In From the choir stalls to the altar, Madeleine Davies of the Church Times hears about the former glories of the Anglican sacred choral tradition, and efforts to revive it. It’s a piece worth reading, not least because it recognises some of the social changes that have had an impact on choral singing, and especially children’s choirs, and makes some recommendations for how to proceed from here.
But I’ll admit I also went on a bit of a rant about it on Twitter. The idea of revitalizing and renewing choral singing, and especially children’s choral singing, is so very important! Yes, we need to encourage this work! But rebuilding a sacred choral tradition must look forward as well as back. Of course there have been widespread societal changes; but it’s not enough to say “but we had choirs before” and blame telly and football and higher divorce rates and a different school set-up. That’s not, in fact, what the article is doing at all, thankfully, but it does seem to paint a picture of a glorious bygone age and suggest that we can return to that by spending a little bit of money on music, or finding the magical “right person” for a post.
The article does mention that running a children’s choir requires resources, but I think it glosses over the difference between what many churches have available to spend now, and what the standard was a hundred or even fifty years ago. For example, it was once fairly common practice to pay choristers for singing, not just in cathedrals, but in many parish churches too. It was often only a token payment, but it still said “your time is valuable to us” and that’s important. I’m not sure when that practice stopped, but I am sure it could help with the problems of patchy attendance that so often cause problems for choirs today. Another example: there used to be various organist posts with tied housing, and a salary, and paid assistants (yes, that’s plural); many of the same churches now don’t pay enough per year to put you over the income tax threshold, and I have no idea what happened to the housing. But training as an organist hasn’t gotten any cheaper, and fitting the work around a day job is more possible for some than others. I don’t mean to be discouraging: music is always worth an investment of resources. But it’s important to be realistic about what sort of resources were once made available, and make sure our expectations match what we’re putting in, not our nostalgia for how things once were.
Now let’s talk repertoire. Let’s talk about not just picking up where you left off and singing the sacred choral classics of 50 or 100 years ago, or indeed 400 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff, but we need to be singing new work too, and it needs to be normal.
And while you’re thinking about that, think about what has happened to the publishing world in the last 30-50 years, especially small publishers that do niche deadtree publishing. Sheet music publishers, in other words. They’re feeling a lot of economic pressure. So they’re mostly publishing music they know will sell; but most churches aren’t buying much sheet music these days. That means it’s harder for new composers to get published; that in turn means we put our work online instead, which is great but honestly, who wades through that? Many of the composers don’t have their work arranged liturgically, and every website is different.
This is partly where Cecilia’s List comes in, of course: highlighting music by women, who are massively under-represented in the standard sacred choral repertoire. Why is this? It’s because for all the resources thrown at that beloved tradition, girls didn’t get to sing as much.
Maybe they got to sing in the parish choir, but by the time cathedrals would have them, there were fewer services and fewer choirs. And then when (if!) they got to university there was little place for them in the college chapel choirs. And the ones good enough to go on and sing in cathedrals? Not allowed until relatively recently.
You can crunch it however you like, but the fact remains that girls and women were sidelined under that tradition which people are so keen to rekindle, and recent changes, made in the context of ever-diminishing resources, have been tiny. So of course fewer of them composed sacred music; and of course many of those who did, lacked the professional contacts to have their work sung. And so we come to a situation where in over a year of weekly churchgoing, I heard only a handful of works composed by women. The vast majority of services I attend include only music written by men.
I can’t solve the resourcing problem: that’s a challenge the whole church has to face together. The Church Times article has some great examples of the sorts of things that can be done with children’s choirs, and I absolutely agree that if you’re going to throw resources at sacred music, children’s choirs are usually a great place to start.
I can’t convince those who will hear no criticism of the inherited tradition that they should not content themselves with only singing work that is composed by white men, most of them old or dead. People are mostly polite about it, but I have had a few people tell me, in all seriousness, that singing music by women doesn’t matter because we have girls in choirs now, or that they only select music by quality and not by gender. I’m certain that such people mean well…. but, as Rosemary Field of the RSCM is quoted in the article that prompted this post, with reference to children’s taste in music, “…actually, they are only exposed to what they are exposed to. If they have not seen all the choices, then you get a skewed answer.” I respectfully submit that the same applies to gender balance.
But for those who do want to make a difference, for those who cherish our inherited sacred choral tradition and also want to do better, for those who truly want all humanity’s voices heard in all parts of the church? I can make choosing music a bit easier. I’ll be starting small, but adding new works each week will mean that eventually, Cecilia’s List will become a substantial and significant resource. Hopefully, people will use it; hopefully, the balance will begin to shift; hopefully the times when I attend a service with four to eight pieces of music and all of them by men will become the exception, rather than the rule.
But it’s a big task, and I can’t do it alone, even slowly. Please help me if you can. Please follow this blog. Please suggest some music — your own or someone else’s. Please tell someone who’s involved in church music about the work I’ll be doing here.