Gloucester's King's School choristers
PUBLISHED: 11:02 18 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:26 20 February 2013
Christmas is the highlight of the year for these youngsters, but not for the reason you might think
The high, pure notes from the mouths of the boy choristers are soaring through the air like skylarks on a breeze. Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, they sing, in their beauteous hymn of praise, the early-morning light arcing over their heads like halos. Their words echo those of the prophet Isaiah, And they were calling to one another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."
As the notes of these angel voices die away, their music master stills the piano and regards their cherubic countenances.
Callum! he says, If I see you with your hands in your pockets once again And Josh jacket!
Umm think Ive left it in school.
Do angels yawn and fidget between songs in the heavenly host? Do they have touselled hair? Are their muddy rugby boots waiting for them when theyve finished their hymns of praise? Certainly, this choirmaster has a twinkle in his eye as he takes his young charges through their musical paces.
Focus on your mouths; breathe from the floor, Adrian Partington tells them. And as they open their mouths and begin to sing, the impishness drops away and they become one with their music once again.
Theres little doubt, watching them, that even the youngest aged just seven is here voluntarily and gladly. When posed questions such as What should you be thinking about when youre singing? the hands go up readily; the answers come easily.
Smiling, says one.
Dont misbehave. Yes, agrees Adrian Partington, fixing the last speaker wryly. Half of your autobiography is written in that sentence. The older ones appreciate his good-natured, dry humour; the younger ones his patience. But Gloucester Cathedrals director of music isnt the only mentor watching over them in this ancient Song Room, tucked away off the North Transcept, where choirboys have practised for centuries.
This room with the latticed windows and bare boards is lined with pictures of organists past. Theres a sketch of John Amott, 1832-1865, in frock coat, famed among other things for dropping dead immediately after the anthem, Oh that I had the wings of a dove, for then would I flee away and be at rest; and a black and white photograph of Herbert Sumsion, 1928-1967, friend of Edward Elgar, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. On the fireplace stands a cricket trophy, beside the metronome and choir photos.
Today, the portraits are smiling benignly; the choristers are doing well. Fine, says Adrian, with satisfaction, as they finish their piece. That one will pass in any choir anywhere.
These boys are all pupils at Kings School in Gloucester, where they are awarded bursaries (part paid for by school and part cathedral) that reduce their fees to 25 percent while theyre in the choir, and 40 percent once they leave. But on top of school work, of course, they have to practise their music: for around 80 minutes per day, as well as fitting in a service at 5.30pm including Saturdays (though they do get Thursday off). On Sundays, they sing two services and rehearse for an additional 75 minutes. Christmas is the highlight of their year but not for the same reasons, perhaps, as other children. While their contemporaries are ripping open gifts around the tree and stuffing themselves with turkey, the choristers will be filling services with the festive music theyve been practising for weeks. This year, that music ranges from medieval to bang-up-to-date: Plainchant, Sweelinck, Byrd, Poulenc, Whitacre, Ross, Tim Sutton.
We do sing a lot over Christmas and Easter obviously, those are the main times for the church, explains 11-year-old Jamie Conway from Churchdown. We have loads of carol services, and then we have a service on Christmas day so I usually leave my presents until afterwards.
Does he get tired?
Yes, definitely, but its fun. My first year, when I was seven, we were live on BBC 1 doing Midnight Mass. That started at 11.20pm and went on until around 1 oclock. We recorded it at home and watched some of it so I went to bed late, and then we had to be up for the Eucharist!
He still recalls his audition for the choir four years ago, in front of the then-director of music, Andrew Nethsingha. It was really scary but I sang the two songs Id prepared Jerusalem and Crash Bang Wallop! Id no idea what the audition was all about: Id never been to the cathedral before. But when I got in, it was really exciting. I remember the first time I came through that door and it just felt really good.
Most boys in peak form can sing from just below middle C to about top C, two octaves higher. Their career in the choir either finishes at the end of Year 9 or, if its earlier, when their voice breaks. In Jamies case, that has happened early and his time is now limited. But the experience has had a lasting impression on him. Hes focused on a career in music, possibly conducting. When you look at it, the choir has been such an opportunity, he says. We toured America recently for two weeks and immediately before that to Norway for five days. We went on a long coach ride to see The Atlantic Road; and we went to the Six Flags Theme Park in America.
Fellow chorister, 11-year-old Harry Morgan, agrees. There are times when I get bored but they do make it fun, he says. They give us treats: this year we went to Drayton Manor.
These boys are like any others; they listen to Michael Jackson on their iPods and watch Formula 1 Grand Prix on the telly when they can. But they also have skills many of their playmates havent acquired: they sing in other languages, and have to face doing solos in front of hundreds from an early age. Were singing the Christmas Oratorio by Bach in German and were doing the whole of it - 324 pages, Harry explains. But I like the excitement of it all.
And his preferred music isnt by the Kaiser Chiefs. My favourite introit is probably Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. I like the Swayne Magnificat, too.
For one of the younger members nine-year-old Josh Saunders this will be his first Christmas singing. But like the rest of the boys, he doesnt seem to mind one bit. My mum loves music the most in our house, he says. When she was 12, she was Grade 8 piano, and Grade 5 violin when she got to the age of 15.
So will she be there at the services?
Yes, he says. And its important to me that shes proud of me.
Very proud, I should think, Josh. Proud of you, and the rest of this extraordinary choir.
- Services sung by the choristers in Gloucester Cathedral over Christmas include carol services at 6pm on December 23 and 24, to which all are welcome. Tickets are now available for the Christmas Oratorio by Bach on January 9. You can also buy CDs of the choristers music through the cathedral shop or online at www.gloucestercathedral.org.uk, including I Saw Three Ships, and their latest featuring the music of the modern British-South African composer, John Joubert.