Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Oxford, New College School

Origins in the fourteenth century

New College chapel
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
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After his pardon by Richard the Second, William of Wykeham founded his New College in Oxford in 1379. He was then in his late 60s and, as the expectation of life at that time was very far short of what it is today, that was quite a considerable age – actually, he lived until 1404. He decided to establish a body of singers and clerics who, at his death and after, would sing mass for the repose of his soul. So he ordained that there were to be ten chaplains, three clerks and 16 choristers on the foundation of the college.

A servant's existence

The choristers were clothed, housed and fed by the college but were treated as servants, having to wait at table and to make the beds of the fellows. Their food allowance was the same as the other servants, eight pence per day. They were taught reading, singing, and the Christian religion as being necessary for their performing of the services. These consisted of seven canonical hours and seven masses a day. Grammar was probably taught to the more senior boys. Their living quarters were likely to have been in a room under the hall. At this time they would have been singing plainsong only, as polyphony did not arrive at New College until the sixteenth century.

The sixteenth century

There must have been little time for learning new part music (there exists a record of some part books sent for repair in the sixteenth century) in that already busy work schedule, for at the Reformation there would have been the additional task of learning everything in English and the new services of Matins, Holy Communion and Evensong. However, not for long as under Queen Mary, from 1553 to 58, the whole proceedings were reversed and for a short while Catholicism prevailed. Protestantism returned with Queen Elizabeth the First in 1558 and the chapel suffered some damage with the destruction of some pictures, statues and the altar itself.

At a visitation of the Bishop of Winchester on 28 September 1566, the choristers were tested to see if they could sing. The results were depressing as only three could. The Informator Choristarum was sent for but nowhere could he be found as he had fled. So it was declared that the boys were to spend much more time learning to sing. At this time metrical psalms were introduced which must have proved fairly simple after the plainsong. The choristers were still treated as servants and there exists some panelling over various doors showing them carrying beer and bread in the 1530s. There was soon a move for the better in their living accommodation for, in 1587, they left the room under the hall and moved to a building between the chapel and the cloisters, which was certainly an improvement. 1620 saw a further move, this time to an opened up attic between the hall and the kitchen for which the accounts mention the slating and glazing.

The Civil War

However, everything was to change in a very short while owing to the onset of the Civil War. Oxford was very much involved on the Royalist side and at one time the king himself set up his headquarters there. In 1642 he ordered that his powder magazine be installed in the cloisters of New College so the choristers had to be moved to what was described as a "dark, nasty room" about which they complained but to no avail. Some boys left to join the soldiers in training and never came back. We have the names of the twelve who stayed; Powd, Kenner, Hall, Stevens, Stubs, Finch, Spimsir, Mailand, Dormy, Whitfield, Wansell and Spooner.

The Restoration

At the time of the Restoration, choral services in the chapel were resumed and it seems that the finding and training of new choristers was accomplished in record time.

Bishop Morley made a visitation in 1664 at which he stated that all were to attend morning and evening services daily, and that in addition Terse and Sext were to be said. Holy Communion was to be celebrated monthly, surplices were to be worn on Sundays and Holy Days, and the system of recruiting boys from poor families was to continue regardless of musical ability.

They were still treated as servants for when they were serving at meals each boy had to make of list of those eating their meals and give it to the steward in charge of buying food. For fifteen of the choristers the allowance for the year 1670 was £94 and five shillings but the sixteenth boy waited on the bursar and only got the leftovers.

James Badger

Matthew Finch was the schoolmaster at this time  and he was followed in 1684 by perhaps the most famous of early schoolmasters, James Badger. For the first time non-choristers were taken and the school’s numbers rose to 100. Entry to the choir being as it was, regardless of musical promise, one hopes that some of the many non-choristers might have been musical and eligible for a choristership when a vacancy arose. Badger was also a fellow and a generous man for he paid for a vestry and a new song room to be fitted. Above all he was an excellent teacher until his death in 1717.

