

As a group that frequently sings new repertoire, I wondered what it’s like to sing difficult material? One example is Xenakis’ extraordinary Sea Nymphs, written for the BBC Singers in the early 1990s. How can a singer stay oriented when immersed in such a densely chromatic texture?

Gillingwater is fortunate because she has perfect pitch. “Unfortunately that’s not super helpful in terms of giving strategic advice to other singers! I tend to know what the notes are. But sometimes in music like Xenakis, you can really get turned around even if you do have a good sense of pitch. For me, it’s about doggedly practising complicated intervals… and finding strategic allies in the group, to inform where you’re going to go and how you’re going to move through complex passages.”

“When it comes to pitch,” Davoren tells me, “I try to look at the page and locate a note that is being sounded most often. I’ll try and use that as my home base. I’ll sing the note again and again in my head, and I’ll always have a place I can refer back to.”

Iannis Xenakis’ Sea Nymphs (1994) sung by the BBC Singers

Poulenc’s Figure humaine also has its challenges, with harmonies frequently moving through distant modulations quite rapidly. “At certain faster moments, it can be hard to register the changes in tonality,” Gillingwater says. “You get those amazing block chords, but sometimes you just kind of wobble if they’re in a strange inversion, or you’re just not on them long enough for the sound to properly register. Fortunately there’s a couple of us who will just doggedly adhere to whatever they think is absolute. And everybody kind of locks in to those people!”

Another emotional moment for the Singers this year came in May, when the group gave the UK premiere a new piece by Kaija Saariaho, Reconaissance. Saariaho was herself too ill to attend rehearsals, with the group working instead with her son and librettist Aleksi Barrière. The performance came only a few weeks before the composer’s death in June.

This week the group returns to the Royal Albert Hall for a Late Night Prom on 7th September. Joanna Marsh’s SEEN manipulates the sound of the group in real time with live electronics, over a 20-minute duration. Soumik Datta’s Awaaz combines the group with Indian classical instruments, with Datta himself on sarod, together with two musicians performing tabla and mridangam, instruments originating from opposite sides of the subcontinent.

For Davoren, it has been a standout project to be involved with: “discovering a different musical culture, it felt like I was almost a child again. Being introduced to music for the first time is unbridled joy.” Davoren is also excited by another project later in October, which sees the group collaborating with the New Young Voice Collective. The combined choral forces will perform a new work by Kim André Arnesen.

Peter Davoren leads a singing class
© Ben Durrant | BBC Singers

The project with the New Young Voice Collective represents a part of the Singers’ ongoing educational and outreach work, especially with schools and young musicians in East London. “Going into schools in Newham, and the other primary schools we’ve been to, has absolutely amazing,” Davoren tells me. “It’s been great getting the children to sing with us in four-part harmony at times, in rounds, or various exercises and games, and just seeing the source of raw joy that children can get from singing.”

For Davoren, this work is personally resonant too. “I came from a working-class background: I came into music totally by accident. There was a visiting music teacher who came to our primary school once a week, and he saw something in me. He said, ‘I think this boy needs piano lessons’, because I was a fidgeter in class, a bit unruly. I was a bit of a cheeky, naughty boy at school! He suggested the answer would be giving me something creative to do with my hands. And I haven’t looked back since. I feel so lucky to be doing what I do for a job, and I just wish that it didn’t come down to luck at all.”

The BBC Singers perform Soumik Datta at the Late Night Prom on 7th September, and perform with the New Young Voice Collective at Milton Court on 13th October.