The Telegraph, 13/12/14, December brings cold, late nights and work on Christmas day, but young choristers wouldn’t have it any other way, says Eleanor Doughty
Tell most nine-year-olds that they will be missing Christmas Day to spend the precious present-opening hours in a freezing cold, ancient stone building, and they’d probably run away crying. But not the nation’s cathedral choristers.
They are a youthful presence in historic church buildings across the country, from Truro in deepest Cornwall, to Liverpool and the biggest cathedral in the land.
December is the busiest month for cathedral schools, where most choristers are educated. Like election season for politicians and Fashion Week for women’s magazines, the Christmas period is the choir schools’ timetabling nightmare. But it is also the most magical time of year.
Lincoln Cathedral is generally colder inside than out, and was used as a location in the 2006 film The Da Vinci Code. It is almost 1,000 years old, 470ft long and boasts 20 bells. It is also home to a sizeable choir: 17 boys – including two brilliant “probs”, probationers in their first year – 19 girls and 11 men, the “back row”.
They sing six nights a week: the girls Monday and Thursday; the boys Tuesday and Friday. The weekend slots are alternated: one set gets Saturday evensong and Sunday morning Eucharist and matins (complete with biscuit break in between), while the other lands Sunday evensong. The men sing seven services a week, every day except Monday, where they rehearse in the slightly warmer Song School.
When I visit it is late November, almost icy outside, and the choir have just polished off a pre-Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah, a work that has been in preparation since before October half-term.
For day-to-day work, the choir are given a fortnight to learn new pieces before they are let loose on services by Aric Prentice, director of music at both the cathedral and its adjoining school, Lincoln Minster School. He’s been in the role since 2003, and in that time has overseen a £10 million new music department at the school’s senior site, a moment’s walk from the cathedral.
Being a chorister is taxing, and the children are young. At both Lincoln and Hereford cathedrals, the youngest chorister is eight. “It really takes up your life,” says cope boy (head chorister) James. “But in a good way. It trains you up and prepares you, and helps you manage with your homework. I’m really dreading leaving.” Currently in year nine, he will complete his tour of duty at the end of this academic year, a common exit point for young male choristers, as their voices begin to break.
Over the Christmas period, on top of usual services, the choir will put in nearly 30 additional hours. The choristers are in their cassocks every day from the last day of term (December 19) to Christmas Day, when half will be released at lunchtime, and the others will return for evensong in the afternoon.
In recent years, midnight Mass has joined the schedule. “If you do midnight then you get to go home at lunchtime, but if you didn’t then you stay for the whole day,” the choristers chirrup.
This year, the girls are on midnight Mass duty, and the boys all day. “Midnight is the most fun. Everyone is slightly hyper because they’re a bit tired, and everyone’s energy is buzzing. You’re just trying not to have this massive cheesy grin on your face the whole time,” enthuses James.
Christmas Day is the undisputed favourite day of the year. “You wake up and everyone else is like, 'Oh yay, Christmas presents!’ but we get to go to the cathedral,” says cope girl Lindsay. “It’s such a special place, because everyone is your family here.”
Their director shares the sentiment. “The idea of the Christmas services is always much worse than actually doing it,” Prentice says. “My favourite part of the day is definitely chorister practice. I love it; it’s 50 minutes in the morning of singing nice music with nice people. It’s the one part of the day where the phone doesn’t go, and people just leave all of us alone to get on with our job.”
He says “our” job, meaning the choir, too. For it is a job. “It is a massive privilege, being a cathedral chorister,” says one member of Lincoln Cathedral Old Choristers’ Association. “I get goose bumps going back; it’s magical inside, listening to them sing.”
In 1995, Lincoln became the second cathedral in the country to accept female choristers on equal terms with the boys, and is one of few that provide equal singing for both sexes. “We never talk about a girls’ choir and a boys’ choir,” Prentice says. “They’re all the cathedral choir, and there’s just the boys’ section, and the girls’ section.”
The children know the vergers and cathedral staff too, as well as the dean, subdean and precentor. The organist laureate, Dr Colin Walsh, has been at Lincoln since 1988, and is rightly proud of the fine Father Willis organ. The choir sing with the organ every night, in the Gothic St Hugh’s Choir in the middle of the great building, between the Angel Choir and the endless nave that, on Christmas Eve, holds more than 2,000 people for the carol service. “A few years ago, we had to turn people away,” Prentice says.
But it’s business as usual for choirs up and down the country, whether there are bums on seats or not. At Hereford Cathedral, things are a little different, with no girls’ choir. Instead, there are 12 men and 18 boys. “They sing six days a week during term time – eight services a week,” Geraint Bowen, the director of music at Hereford, says. “They’re all fantastically dedicated.”
It seems that if you want to thrive in a choir, you have to be. Di Armstrong, who is responsible for the pastoral care of all choristers at Wells Cathedral School, has 17 boys and 18 girls in her care. “As the mother of an ex-chorister, the prospect of coming back to choir when everyone else is on holiday is always a tricky one,” she says.
“The most important thing for my son was sharing it with all his friends. He tells everyone about the clock striking in the cathedral at midnight, on Christmas Eve, marking the beginning of Christmas, and all of the choristers whispering down the line wishing each other Happy Christmas.”
At Wells, the choristers get a week off between school finishing and the Christmas period commencing. Senior choristers at Wells return to the cathedral on December 19 to prepare for the week ahead: two candlelit concerts on December 20 and 21, followed by the cathedral carol service on December 23 – “the biggest gig of the year”, midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and Eucharist and matins on Christmas Day itself.
Hereford has an extra event on its calendar: the annual Ceremony of the Boy Bishop, held on the second Sunday in Advent. “A recent ex-chorister is invited to hold the ancient office of Boy Bishop for the Christmas season,” Bowen says. “At one point in this service, the 'real’ bishop vacates his throne and the Boy Bishop briefly takes his place.”
As we prepare to gorge ourselves on Quality Street chocolates, and eye up presents under the tree on Christmas Eve, we should spare a thought for the young pupils of the cathedral schools.
In Lincoln, on December 24, the great West doors will be opened – structures that date back to early Norman times. “It’s a great occasion,” Prentice says. “But it does mean that you lose six weeks’ heat in the space of an hour and a half.”
Somehow though, despite the icy wind, there’s a different kind of warmth inside. They call it family.
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