The eighteenth century

Entrance to New College chapel
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
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A yearly custom in the eighteenth century was that on Holy Thursday all the clerks and choristers rose between 2am and 3am and sang an anthem on the tower followed at 8am by prayers and anthems at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, near Oxford, and later by more prayers and anthems in the chapel followed by much needed refreshment.

Early in the eighteenth century, in the Place Book of Warden Purnell, we have a short account of a chorister, Toghill by name, who rose to be head boy and had such an exemplary record in the choir it was felt that he should be helped to take Holy Orders by being granted a place as a clerk. This illustrates the beginning of the college authorities taking the trouble to look after their choristers when they left.

High demand for places in the school

In 1716 a solicitor recommended that a nephew of the keeper of the coffee house in The Turl should be granted a place in the choir; he was said to be well behaved and to have a "pretty voice". In 1764 there were no less than 17 families applying for choristerships. This shows quite a new attitude by the public towards the college and school and, for the short time, the suitability of the boys was taken into account. In one other case a Mr Brewer wrote to the Warden asking for a place for the son of a Mr Robins of Wantage, the Warden replying that the boy must be useful in the choir. Between 1768 and 1772 there were 22 applicants and 15 of these were taken, aged six to 12 years.

Dr Philip Hayes was the son of William Hayes who was professor of Music at Oxford  from 1742 to 1777 and organist at Magdalen. Philip followed the contemporary fashion of holding several offices in plurality. He was appointed organist of New College in 1776 and to the university professorship when his father died. He added the organistship of St John’s College in 1790 plus being a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, St James, London. Not satisfied with these, he added the organistship of Christ Church, Oxford but was ousted by a Mr Norris. However, he was specially interested in the choristers of New College, and a boy called Cox remembered having a voice trial (the first at New College?) with him. He also retrieved the chaplain’s common room for a song room, which it had formerly been before Badger moved it down to the university church in 1694.

In 1797 the choir travelled to London to sing at the fourth Handel Commemoration Service in Westminster Abbey that must have been quite an experience for them. At this time we have a record from the Reverend Gilbert Heathcote of the composers whose music was sung in chapel; they included Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons, Tye, Blow, Clarke, Humphrey, Purcell, Aldrich, Battishill, Bishop, Croft, Greene, Handel, Hayes (father and son), Hine and Weldon. Quite a sizeable crowd.

A small personal history from the late eighteenth century

Early in the twentieth century there was found a piece of paper, dated 1796, which had been rolled up and stuffed into a statue. It was written during a service by a boy, Philip Hewlett, sub warden’s chorister. First he listed the 16 choristers and went on to tell us that chorister Yeates had just left chapel pretending to be ill, but in reality to go to Botley, near Oxford, with a Miss Watson. Then came the fact that a Mr Prickett was reading prayers, and after that a Mr Lardner was reading the second lesson (a Mr Jenkins had read the first). Then the fact that Slattersham’s "bad eye" prevented him from singing a solo because he did not know it. He went on to say that the previous day had been a whole holiday for St Mark’s Day and that only the sub-warden of the seniors was at prayers.

1771 – the school closes

This really does sum up the state of affairs at a service in the late eighteenth century. Was nobody watching the boy as he scribbled away? In fact, was there anyone there to watch? The school had apparently closed in 1771.

The nineteenth century

Stained glass at New College Chapel
Photo by Selva Morales
Some rights reserved

A curious custom

From 1802 and for some years onwards, there started a curious custom for calling the members of the college to dinner. Two small choristers started from the college gateway speaking together in lengthened syllables, saying "Temp-us est vo-can-di man-ger, O seign-eurs". They had to prolong the words until they reached the college kitchen. This custom was discontinued after some decades, maybe when the school reopened, and was replaced by the ringing of the bell from the tower.

