The Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge, to Perform at St. Paul’s

The University of Cambridge goes back a very long time indeed, founded in 1209. The choir of Christ’s College Cambridge isn’t quite that old, first breaking out in song in the early 1500s. But compared to musical ensembles in the United States, Christ’s College choir has centuries of tradition behind it—and you can hear this highly experienced chorale July 9 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.

While perhaps not as well-known as the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge, the Christ’s College choir is wonderfully accomplished. The choir often performs with orchestra and has recorded extensively.

The choir’s repertoire is a blend of sacred and secular, though its principal focus is religious.

“We sing services in the college chapel,” says Professor David Rowland, the choir’s director of music and professor of music. “We do two services a week, on a Thursday evening and a Sunday evening. Some other colleges sing slightly more, and some do just once a week. Sacred music is our primary purpose. We sing quite a lot of music at each service—probably, if you counted it, six or seven pieces—and mostly they are fairly new pieces. I try to give the choir as much experience of a broad range of repertoire as I can.”

The Christ’s College ensemble has quite a bit of music to draw on—everything from the immortal English Renaissance composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis to music from the present day, such as that of Annabelle Rooney, who was once a music student at Christ’s College. The choir is getting set for a new recording, which will include the works of Hubert Parry, among others.

If your idea of an English choir is a blend of men and boys’ voices, Christ’s College choir offers a difference. 

Before the late 1970s, the choir had some sopranos in it, says Rowland. They were drawn from Cambridge’s women’s colleges and from throughout the town. Then, in October 1978, Christ’s College admitted women for the first time. 

“Once women were admitted, we were able to have women join from the college itself,” he says. “I joined the college in 1984, just a few years after it had become mixed, and so I had the benefit of being able to draw on them. Before that time, whoever was running the choir had to run around Cambridge desperately trying to find women to sing soprano.”

The choir maintains high standards, so there’s a good deal of competition to get into it. Choristers are drawn from all the colleges of Cambridge, not just music. 

“Most of them, though not all, have had singing lessons before they joined the choir, and that’s a very good thing because some of them come as very experienced singers,” Rowland says. “But particularly for those who haven’t had the experience of singing lessons before, we arrange for singing teachers to come up from London, and that makes a huge difference. Voices at this age develop hugely very quickly, and there are some spectacular cases where somebody who had hardly any voice when they joined the choir, within a year they may have developed quite a big voice, a much more experienced voice. That’s one of the great rewards for me. I love seeing that development.”

From time to time, those well-developed voices go on tour. On this occasion, the choir is embarking on an East Coast tour, which will take them to Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston—and, of course, Chestnut Hill’s St. Paul’s Church. 

Expect quite a varied performance.

“It’s pretty representative of what we sing in chapel, so it’s mostly liturgical music from Tallis up to some of the things we’ve recently recorded by living composers and all stations in between,” Rowland says. “We try to mix it up. I try to incorporate everything from the 16th century onwards. In chapel, we sing short pieces, anything from a couple of minutes to six or seven minutes. A tour gives us the opportunity to sing much more extensive music. We’re doing a piece, for example, by Gerald Finzi called ‘Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice.’”

Also on the bill are Herbert Howells’ Requiem, a piece by Judith Weir written in honor of the queen’s jubilee, and another composition by Hubert Parry that was performed at the queen’s coronation. A musical feast for devout Anglophiles.

St. Paul’s came to Rowland’s attention because of the church’s robust music program.

Andrew Kotylo, director of music and organist at St. Paul’s, is pleased Rowland and his staff made that choice.

The pandemic put a damper—to say the very least—on St. Paul’s highly regarded music program, but things have picked up in recent months, including the always eagerly awaited Christmas performance by the Mendelsohn Club in December. “We’re doing what we can right now to make St. Paul’s a center for good music for the community,” says Kotylo. “The Cambridge concert fits in with what we want to do.”

If you’d like to hear this world-class choir, the concert begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 9. St. Paul’s Church is at 22 East Chestnut Hill Avenue. Tickets are $25 at the door. Masks are optional.