Moment of history for Chichester Cathedral Choir

2022 will be a landmark year in the rich and remarkable history of Chichester Cathedral Choir.

Chichester Cathedral Choir - photo by Ash Mills
Chichester Cathedral Choir - photo by Ash Mills

This is the year that, for the first time ever, Chichester Cathedral is going to open its doors to girl choristers.

Charles Harrison, Organist & Master of the Choristers, is delighted with the response to the announcement which was made just before Christmas.

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Already there is a buzz and excitement about the new chapter in the choir’s story which will open later this year; already there are plans to make a commemorative recording this year of the choir in its final months in its current format.

As Charles says, the decision was an inevitable one. The only real question is how he and the cathedral will make it work. But confidence is high – particularly as the decision means effectively doubling the pool of talent on which the choir can draw.

“Having one team of choristers singing seven services each week is a wonderful, immersive training for the children, and it plays to the high musical standards that we aspire to.

“Rather than running two choirs, we will continue with one, inviting girls and boys to work side by side on equal terms.”

“It is historic,” Charles said.

“Chichester has had only a boys’ and men’s choir for centuries and while many other cathedrals have introduced girls in the last 20 to 30 years not too many of them have they taken the decision to mix boys and girls in a single treble line.

“Salisbury were the real pioneers in 91 but their decision was to bring in a second treble line of girls so you have got two choirs with the same back row.

“What we are doing is that we’re going to continue with a single choir and it will be a mixed choir.

“The big questions are will the voices blend together and will the children get on.

“On the question of vocal blend I am not very concerned.

“My understanding is that the vocal physiology of the age group that we will have is quite similar and I did run a girls choir in Lincoln where I was before coming here.

“It’s certainly true to say that when girls reach mid teens then there are vocal changes putting more colour and more maturity to the voice

“But in the age group that we have I don’t think the difference between the boys and the girls is going to be very significant.

“As a corporate musical instrument, there are no grounds for worries.

“As for the social question how the boys and girls get on together, you have boys and girls together in school settings and in social situations already of course, and I would think that most of us would certainly hope and like to see a society where men and women work together in every situation.”

Charles added: “I think it was inevitable that we should make this change. It is the right thing to do to get the girls involved in our cathedral music making.

“The only question really was how we would do it and whether we would introduce a whole second line of trebles.

“But the other thing about having two choirs is that they would only have half of the experiences perhaps that one choir would usually have.

“Each choir would do half the services a week and the individuals would have a slightly diluted experience compared to what we have now.

“They would only have access to half the repertoire I thought that the best thing musically and also socially was to bring them together as a single team.

“Something that I have really loved since coming to Chichester has been the sheer intensity of working with the same team for seven or eight services every week.

“You can really aspire to high levels of performance when you are doing that and the choir have my full attention.

“You would not have to have two directors working with two different teams.

“At the moment we have allowed 14 choristers that are singing plus four probationers.

“We’re going to push the total now up to 20 from 18 to allow us to appoint equal numbers of boys and girls from each year.”

Charles has been delighted with the response to the news.

“When we made the announcement I was I was isolating because I had Covid but we had a meeting of all the choristers and their parents and the lay vicars and the reaction has been really positive.

“There has been no resistance at all.

“One of the boys asked a perceptive question about head chorister, whether we’d have one boy and one girl and I have not quite worked that one out yet.

“And someone else asked if we could make a recording just to chronicle the cathedral choir in its last year in the current format and I do think it would be very interesting to do that to have in our archive.”

So is there a feeling of sadness as an era which has lasted centuries now slips away?

No, not at all.

“I don’t feel sad about it. I’m anxious about making it work. And I think we can make it work.

“I’ve not done it before. It is unknown territory for me.

“But I think there are plenty of reasons to think that it is going to be a success.

“We will have a much wider field to recruit from.

“We are effectively doubling the field so that more excellent candidates can come forward and I also think there is a buzz and excitement about the whole thing.”

As for the timetable, girls as well as boys will be able to audition for places in the cathedral choir from the start of the next academic year in September 2022,

Choristers attend the Prebendal School, a co-ed, independent prep school immediately adjacent to the Cathedral, and receive a scholarship towards their school fees.

Choristers spend about 18 hours each week rehearsing and singing services, as well studying two instruments and following a full school curriculum of academic work, sport and drama.

The musical and academic education offered by the cathedral and The Prebendal School is a springboard for future success.

Many choristers go on to win scholarships at prestigious secondary schools, where their choral training, discipline and team skills are highly valued.

Recently, two Chichester choristers have won the BBC Chorister of the Year competition, while many others have secured sought-after places at top universities and music schools.

New chorister recruits, or probationers, now to include girls, are first given a grounding in vocal technique, sight singing and the structure of services. They then progress to play a full part in the life of the choir which includes making recordings, broadcasts on local and national radio and European tours.

Probationers usually join in academic years three or four, but vacancies occasionally arise in other year groups. The next open day will take place on Saturday, March 5 2022.

Further details will be posted on the Cathedral website.

The Cathedral provides a minimum 25% scholarship for all choristers, with further support available on a means-tested basis.

The Dean of Chichester, The Very Rev Stephen Waine, said: “Music lies at the heart of the spiritual life of Chichester Cathedral and we remain committed to the ongoing provision of financial, educational and pastoral support for our choristers giving them a rare musical, educational and Christian experience that will remain with them throughout their lives.

“We are delighted that this opportunity will now be available to girls as well as boys, broadening participation in the great tradition of cathedral choirs.”

Louise Salmond-Smith, head of The Prebendal School, said: “This is a marvellous development for the choir.

“And I am overjoyed that girls will be able to take advantage of the immeasurable musical and non-musical benefits that arise from being part of such a prestigious ensemble.

“The cathedral choir will, in turn, benefit from being able to recruit choristers of the very highest calibre regardless of gender.

“At The Prebendal School we work exceedingly hard to promote equal opportunities to all of our pupils.

“And I could not be more delighted by this significant and most welcome change.”

More details from www.chichestercathedral.org.uk.