Magazine article The Spectator

Spiritual Heaven

Magazine article The Spectator

Spiritual Heaven

Article excerpt

The English choral tradition comes in various shapes and sizes. The largest manifestation of it is on display at St Paul's Cathedral in London, with its 18 men and ranks of boys. The smallest, a kind of pocket-battleship affair, is the choir of the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace, with its six men and precisely ten boys. These greatly differing sizes are reflected in the dimensions of the buildings which the two choirs serve: St Paul's is one of the largest religious spaces in the world, with acoustics to match; the Chapel Royal is smaller than many Oxbridge chapels, with choirstalls so compact that it is physically impossible to squeeze any more singers into them. This building also has acoustics to match.

Although the Chapel Royal is by far the most referred-to foundation in our choral tradition, having employed just about every famous English composer there has ever been, it is not on everybody's list to visit now. This is not only because of the dimensions of the building itself, but also because many assume it is a private place where the royal family worship alone. In fact, it is open to the public every Sunday for choral Matins (or Eucharist on the first Sunday of the month) at 11.15, offering the unaltered words of the Book of Common Prayer, first-rate singing by any standards and one or two of the Queen's pictures as part of the furniture, underneath a ceiling painted in part by Holbein. Cultural and spiritual heaven.

Nor are the choristerships at the Chapel Royal, which the Queen herself underwrites, as much talked about as they might be, given their exceptional provisions. The scholarship itself is worth much of the cost of attending the City of London School for Boys, in return for rehearsing on four week-days and singing, as a matter of routine, the one service on a Sunday. This compares very remarkably with what is offered at the larger foundations, where the boys sing more or less constantly -- three services alone on an average Sunday -- leaving relatively little time for other pursuits and requiring them to board. It is true that the Chapel boys have a host of extra events to staff, but because these tend to be in the presence of the monarch they are standardly high-profile, often televised or otherwise broadcast, and so welcomed. In recent years this choir must have become the most televised in the country. …

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