The school reopens

It seems that the school reopened early in the nineteenth century for, in 1807, George Valentine Cox appears as master who taught the boys for 50 years, and Dr Stephen Elvey was their organist from 1830 to 1860; he had a wooden leg that greatly impeded his pedal playing. The choristers’ discipline was said to be "shocking" and lay clerks were even recruited from the college "scouts". A glee club was formed in 1839 which was compulsory for the choristers, rehearsals taking place from 7.30pm to 10.30pm in winter, and from 8.15pm to 11pm in summer.

The state of the choir at this time came under review. The boys were said to be inefficient and the lay clerks often drunk. The total cost of the boys’ education and the lay clerks’ pay was in the region of £2,000 a year. However, this was less than the cost of the Christ Church cathedral choir. An experiment was tried during 1858 whereby the lay clerks were replaced by eight or ten choral scholars but this failed as they were not qualified either musically or academically.

1884 – new statutes made

New statutes for the choir were made in 1864 which stated that only the warden could expel a badly behaved chorister and that one of the fellows was to be appointed as precentor who would have the ultimate responsibility for the performance of the choral services and for the behaviour of the boys, seemingly over-riding the will of the master, George Cox who, incidentally, had been responsible for the new and bigger house for the boys and for obtaining a new master for them.

During the 1860s, the school’s quarters were at 26 and 28 Holywell, but moved at some time later to 6 New College Lane, while the boarding house was at 19 Holywell.

Former chorister HB George reminisces

HB George was a chorister from 1856. He said that the choristers lived at 19 Holywell; the junior dormitories were on the first floor and the senior dormitories on the second floor and also in a long, ground floor room at the back of the building. Adjoining this was the stable where boots were cleaned and trunks stored. Also there was a very general room used for prep, leisure, piano lessons, piano practice and as a changing room for sports. He went on to say that there were no carpets anywhere, only plain floorboards. The house had only one bathroom and only one lavatory but there were two outside in the yard. The lighting, cooking and water heating were by gas. He described the weekday routines; after breakfast the boys walked in crocodile from Holywell to New College Lane where lessons and the singing of Matins in chapel took place until noon when practice was held. Then it was back to Holywell for lunch, followed by a short recreational period. They then returned to New College Lane for lessons, practice, and Evensong in chapel, after which they were all back at Holywell for supper followed by bedtime at 8pm.

Mr William Tuckwell succeeded Mr GV Cox in 1857. In the mid-1860s much thought and discussion was given to the daily choral services. At that time, and for many years to come, both Matins and Evensong were sung daily in term time. The question arose, should they continue during vacation? The Bishop of Winchester had the final word. There were to be no services during the long vacation, but they should continue after Christmas and Easter provided there were any fellows or students in residence. A committee was set up in 1867 to discuss whether Matins could be shortened to give the choristers more schooling time. It was decided to omit the Canticles.

The five hundredth anniversary of the founding of New College

The five hundredth anniversary of the founding of New College fell in 1879 and the choir gave a recital of contemporary works by Parry, Sterndale Bennett, Garrett and Sullivan, the organist at that time being GB Arnold, followed a year later by Dr James Taylor. 

Various former choristers remembered their days in the choir. AM Eagleston recollected the atrocious habit of the choristers singing at 7.45am in winter in an unheated room and before breakfast and also that every Saints Day was a whole holiday. G Salmons, another chorister, remembered how they sang at St Peter’s while New College was being restored; he also remembered the school in New College Lane. According to EW Reeves, the school in his time was at 28 and 29 Holywell, and hockey was played behind the school buildings at Parson’s Pleasure. Another, A Shelley, sang at the laying of the foundation stone of Keble College in 1866.

A typical school concert programme in 1870 consisted of 24 items, 18 of which had treble solos. First there was a short excerpt from Shakespeare then part songs and madrigals and, after these, a piano duet arrangement of the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

Normally, a boy would join as a probationer where he would learn the job for about 1¼ years, but some older entrants would go straight into the choir; conversely, some much younger boys would serve their probationerships for three years. The official age for entry was from seven to 12 years, and the leaving age was usually about 14½, but boys were often kept until 15 or 16.

