David Hill: America isn’t scared of our ‘elitist’ choral tradition – we shouldn’t be either

'Feel your heart soar': Carols at King's College Cambridge
'Feel your heart soar': Carols at King's College Cambridge - BBC

For centuries Britain has led the world in choral music, be it through the work of our robed Cathedral choirs or the many university chapel choirs up and down the country. You don’t need to be religious to tune in to Radio 3 each Christmas Eve and listen to the tremulous solo at the start of Once In Royal David’s City that opens the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge, or to feel your heart soar with the Hallelujah chorus by Handel – the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. 

English choral music is embedded deep in our bones. It is as able to capture the momentous pomp of big state occasions such as the King’s Coronation, at which Roddy Williams sang so beautifully, as it is the quiet peace of a Sunday afternoon during a church Evensong.

Yet through a combination of educational neglect, cultural complacency and concerns about diversity, inclusion and perceived privilege, choral music is on the cusp of losing its preeminence. Some of our most acclaimed choirs are being allowed to close for reasons that are simply baffling. Earlier this year, St John’s College Cambridge announced it will in June disband St John’s Voices – a mixed voice choir regarded as one of the finest of its kind in the country and which is open to all students regardless of experience.

The amount of money spent by the college on St John’s Voices, which supports the main college choir, is negligible. Yet the closure means that students from ordinary backgrounds at St John’s no longer now have the opportunity to sing in a great choir, which, to use a buzz word of the day, is nothing short of exclusionary. One can only assume the decision to close it stems from a failure to understand the choir’s immense social and cultural value.

Even more staggeringly, in 2023 the BBC attempted to disband its only professional choir, the BBC Singers, which has a world-class reputation, only to reverse the decision following a public outcry. I wasn’t surprised at the attempt – in 2015 there were discussions about the future of The Singers whilst I was Principal Conductor. In both instances the attempt was part of a cost-cutting exercise. But how can you justify getting rid of your only choir, consisting of only 25 people, when you employ 500 musicians?

World class: the BBC attempted to disband BBC Singers
World class: the BBC attempted to disband BBC Singers - BBC

Of course, choral singing is embedded within the Anglican tradition. Congregations in churches may be dwindling, but rarely in places where there is excellent music. Yet even here a possible threat is looming, with Deans and Chapters and their associated Heads of Administration and Accountants reconsidering whether it is affordable. Another issue is the lack of liturgical and music training for ordinands who find themselves feeling uncomfortable or threatened by the excellence of the tradition. The Cathedral Music Trust (of which I am a Trustee) has a very responsible task ahead in helping these choral foundations into the future.

At the heart of all this is the woeful decline of music in schools. In more than 50 per cent of state-funded secondary schools music is not taught throughout key stage three. Only 5,000 students in England took A level music in 2023, down 45 percent since 2010, and the Independent Society of Musicians  has identified a 36 per cent drop in GCSE level pupil numbers.

I fully applaud without reservation the increase of state educated pupils at Oxbridge, but the paucity of music education in the state sector means that fewer of those students are arriving at Oxbridge with the necessary experience. There are many more fine university choirs, of course – at York, Durham, Manchester, Bristol, St Andrew’s, and many more – but such is the reputation of the Oxbridge college choirs that it is often a requirement to have had previous access to a choir. Some Oxbridge choirs have been forced to pay for professional altos, tenors and basses to make up the shortfall – a situation that is not sustainable.

Queen Victoria serenaded at Windsor for her 80th birthay by Choral Societies led by Sir Walter Parratt, 24 May 1899
Queen Victoria serenaded at Windsor for her 80th birthay by Choral Societies led by Sir Walter Parratt, 24 May 1899 - Hulton Archive

Underpinning all this is the damaging perception that choral singing is in some way elitist, exclusive and not diverse. Increasingly in state primary schools, where once hymns would be sung each day at assembly, the only repertoire now taught and performed in is pop music, often sung loudly and in a very low register.

I am a fan of pop songs, but there is so much more available material to enthuse students, be it sacred or secular! What’s more, the “loud and low” approach is ultimately damaging to a singer’s vocal development. I empathise with teachers who have to negotiate the needs of pupils from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds but we should never be afraid of embracing great works of art.

People often talk about increasing access, but if you take away the thing in the first place, no one will have access to it at all. You see this happening all the time in our theatres and operas, which, because of the mess Arts Council England is in, are no longer properly funded.

David Hill: 'We should never be afraid of embracing great works of art'
David Hill: 'We should never be afraid of embracing great works of art' - Nick Rutter

Quite often these decisions are very poorly thought through. It can take years to build up something good, but it can be destroyed in a moment. It seems to me we’ve become frightened of being ourselves. In the arts, we’ve become suspicious of excellence and seem unable to admit that elitism can be a good thing. And yet there are no such qualms when talking about elitist athletes.

This isn’t the case in America. The US has increasingly successful choral programmes in their universities. Many states regard choral singing as a fundamental part of education. I’ve just retired from Yale, where I had the pleasure of being the Principal Conductor of the Schola Cantorum for 11 years.

Nearly all the students at Yale were brought up in the US maintained education sector and many of them are easily qualified to access our universities as choral scholars and academics. Yale is absolutely steeped in excellence and has no shame about saying so. But in England, it’s as if we’re afraid of using that word. It’s typically British to do ourselves down.

'It can take years to build up something good, but it can be destroyed in a moment': Carols at King's College Cambridge
'It can take years to build up something good, but it can be destroyed in a moment': Carols at King's College Cambridge

There are reasons to be optimistic. The number of people singing in the UK (in whatever vocal group) is in excess of two million a week. There are many organisations – the Gabrieli Roar, the London Youth Choir, the Bach Choir’s Vocalise, Suzi Digby’s Voice Foundation to name a few – that work with head teachers in schools and provide the resources that will enable more children to sing. Much more needs to be done to enable them to work with schools up and down the country.

The Royal College of Organists have put in 35 new digital organs into state schools around the country and plan to put in a lot more if they can get the money. Singing is not an irrelevancy, be it at a football match, where it is the most powerful type of expression of support and encouragement, in the shower, church or any other place we might consider. It is the highest form of human expression through “sound”, and from Thomas Tallis to today’s composers such as Simon Lole and Kerensa Briggs, the English choral tradition is one of the greatest in the world. We must do all we can to save it.

David Hill has been the Musical Director of The Bach Choir for 25 years. On May 17, at a special anniversary concert, he will conduct Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Cusp, a world premiere by Roderick Williams at the Royal Festival Hall; southbank.co.uk. He takes Yale Schola Cantorum on a final UK tour from May 28 to Jun 6. ism.yale.edu