Girl choristers singing in the cathedrals of the United Kingdom have become an increasingly common sight (and sound) but this wasn’t always the case. As our grand finale to Choral Month, we asked David Hill, Director of Music at Winchester Cathedral from 1987 to 2002, to reflect on the move to introduce a girls’ choir to the cathedral’s music-making. Salisbury was the first English cathedral to admit girl choristers. David’s daughter, Alison, attended Salisbury as a chorister from 1993. Here, she recalls her time there, the sound the girls produced and their rivalry with the boys!

David Hill © John Wood
David Hill
© John Wood

During nearly 15 very happy years spent as Director of Music at Winchester Cathedral, we achieved many things of which folks should be proud. The appointment of Katherine Dienes-Williams as Organ Scholar in the early 90s (now Organist and Director of Music at Guildford Cathedral) and Sarah Baldock as Assistant Organist and Director of the Girls' Choir (now Organist and Director of Music at Chichester Cathedral) were a signal to ‘Cathedral Music’ that females should be given a real opportunity to join what had been the fiefdom of males for centuries. Sarah's appointment coincided with the decision to form a Girls' Choir: I felt strongly that such a choir needed its own identity and Director and Sarah proved to be the just the right person.

Winchester Cathedral Girls' Choir © Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral Girls' Choir
© Winchester Cathedral

The decision to form a Girls' Choir was after a number of years observing how others were developing. With my own daughter, Alison, as a chorister at Salisbury with Richard Seal, the ‘Father’ of Girls' Choirs, I was thrilled she could experience the music, boarding and all the other privileges afforded to choristers. However, it became clear to me that Winchester needed to create something that was different, not least for reasons of cost. There was no way we could afford to add hugely to the already large cost of the music unless we dismantled the system completely. The Pilgrims' School, which educates the choristers at the Cathedral and the Quiristers at Winchester College, unlike Salisbury's Choir School, are not co-educational.

So, instead, we conceived the idea of a Girl's Choir which would allow local girls the opportunity of singing at the highest level, with the Lay-Clerks, at one of the Sunday services, thereby experiencing first rate music in front of the largest congregations, week by week. Additionally, there were other occasions when they would sing mid-week and, of course, at the major Festivals. Most of all, it has proved to be incredibly competitive to join, massively successful and an integral part of the music in Winchester. Its affordability has allowed the boy choristers to continue their work. Lest we forget, the importance of maintaining a boys' tradition is of paramount importance if the future of choral singing remains intact: they are the future tenors and basses, along with some not bad counter-tenors! It is a model that has worked and the small part I played in its inception is something I am thrilled we did.

Alison Hill
Alison Hill

In 1992, my parents took me to watch the recently-formed girl choristers of Salisbury Cathedral sing a weekday evensong. From that moment on, particularly after doing a load of somersaults on a dormitory bed and making some new friends that afternoon, I was completely determined to become a chorister and was delighted when I was offered a place to start in September, 1993.

A typical week in the choir involved early morning or lunchtime rehearsals and then evensongs on Mondays and Wednesdays. The boys choir rehearsed separately and sang on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we shared the weekend services. There was so much to do to fit in school work and matches around the commitment of services but I remember, perhaps through rose tinted spectacles, that it always felt like a privilege to be a chorister and never a pain!

There was a fair amount of healthy rivalry between the boys and girls choir but it was also matched with respect for each other and I think we all enjoyed the festive moments where we sang together. It was always accepted that the girls and boys voices differed, and thus the choirs had their own sounds. The jury was out over which side was “better”, though of course both choirs insisted it was theirs! I remember that the boys tended to make a more strident and bold sound and could often reach the heights with greater ease than many of the girls, but our own choir had a gentle, rounded softness to it that could charm the listener differently.

I absolutely loved my time at Salisbury and treasure the memories of special events such as 'Darkness to Light' at Advent and the Easter dawn service. The opportunities that we had to make music together and to live together created incredibly strong bonds of friendship that have lasted into adulthood. I also feel lucky to have had the musical training from that time which undoubtedly has helped shape my career as a classical singer. It seems incredible to look back and realise that there were no opportunities like these for girls before the inspiring and pioneering decision of dear Dr Richard Seal to set up the girls choir at Salisbury. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for that amazing, life changing opportunity, and for opening up the chance for all girls to sing in cathedral choirs.

Salisbury Girl Choristers © Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Girl Choristers
© Salisbury Cathedral

 

Renowned for his fine musicianship, David Hill is widely respected as both a choral and orchestral conductor. His talent has been recognised by his appointments as Chief Conductor of The BBC Singers, Musical Director of The Bach Choir, Music Director of Southern Sinfonia, Music Director of Leeds Philharmonic Society and Associate Guest conductor of The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and from July 2013, Principal Conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate by the University of Southampton in 2002 in recognition of his Services to Music. 

Alison Hill sings with The Monteverdi Choir, as well as the Tower of London Choir, but also sings with Polyphony, Tenebrae, The King's Consort, Cappilla Cayrasco, Galan, Sarum Consort and London Voices. She has just completed a Masters degree in climate change and I help run a charity in India that provides choirs for children in the slums and brings over professional international musicians to work with them. Alison has recently recorded Howells' Sine Nomine as a soloist with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.