At the end of the century Merton College sold two acres of land to New College on the north side of Savile Road. At the same time the Queen’s College wanted to keep its choir but could not educate its boys any more. The upshot was that New College built a new school, where it still is today, in 1902 and educated both sets of choristers and gained permission to use the playing fields belonging to New College.

The twentieth century

Corbel in the north east corner of
New College Chapel
Photo by "Lawrence OP"
Some rights reserved

Cyril Cyphus was a chorister when the new school opened.  He remembered the timetable there; rising at 7.15am, they were in chapel by 8am; some boys regularly fainted but nobody seemed to take much notice. Breakfast of bread and dripping and tea was served after chapel. Then it was school and Matins from 9am to 11.50am. Practice at New College was followed by lunch, after which there was a period for games on the college field. Evensong was from 5pm to 5.45pm followed by tea, except on Fridays when it was full practice in the chapel. Excluding Fridays there was prep until 8pm after which there was a short period for recreation before supper and bed. Lights out was at 9pm. The curriculum was quite comprehensive, English, Latin, Greek, French, scripture, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, history and geography but as yet no science. Some boys left at 17 having taken the Oxford Senior Local Examinations. Fees for choristers were £6 per term; there were no bursaries but Old Boys often helped out those in financial need.

Hugh, later Sir Hugh, Allen was organist at this time and one of his choristers, JH Alden, later recalled that after voice trials at both Magdalen and New College, he was accepted at both, but his father preferred Hugh Allen to Varley-Roberts at Magdalen, so he found himself at New College. He remembered that leave was strictly regulated and only with parents. Buying sweets at a small shop near the school was strictly forbidden. A master always attended services in the manner of a private detective. The practice room of today had not changed much except for the positioning of the piano. It was the custom on Sunday mornings to visit the lodgings of the Warden, the Reverend WA Spooner – of Spoonerisms fame, for an hour with Mrs Spooner and Rosemary Spooner. The seniors went first and the juniors followed. The ladies would read the Bible to the boys, then sweets would be handed round and, finally, part of a good book would be read. In fine weather this would take place in the warden’s garden or, alternatively, the boys would sometimes be taken up the tower.

In any free time that they had they would play chess, card games or indulge in stamp collecting. There was intense rivalry between the choirs of New College, Magdalen and the cathedral; New College was said to have sung a Nunc Dimittis composed by a fellow of Magdalen correctly, while the other two had come adrift. Jesu Priceless Treasure at Friday Evensongs apparently caused some irritation among the Fellows owing to its length and their desire to get to dinner. Alden went on to say that there were few treats or highlights in those days but he remembered the Gaude, the warden’s Christmas Party and the Sunday evenings in July after Evensong when the choristers were allowed to stroll in the gardens. The headmaster, Mr Francis Carter, terrified the boys by being "absurdly strict", Alden continued. The annual Christmas carol service was always sung from the ante-chapel, and the carols were taken from the Cowley carol book. There was very often a string accompaniment. Every year there was the Pastoral symphony from The Messiah, with the oboe stop on the organ, also The Time from Sleepers Wake.

There were four dormitories at this time, number four on the top floor being considered the most élite. There were a number of day boys who were rather looked down on by the boarders. The only instrument tuition was on the piano taught by a Mr Wilsdon. School dinners were fairly adequate but some dishes were definitely unpopular. There was nothing else until tea, which was after Evensong and consisted of bread and butter unless parents supplied jam and cakes. The playground was rather larger than it is now, with tennis and badminton courts. During the summer term a popular occupation was to make wool balls for badminton; later in the season the boys dared each other to knock apples from the next door garden into the cricket net. On the whole the boys were reasonably happy. The teaching was good, but some matrons were a trial.

