Sweet singing in the choir: preparing for Christmas with Salisbury’s girl choristers

For the choristers at Salisbury cathedral, Christmas is the busiest time of year.

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From the top of the tower at Salisbury Cathedral, you can see the whole world. Or, at least, the world as it appeared to the masons who completed the spire in the early 14th century: the lead roof of the nave and the houses huddled in the cathedral close a hundred metres below, then the water meadows and the River Avon beyond and, on the horizon, the site of the first cathedral here, the Iron Age hill fort of Old Sarum. In the stillness, a flock of birds swoops between the tower and cloisters, perfectly synchronised.

Down below, fir boughs are being brought inside to decorate the cathedral. With a chill in the air and the forest scent rising from the heaps of greenery everywhere, it’s easy to imagine that the vaulted roof is open to the wintry sky. Not all the adornments are so traditional this year, though. Beside the customary garlands and candles is a shape-shifting laser star, designed by the creative coding artist Jayson Haebich. An algorithm controls what shapes and colours the lasers project on to a transparent screen suspended from the ceiling, ensuring that the star never repeats a pattern.

There’s a startling mixture of ancient and modern when the choristers arrive for their 8am rehearsal, too. On the day I visit, it is the turn of the girls’ choir to practise in the cathedral’s centuries-old song room. Its members file in wearing long, royal-blue cloaks over pink leggings and sparkling denim – the school that they attend in the cathedral’s grounds is having a charity home clothes day, so uniform rules have been relaxed. Once they are assembled in formation, their director of music, David Halls, briskly takes them through a rigorous, hour-long rehearsal for the coming services, breaking only to check the cricket score on his phone and share a few jokes with the girls.

These 16 girls, who are aged between eight and 13, share the musical duties at the cathedral equally with their counterparts in the boys’ choir. There is evensong every day, plus Sunday services, BBC broadcasts, special concerts and tours to fit in with their schoolwork. The same professional singers provide the lower parts for both the girls and the boys, and all of the children are expected to sing to the highest standard.

In 1991 – 900 years after the first boys’ cathedral choir here was founded in Old Sarum – Salisbury became the first English cathedral to form an equal and separate girls’ choir. Since then, all but four (Chichester, St Paul’s, Oxford and Hereford) have added girl choristers in some capacity, though Salisbury is still unusual in having gender equality between its choirs. Other cathedrals, such as Winchester and Canterbury, use older girls from all over the diocese and most of the day-to-day musical work is still done by the younger boys who attend the cathedral boarding school.

Over coffee in the refectory after the rehearsal, Halls tells me that people have finally stopped writing to him to complain about Salisbury’s decision to appoint full-time girl choristers. “It’s so tedious,” he says. “When we started [including] the girls, one of the great worries was that it would kill off the boys’ choirs. Well, it hasn’t, not in cathedrals anyway.”

In 1991 a pressure group called the Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir expressed concern that Salisbury’s actions were motivated by political correctness; it still maintains that girl choristers imperil “traditional” cathedral music.

Halls feels differently. “It’s mixed up with other things, a bit like women priests,” he says. “I suspect it’s about more than the music.”

Physiologically, the vocal equipment of boys before puberty is very similar to that girls at the same stage, he explains, so their singing isn’t that different. “Here, they sing in the same building, the same people train them, they know the house style that I like – it’s not a surprise that they sound pretty similar.” At Salisbury, the two choirs sing together for works such as Handel’s Messiah, to great effect.

Christmas is the busiest time of year for the choristers. They return to school after term has finished and sing as many as three services a day until Christmas Day. Katie Darke, a 13-year-old chorister, says that they call this time “chori hols” (short for chorister holidays).

“It’s full of things. We go to the hospital and sing carols. We do all the services and midnight Mass. That’s a good one – we stay up until 12am.”

When I ask if there is a favourite piece of music that they do at this time of year, the girls agree that Christmas carols are pretty fun to sing, though Imogen Moorsom, 12, adds that Haydn’s Missa Sancti Nicolai, which they will sing for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, is also “really nice”.

She explains that spending part of your holidays at school, working, isn’t so bad. “Generally I get bored when I’m at home. It’s not boring here.” It isn’t all singing, either: the congregation pays for the choristers to go on an outing to the pantomime and the boarding-house staff organise lots of festive activities. As for working with their boy chorister colleagues: “They’re annoying,” says Beatrice Fisher, 13. “It depends on the boys,” Moorsom qualifies.

“Often you find that busy children are really happy children,” says the boarding-house mistress, Simi Slade. “They absolutely love it. They all pull each other along.” The children have a schedule that most adults would find stressful and tiring, and so Slade and Halls have to work hard to keep the choristers well rested and in good health.

Although midnight Mass and the Christmas Day services are the blockbuster musical events of the season – thousands pack the cathedral to hear the choirs – it is evensong on 24 December that Halls looks forward to most.

“We’ll have done the family service just before it, with nearly 2,000 people in there, kids screaming, donkeys all over the place. Then we do the evensong. And you think, ‘This is actually what we normally do.’”

With the young choristers in good voice for a selection of “nice, friendly music”, it’s a small moment of calm in a hectic season.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016