Singing has formed a key part of Christian worship for over a thousand years. Today’s choral services represent a unique tradition upheld by Britain’s historic cathedrals – a glorious heritage of church music that is one of the nation’s greatest cultural treasures.
Early monastic roots
Britain’s choral tradition is rooted in its cathedrals’ monastic past, when monks would chant eight holy offices a day, sometimes joined by boy novices and relatives.
This singing of monks and boys together is first recorded in a remarkable historic manuscript, the 11th-century Winchester Troper (a trope was an additional section or line of music).
It shows one part chanting plainsong, while a second part, perhaps originally improvised, sings in harmony. The Troper is the oldest large collection of this kind of music in Europe, and the foundation of all western choral music.
Gradually, music featuring different parts sung simultaneously (polyphony) developed. This kind of delicate, more feminine singing, often was associated with the Blessed Virgin, was sung at her masses in Winchester Cathedral’s Lady Chapel.
As the Renaissance flowered across Europe, sacred choral music of great beauty was written down and sung in countless churches and chapels. It has influenced many great composers and remains hugely popular with choirs today.
The Reformation: a new liturgy
By the early 1500s, at least 50 English monasteries and abbeys had choirs, but these were swept away in the 1530s, dissolved by order of Henry VIII in his dispute with the Catholic Church of Rome.
The new, reformed Church of England needed a new style of worship. The great 1549 Book of Common Prayer commissioned by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, remains the basis of Anglican worship today. For the first time, services were said and sung in English, not Latin.
Sacred choral music survived in the brilliant work of composers such as Thomas Tallis, Thomas Weelkes, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Morley and the celebrated William Byrd. Between them, they created a distinctive English style of great purity.
To the modern day
In the 17th century, the English Civil War (1642-49) led to 15 years of austere Puritan rule and harsh restrictions on the use of music in church worship. Ancient music books were destroyed, mighty organs wrecked and flourishing choirs disbanded.
But when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, cathedral music slowly returned to its former glory. John Blow, choirmaster of St Paul’s Cathedral, and his gifted pupil Henry Purcell began to create a uniquely English choral style.
The 18th century was a period of decline and underfunding, with many church choirs struggling to survive. But composers such as Samuel Wesley started a revival, and by the mid 19th century the use of music and ritual had been firmly re-established.
England is one of the sole remaining countries in Europe where cathedral choirs sing regularly as part of daily worship. This living tradition remains the envy of choir-masters around the world.
It also gives delight to countless worshippers and visitors to Winchester Cathedral today.
The Winchester Cathedral Choirs
Its repertoire stretches from medieval plainsong to brand-new commissioned works by modern British composers, including John Tavener’s The Lamb and John Rutter’s Winchester Te Deum.
The Cathedral Choirs sing eight services a week during term time. All these services are open to the public free of charge.
Help keep Cathedral music alive
Anyone can attend Cathedral services for free, but keeping choral music of this quality alive is expensive:
- In 2009-10, running the Cathedral’s musical foundation cost over £500,000
- Tuition fees and musical education for each of our 22 boy choristers cost about £11,200 a year
- Salaries are paid to the Choir’s 12 adult male singers (Lay Clerks)
- It costs about £7,000 a year to maintain the Cathedral Organ in good working condition
Your support today will help keep this great tradition alive for future generations.
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An outstanding selection of CDs and books about choral music
Find out about the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival
A three-day celebration of sacred music sung by the Cathedral Choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester every July