Alden did not remember any trouble with the choir work and the standard, under Hugh Allen, was pretty high. The "first eight" were the eight best choristers but not in order of seniority. Four occupied the corners and four the centres; there were eight lay clerks who had other jobs in the city.

The lighter side

The unexpected was always likely to happen. One day at Evensong, the anthem was Purcell’s Thy Word is a Lantern in which there is a prominent alto solo. Now Allen disliked altos and this one was not of the best. The text was the ungodly have laid a snare for me, when a voice from the organ loft was clearly heard, "Wish to h*** he’d got yer!"

The headmaster, Mr Carter, fell ill in 1911 and his son, Mr Francis Carter, took over the headmastership in 1912. At this juncture the college decided that an inspection of the school was due, so ET Campagnac, professor of Education at Liverpool, was chosen to make his inspection in November 1912. Of the boys, he reported that they seemed happy and well mannered and that their accommodation and meals were acceptable.

Poor academic standards in the early twentieth century

New College cloisters
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
Some rights reserved

Of the staffing and organisation, professor Campagnac was critical.  There was the headmaster, with only a pass degree, a second master who was a fairly good teacher but impatient, and a third master who was only an undergraduate from New College who was frequently away, subcontracting his work to another student. Piano lessons were taken out of lesson time, and the general teaching was too much geared to examinations. Three staff teaching six classes was highly unsatisfactory and 63 boys too many for the accommodation, especially as the ages ranged from eight years to 16 years with a few 18 year olds as well. The present regime of having two services a day, one hour’s practice plus piano and musical theory lessons, could never be fitted into a grammar school education. He condemned the fact that the headmaster’s duties, as well as teaching, included the running of the domestic side of the school. He recommended that all boys should leave at 16 years and that students and women should teach the lower forms; more physical education should be introduced and that the curriculum should be revised to include the needs of a choir school and not a grammar school.

At this time, the number of boys attending New College School was as follows: about 20 New College choristers and probationers, the "Magdalen boys" living at New College (phased out in the 1950s), the Queen’s College choristers being housed and educated at New College School and, in addition, about 20 day boys. This situation inevitably brought about financial and other complications.

Hugh Allen was much respected as a person and as a great all round musician. During his time, singing standards rose dramatically. He would stand no nonsense and poor singing angered him. He worked within a limited repertoire spanning the year so that a particular service or anthem was only heard once a year. Highlights of the year for the choristers were the Christmas carol service and Gaude, for which Allen resurrected a new version of the old custom of the choristers summoning the college to dinner by singing round the quad. They then sang grace, went back to school for a couple of hours, coming back to hall to sing madrigals to the diners. On the following day, they were treated to a good lunch and received one shilling apiece. Allen’s successor as organist was Dr, later Sir, William Harris who stayed until 1929 when he  moved to Christ Church Oxford. He was followed by Mr, later Dr and Sir, John Dykes Bower who, after four years, was appointed to Durham Cathedral.

1932 saw a change of headmaster when Mr Francis Carter was replaced by Mr C Hamilton Baynes. There were 130 applicants for the post, nine were interviewed but Mr Hamilton Baynes was the unanimous choice. He kept a today log book where he recorded incidents such as finding boys out of bed or the discovery of bullying, both rewarded with beatings. Between 1922 and 1929 there were 12 voice trials with acceptances averaging four a year. In 1933 17 boys came for voice trials, in 1935 19 boys and in 1939 11 boys.

Rising academic standards in the 1930s

In June 1936 the Board of Education visited the school. They found it generally efficient and praised the work of Mr Baynes. More staff were needed and there were only four classes with too great an age spread in each. As to the premises, there were only four classrooms and the desks were described as "prehistoric". Washing and bathing facilities were out of date and inadequate. They considered that Mr Baynes and his wife had too much administration to do (Mrs Baynes was excellent at doing accounts). Lastly, the standard of school work was passable but the musical education of the choristers was excellent. A final suggestion, which happily never took place, was that all three Oxford choir schools should unite.

