A choristor’s Christmas at Chester Cathedral
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 December 2013 | UPDATED: 18:00 02 November 2015
For the angelic choristers of Chester Cathedral, Christmas means a busy programme of song...and the presents must wait!
As their voices ring out around Chester Cathedral, the red-robed choirboys are part of a tradition which dates back to the 16th century.
‘King Henry VIII founded the cathedral after it had been a monastery, and founded the statutes for a cathedral choir, so the boys have been singing in here since the 1500s,’ says director of music Philip Rushforth, who served his own musical apprenticeship as a chorister at the cathedral.
‘It’s been a continuous line of singing, and we need to keep it going for the future because it’s such a great tradition.’
The girls’ choir does not have quite the same history, dating back only as far as 1996. Most of the time, the girls and boys sing separately, but the Nine Lessons and Carols service at Christmas is one occasion when they do join voices.
‘It’s fitted in around all their school work, so they come after school from many different schools in the Chester area, because there’s no choir school at the cathedral,’ says Philip. ‘They tear in between 4pm and 4.20pm for rehearsal until 6pm or 6.20pm, they they go home, have tea and do homework. It’s a long day for them.
‘The boys come on a Monday, Tuesday and a Thursday, and they will sing on a Saturday and a Sunday. On another weekend, the girls will sing on a Saturday and Sunday and the boys have the weekend off. But leading up to Christmas they are in a lot for the daily sung services, and they’ll also be rehearsing for the two big carol concerts and the two Nine Lessons and Carols, then Christmas Day itself.’
It’s a busy schedule that the choir’s head boy Will Medland and his deputy Arran Fearn - both 12-year-old pupils of The King’s School, Chester - have been following for four years.
‘I would say you want to be fully committed if you want to join something like a cathedral choir,’ says Will, from Frodsham. ‘It’s brilliant for bonding with other people and creating really good friendships.’
There are eight choral services a week - shared between the boy and girl choristers, lay clerks (professional singers) and choral scholars. Then there are concerts and broadcasts for BBC Radio 4’s daily services, all of which keeps the choristers busy all year round. But Christmas is particularly hectic.
‘They’ll finish at 1pm on Christmas Day, and they sing right up to Christmas Day without a break.’ says Philip.
Arran, from Nercwys, near Mold, says: ‘Before I came to the choir, I used to get up on Christmas morning and start opening presents. Now it’s a competition between us, who can leave their presents until after choir. It gives a little suspense.
‘It’s very, very exciting. we’re all in our own little worlds. The music is brilliant. We always do lovely music on Christmas Day.’
Will adds: ‘For some people, it’s almost a sense of relief that we’ve got to this day after practising most of the week.’
As head boy, Will’s role is ‘to look after everyone and make sure they feel OK’, but also to ensure that the choristers behave themselves in front of the many visitors to the cathedral.
‘We need discipline otherwise it looks bad in front of tourists,’ says Will.
Sometimes, though, it is the tourists who need lessons in cathedral etiquette.
‘When it comes to Christmas, we will see a lot of tourists here,’ says Will. ‘They can get a bit annoying taking photos. We don’t really like the flash of their cameras. It’s very off-putting when we’re singing. But if they’re just walking around and not distracting us, that’s fine. It’s good to have tourists.’
The girls’ choir sing on until they are 18, but for the boys, there comes a time when they can no longer reach those ethereal high notes.
‘It’s gradual usually, and in this day and age, with diets being better, their voices are breaking earlier and earlier,’ says Philip. ‘Some have been known to break at the age of 11. Usually they’ll last until they are 13 or 14, but I lost a boy in the summer at 11. He had to go because his voice had started breaking.’
For details of the full programme of Christmas events at Chester Cathedral: visit chestercathedral.com