In 1914, Oscar Schmitz declared that Britain was ‘das Lande ohne Musik’ and when it comes to the average fare on-offer at any of the myriad Choral Societies across the country, it feels that we’re trying to prove him right.
Look across the sector and one can easily see how programming has become lazy, music is derivative and uninteresting, standards low. With such sweeping generalisations there are, of course, always exceptions and the magnet cities such as London are very different.
What is going on? Why can I see any number of mid-Romantic Requiem or Liberace-esque ‘contemporary’ composers across our towns but if I want to see an amateur group tackling Birtwistle or a mixed-programme from Byrd to Bruckner, these are only on offer in the city-based chamber groups.
I think that the key to this conundrum lies in the perfect storm of events which have hit in the past couple of decades.
First, we have to look at the secularisation of society and the associated death of music in schools. Many of the traditional Choral Societies were formed as an extension of the singing activities associated with church-going and other regular communal singing that happened at schools on a daily basis. Those days are gone – young (and that really does mean under-50) do not go to church and schools – unless private or with a strong music remit – don’t have assemblies where hymns are sung and many no longer put-on music and drama events. My son, (now 21) was offered no music tuition through his schooling and the only end-of-year show he was involved in he was dressed-up as a pine-tree dancing to a backing-track. Pianos have gone out of schools together with peripatetic music teaching much of which has been demoted to failing third-sector organisations.
Second is the aging demographic, which, coupled with the continuing self-isolation from cultural life of many in their 40s and 50s, is frightening choral society committees into survival mode – simple, easy-listening repertoire which puts bums on audience, and member, seats.
One particularly crusty choral director I was talking to recently was bemoaning the fact that the entire Soprano section was past it and should be moved to Alto but that they couldn’t attract the ‘university student with choral scholarships because they are all going off and founding their own groups.’ Correct but that is not the fault of the singers; it is the fault of the committees for failing to ensure a good turn-over in membership and keeping the interest levels up through challenging repertoire selection and dynamic MDs. As a younger member once put it to me – ‘why do we always sing some version of death in Latin – I never learnt Latin and I’m not religious.’ Most young people, if they go at-all, will only frequent a church for hatch, match and dispatch and maybe not even then.
Third is the rise of the opportunistic choral composers who have spotted a niche market for cheese in its various forms. Tonal, traditional, warm and comforting but essentially dull and very, very samey. Some know and freely admit what they are doing – John Rutter, for example, is a self-declared atheist on record as saying that his music is ‘derivative’ and designed to appeal to the very conservative choral mob – but the others really do play to the crowd either by tapping into well-known classical ‘bangers’ or simply having more fromage than France. Unfortunately, this bites twice; first, the innovative, modern composers are increasingly isolated to the very good semi-pro groups who are prepared to put the time in and second that committees, desperate to put on more-and-more concerts that they know will attract fare-paying passengers, will avoid programming anything controversial or ‘difficult.’ The result – you can’t put a cigarette paper between the programmes of any one of a hundred provincial choral groups with identikit output.
Another worrying sign is the rise of the ‘come-and-sing experience.’ Whatever the rights and wrongs of the prohibition of choral singing in the pandemic, a few business-minded people spotted another gap in the market to fleece the predominantly wealthy, older choral member by providing an event tied to a ‘Big Name.’ The latest offering is the promise of 24 minutes on-stage with Tenebrae to sing two incredibly easy pieces – Allegri’s Miserere and Tallis’ Spem. For the 3 hours ‘tuition’ and 24 minutes ‘sing’ but probably more importantly to have bragging rights that you’ve ‘sung with Tenebrae’ that’ll be £595, thank you. Not only does it massively belittle the years of training a professional choral singer has put in, it brings in a level of sports-like commercialisation that I for-one don’t want to see.
Some will baulk at my use of the word ‘provincial’ but we have to tackle this head on. Within London (and I suspect our other metropolitan cities), the situation is very different. There are any number of smaller, younger chamber groups, mostly auditioned, mostly formed by city workers or dwellers who had been in one of the youth choirs or had a choral scholarship as part of their university life – the law as a profession seems to be over-represented and I’ve come across both ex-choral scholars and NYCGB alumni as the bedrock of quite a few of these groups. The last thing they’d programme is a piece of Paul Carr, Bob Chilcott, Rutter or Gjelo – they may throw in the odd piece of Whitacre or Lauridsen but you are more likely to hear Roxanna Panufnik, Weelkes, Caroline Shaw, Telemann, Byrd, Monteverdi, Bruckner, James MacMillan, Tormis, Ligeti, etc. The key is variety and upholding unashamedly high standards.
Unfortunately, I fear that unless we start to see some differentiation in groups outside of the cities, these traditional societies will vanish as soon as the current membership does.
So, what to do? We need to be bold in our choices of repertoire and, being blunt, if that puts off some of the more conservative members who then leave, so be it. Quite honestly, at 56 I should not feel like the youngest in the choral groups I’ve been to but increasingly I do. We need to be willing to form smaller, more specialised groups, maybe ones that meet fortnightly to accommodate younger members, only put on one or two concerts a year. We need workshops run by interesting vocal pedagogues offering something more than just a blast through Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, e.g. Scott Inglis-Kidger’s excellent Early Nights in Battersea. Where there is a university, college or academy school with a music/drama bent, we need to be organising our groups with them – I’m sure a few A-Level music students would love to form a 2-per-part madrigal group with a few experienced singers, for example, and potentially help them win a choral scholarship to help with university costs.
We were denied the joy of singing together for so long – let’s work to rejuvenate it for the 21st century, not confine it to the 19th?
Featured image by David Beale on Unsplash