The Second World War

Numbers were steadily increasing so that in 1939 they stood at 77 and in 1942 at 99.  In 1941 the treble line was slightly augmented by a few Westminster Abbey choristers when the Abbey choir school closed down. New College was particularly fortunate in having a succession of distinguished organists during the twentieth century, namely Hugh Allen, William Harris, John Dykes Bower, Dr Sydney Watson, HK Andrews,  Meredith Davies, David Lumsden and Edward Higginbottom.

The war brought the universal problems of staff, food and clothes rationing, and it is almost unbelievable that the school still demanded the following clothes list for choristers: one Eton or Marlborough suit, two grey flannel suits, one blazer, one navy raincoat, six Eton collars, three grey flannel shirts with collars, two striped flannel shirts without collars, nine handkerchiefs, five pairs of socks, three vests, three pairs of pants, three pairs of strong black shoes, plus all the games kit.

The post-war period

The nineteenth century sedilia on the
north side of the chancel are
surmounted by eighteenth century
stained glass by Peckitt of York.
Photo by "Lawrence OP"
Some rights reserved

After the war, the Education Act brought difficulties over the leaving age of choristers. Voices were generally breaking at any earlier age than before – ie, at an average age of 13½, which was convenient for those boys going on to public schools, but for those moving on to the state system whose entry age was 11 plus, there were serious difficulties.

There was much new building from 1955 onwards which included an assembly hall, four classrooms, a library and a flat for domestic staff; and a few years later a gymnasium, a swimming pool and a three storey block housing a music room, a science block, a woodwork room and a pottery room. Non-choristers boarding was put an end to in 1962 freeing two dormitories for use as a classroom for seven year olds. However, there was still the problem of a lack of dining room space when the day boys and choristers gathered for lunch; one solution was the provision of hot soup in winter for day boys at six pence a meal. Presumably the day boys brought sandwiches.

Overseas tours from the early 1980s

In the early 1980s the choir began singing tours abroad. In 1985 they went to Nantes in February and in July to Bruges. At home they recorded carols, Handel’s Athalia, Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae and music by Purcell; also a music video. There were a number of recitals given, one at the Royal Festival Hall, also at the Barbican, Dorchester Abbey, Christ Church Cathedral and the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. During the following year there were two broadcast choral Evensongs, choral Matins on television for Christmas morning, and the choir appeared in a BBC TV Home on Sunday. There were concerts at Radley College and the Sheldonian Theatre. They also sang at the Spitalfields Festival, recorded Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor and a programme of Byrd’s English anthems. In July the choir travelled to Switzerland and France, giving concerts in Fribourg, Autun, Vézelay and Paris. The following October it was the turn of Italy where they took part in the five hundred and fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the musical foundation of St Petronio in Bologna.

1988 – Alan Butterworth retires

1988 saw the retirement of the headmaster, Alan Butterworth, after 100 terms in office. Under him the school had thrived in every way. The choir had an exceptionally active year and, as always, chapel services and foreign commitments filled an almost non stop programme. At home there were two BBC choral Evensongs, concert performances of Fauré’s Requiem, Bach’s St John Passion, Handel’s Deborah and Messiah. There were overseas tours to Nantes and Tours, and after Easter there was a ten day trip to Lyon for a performance of Bach’s St John Passion. Then on to Metz to sing further concerts and services. In the summer they set off for the Low Countries, visiting the Bruges Festival and singing Handel’s Deborah and Messiah, followed by a Purcell concert in Amsterdam. They then flew south to Grasse to be a guinea pig choir for a conductors’ course. Finally, at the end of the Michaelmas term and immediately after performances of Mozart’s C minor Mass, they flew to Brazil and gave three Christmas recitals in Săo Paulo. At intervals during the year, the choir had managed to record some Georgian anthems and music by Howells, a choral Evensong and Handel’s Birthday Odes.

