Years ago at an interview for a Head of Department post in a school run by a big academy chain I had a conversation which has stayed with me as a challenge to my ideas about education. The crux was around the place of religious music in secular comprehensives. Does it have a role? Should it be left out to avoid offending pupils of other religions and none? Or make an appearance at Christmas and then take a back seat for the rest of the year? It was made quite clear to me that religious music would not be playing a role in the department and so I withdrew but I’ve held the exchange in my mind ever since.
After being at the West London Free School for three years we decided to take it on tour to Germany for a few days. We had a lovely time and whole enterprise achieved its goal of giving our ensembles a focus and lifting their performance. Compared to other tours I’ve done though, mostly with my youth choir Inner Voices, there was something missing. We had decided to avoid religious repertoire and, therefore, the churches in which that music lives. The problem with this, however, is that choral music in Britain has its roots in Christianity. More than that really, the choral tradition is best understood though its religious origins, influenced by the gentle rituals of the Anglican Church, its harmony underpinned by the voice leading of Bach Chorales and its leaders products of our churches and cathedrals (something as true of the gospel tradition which increasingly informs British choral practice). Many of the great works written for choirs have their truest realisation in the beautiful buildings of European Christianity. If an education in choral music is something that we want for our pupils then who are we to deprive them of the full picture by assuming that non-Christians cannot appreciate or participate in many of greatest expressions of the genre?
If some of the great repertoire of the choral tradition finds its most beautiful physical expression in the expansive architecture of our churches then the rituals of the Anglican liturgy give some choral music a temporal home, none more so than Evensong. Created in Tudor England by Archbishop Cranmer the service sits alongside the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare at the start of the process of codifying standard English. Since the mid 16th Century it has been sung daily across the country and is unrivalled in its importance and impact as a musical ritual. Countless musicians have found their musical lives through participating in this ritual and still do. Evensong is a living tradition and the contrast between the new music written for Evensong in the 20th Century and the musical dead ends down which much of the rest of European Art Music travelled pays tribute to the creative power of its formal architecture.
For students engaging in learning about choral music Evensong has much to offer. It sits at one of the key moments of cultural change in English History, offers a language that can widen the linguistic scope and understanding of our students and, above all else, is simply a cultural gem. At the non-denominational Tiffin Boys School in Kingston the school choir sings weekly Evensongs, requiring them weekly to pick up new music and sing it to a high standard which in turn breeds the sort of independence allowing miracles such as this astounding ensemble – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvNzDcMDDoA (yes they’re a grammar school but why shouldn’t we all aim high?).
Music teachers come into schools with a whole range of starting points and, as a believer in the importance of expertise in teaching, I think the musical strengths of each school are best drawn from the strengths and interests of the teachers in the department. For me, and many other teachers, that means great choral singing and I’ve come round to thinking that this should, sometimes, include religious music. I’m not sure whether I’ve been self-censoring or whether many people genuinely think religious music has no place in secular schools but I’m increasingly convinced that this way of thinking needs to be tackled head on before we are left in a cultural void where pupils only listen to the transient music of youth culture.
As the Western world becomes less and less religious I hope that our schools will be free to engage pupils from all different backgrounds with this part of our cultural inheritance and enable the religious roots of the choral tradition to be part of a great music education. In March a group of Christian, Muslim and non-religious pupils from WLFS will sing in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and every one of them sees it for what it is, an opportunity to experience and treasure one of the great cultural legacies of our musical world.