In 1991 the choir was once more in France, in Albi and Tarbes in the French Languedoc, where they gave a programme of six centuries of English music. The adult members of the Versailles Maîtrise Nationale joined them in concerts in the Arsenal Concert Hall in Metz, the Chappelle Royale in Versailles and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Immediately after this they recorded these concerts in the Cistercian Abbaye de Valloires near Boulogne. In July they were joined by the King’s Consort for performances of Handel’s Judas Maccabæus in Noirlac, Brive and Perpignan. Two months later they made three weekend cross-channel hops to sing Mozart in Versailles.

Back home the choir gave performances of Haydn’s Creation and Bach’s St John Passion in the Sheldonian Theatre, also concerts in St John’s, Smith Square and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Expeditions for recitals were made to Evesham, Hambledon and Hornchurch. In May they joined with the choirs of St Paul’s, Ripon and St Edmundsbury at the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy in St Paul’s Cathedral.

1992 saw a Festal Evensong in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, where they joined the choirs of King’s, Eton College and Winchester Cathedral. After a ten day summer trip to the French Alps and a very hot three days in Grasse on the Côte d’Azur, on returning to London they were televised in a Promenade Concert with the Academy of Ancient Music at the Royal Albert Hall. In November the choir crossed the Channel for a few days to sing in Lille and Sédan. Interspersed with all this a number of recordings were made; lastly the choristers were invited to Hampton Court to mark the fortieth anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen’s reign.

The end of boarding

New College Oxford
"Photo by Mister D" 
Some rights reserved

A major decision was taken at this time; the school would no longer take boarders and in future choristers would be recruited from the Oxford area as day boys. The cost of running an ever depleting boarding establishment had led to this radical change.

The following year there was a second appearance at the Promenade Concerts, this time joined by the boys of Salisbury Cathedral. The choir, accompanied by the King’s Consort, gave a Handel programme, and shortly afterwards, under Tamas Vasary, they sang Haydn’s Creation at the opening concert of the Bournemouth Festival. There were two concerts in Oxford, the first being Handel’s Messiah and the second, music by Fauré and Mozart, both concerts for Music at Oxford which also promoted a concert of all Handel music sung by the choirs of Christ Church Cathedral, Magdalen College and New College in the Sheldonian Theatre. The choir also travelled to London, to the Royal Academy of Music, to take part in a concert to mark the retirement of the Principal, Sir David Lumsden, who had been organist of New College from 1958 to 1976. Then there was a short visit to Versailles Festival for a concert of sacred music by André Campara in the Chapelle Royale.

There was much activity towards the end of the year; Spain, San Sebastian and Ordizia in late November, and in December separate trips to Paris and the French Alps. But the highlight of the year’s touring was a two week trip to Australia when the choir gave Bach’s St John Passion in five major cities accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra; also unaccompanied concerts of English church music were given.

Some quiet months from touring followed in 1994 until the choir paid a short visit to Switzerland when, in Fribourg, they gave a concert in the Festival de Musique Sacrée after which, returning home, they spent three days recording anthems and motets by Stanford in the chapel, followed by the recording of Handel’s Occasional Oratorio in London with the King’s Consort. A well earned holiday ensued and it was not until the October half term that the choir travelled once more to France to give concerts in Bordeaux and its environs. December saw two concerts at home after which they were off to Alsace-Lorraine and Luxembourg for concerts of Christmas music which, on returning home, they also gave at the Barbican with the King’s Consort. During the last days of 1994 they appeared on BBC2 in The Plague and the Moonflower, a "green" cantata by Richard Harvey and Ralph Steadman.

On New Year’s Day 1995, they were again seen on BBC2 in a programme called Purcell – The English Orpheus, with the Parley of Instruments. Choral Evensong was broadcast in January and early in April it was France again for ten days of Purcell concerts with Jean-Claude Malgoire and La Grande Ecurie de la Chambre du Roi.

Evenly spaced in half term breaks and school holidays as usual, 1995 also saw concerts in Basle in May, in France (Chartres, Grasse and Sylvanès) in July and in Poland (Wroclaw) with the King’s Consort in September, also Ambronay (France) with music by Handel and Purcell. In the October half term break there were two nights in Paris for acappella singing in the Church of St Etienne du Mont and, shortly before Christmas, they took performances of Messiah to Germany, Italy and the Low Countries in company with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. There was quite a spate of recordings in the year, including some very interesting transcriptions by Dr Edward Higginbottom, the organist. There were also works by Balsano, Carissimi, Monteverdi, Rinaldo and others, all sacred music from the seventeenth century in the archives of Mdina Cathedral, Malta. These were all recorded for the French label Studio SM.

Stained glass at New College Chapel Oxford
Photo by Nicholas Thompson
Some rights reserved

The first trip abroad in 1996 was in March when the choir appeared in Prague for a gala concert forming part of the Queen’s state visit to the Czech Republic where they sang Handel’s Coronation Anthems.

At home they made a series of recordings of music by Lassus, Byrd and Handel, and in the summer holidays appeared with Winchester cathedral choir at a Promenade Concert. London was also able to see and hear them at St John’s, Smith Square, and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There were more visits to France, to Dijon Cathedral, to Picardy, to Paris and to Rennes. Finally, they appeared in the San Sebastian festival in Spain. All were saddened to hear of the death of former headmaster, Alan Butterworth, who held office from 1955 to 1988.

In 1998 the now usual round of recordings and performances overseas and at home was realised, the countries visited being Belgium, France, Malta and Germany.

There were two appearances at Promenade concerts on 15 and 17 August and a TV recording of Songs of Praise in the college chapel; also an All Soul’s Day requiem mass, and the Christmas carol service which was filmed for a TV documentary. When they were in Germany in late December, they gave three performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in Düsseldorf with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. On the second day the tenor soloist, Kobie Van Rensburg, began losing his voice. Stepping into the breach Ben Hulett, a third year academical clerk, took over the part of the Evangelist from Van Rensburg while the latter coped with just the arias. Ben Hulett continued to sing the Evangelist’s part the next day in Munich to general acclaim, and a substitute tenor was found to sing the arias.

1999 was just as busy a year. In addition to their commitments in the chapel, there were recording sessions, concerts and overseas travel from March through to December. The Mozart Requiem was given in Oxford, Zurich and Antwerp accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music, and in Passiontide music suitable to the season was sung unaccompanied in Argentan, Paris and Soissons. Joining once again with the Academy of Ancient Music, they gave a concert for the academy’s twenty-fifth anniversary in St John’s, Smith Square in April, followed shortly after by a BBC choral Evensong. The month of May saw them at the Brighton Festival singing with the Hanover Band, also making recordings of music by Boyce with them. In June, they gave concerts at Stonor Park and at the Spitalfields Festival, followed in July by a three choirs' concert (New College, St Paul’s and St Alban’s) at the latter cathedral. Before setting off for the south of France and concerts in six different venues, they fitted in a recording for Decca at home. It was time for a much needed break until September when they were again in France singing Handel’s Coronation Anthems at Senlis Cathedral and Ambronay Abbey, which latter performance was televised. Shortly before Christmas, once more with the Academy of Ancient Music, Messiah was given in three different venues in Holland, the final one in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

March 2000 found them at the Royal Festival Hall singing Bach’s St John Passion with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder.

You may be asking by now, "But when are they ever in the chapel at New College?" I will tell you. In university term; Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Evensong at 6.15pm; Thursdays, Sung Eucharist at 6.15pm; and Sundays, Evensong at 6pm.