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This summer, the Chapel Choir of University College (known as Castle Chapel Choir) will be embarking on a tour spanning the UK and Italy to share their vocal talents. Including well-known UK venues, the tour also includes St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Italy.

Castle Chapel Choir is regarded as one of the finest in North East England. It is led by a student team comprised of the Director of Music, Senior and Junior Organ Scholars and supported by a team of student leaders. The Choir performs for a regular schedule of services, special services, concerts, at College events, recordings and tours.

Ahead of their tour, we caught up with the Choir’s Director of Music and Engineering postgraduate student Tom Parker and Dr Ellen Crabtree, University College Vice-Principal to find out more.

1. Let’s start by finding out more about the Choir and the choral tradition at Durham

Tom: From my understanding there’s been a Chapel Choir at the College since its foundation in the 1800s. Largely because at University College we have the benefit of two spaces that we use as chapels, which are particularly valuable for worship and music making.

Over the Choir’s history, there have been times when singing in it was voluntary (it’s on an audition basis now), and times when female students were invited in to sing as until 1987 the College was male only.    

In the Choir’s current form, it’s a 16-part ensemble mixture of male and female students. At the moment, all members are undergraduates, but we do see postgraduates too, like me. There are four voices on each part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). We provide music for weekly worships - Evensongs on Thursdays and Eucharists on Sundays. We go to ƵappCathedral quite regularly and are often asked to fill in for their choir.

Under my tenure as Director of Music we’ve been going to a number of other cathedrals to visit for a day or a couple of services. We went on an international tour to Prague last year, which was great fun and really successful. And we’re headed to Rome this year.

Ellen: University College is the founding College of Durham, and with two chapels there are quite a few services to sing for. There’s also a long-standing tradition of choral music across the Colleges at Durham.

2. How is the Choir supported by College and integrated into College life?

Tom: The Musical Director of the Choir is appointed by and overseen by the College Chaplain, who is the go-to as far as pastoral, logistical and liturgical support. They’re essentially the go-between between the College and the Choir.

There’s a wider student community that takes part as well - our College Chapel team are involved in organising services and social media. It’s a great little community as part of College and one of the few places where you get a mixing of Junior, Middle and Senior Common Rooms, and wider University as well.   

Ellen: I’d add that the Choir plays a really key role not just in singing services, but also participating in special occasions throughout the rhythm of the College year. For example, singing grace before certain formals in our Great Hall. They also sang when Sam was installed as new Chaplain in April. When it happens, it’s really moving and a special occasion.

In terms of support, there’s a series of choral scholarships for the 16 members of the Choir, the Director of Music and the Senior and Junior Organ Scholars. The College has been able to offer additional financial support to those going to Rome, as this is such a fantastic opportunity. Our SCR has also given financial support, and the students themselves have fundraised. They held a fabulous concert, Cantes Pro Roma, in our Great Hall in June as a fundraiser. Support is drawn from across the whole College community.

3. Is the Choir in touch with any of its alumni?

Tom: There’s quite a nice, although small music scene professionally once you leave Durham. There are a lot of successful people who’ve come from singing in somewhere like Castle to having a career in choral music. For example, Directors of Castle Chapel Choir have gone on to be Directors at a number of Cambridge colleges, or they’ve gone on to do Conducting Masters at the Conservatoires.

I think they all retain a fondness for this position, because it’s the place where they grounded their skills and developed a fundamental understanding of leading a small choral ensemble. It’s quite unique in that it’s a position aimed at students, but the Choir’s of a very technically advanced calibre. It’s a rare thing to be able to work with such a good ensemble as a student so regularly, and with good funding and support. Most of the Oxbridge directorships are professional or semi-professional, so this is quite a valuable position I think.

4. Where has the Choir toured before?

Tom: Generally we’ve toured within Europe. There’s a lot of motivation across different College choirs within the University to go on tour. Tours are usually about four or five days, but they’re packed with as many opportunities as possible.

And while we find that Anglican music is a developed ‘industry’ in this country, people aren’t necessarily aware of it when we take it abroad. It actually shocks our European audiences in a really positive way, because they haven’t heard that sort of music before. They might have heard some German or Italian choral music, but that has a lot more push through across Europe than English choral music does. That’s not an indicator of its quality at all though, and we’ve had people come up to us after concerts to say things like ‘this is the first time I’ve heard anything like this’, and ‘this has been a wonderful experience’, and ‘I want to learn where I can listen to more’. That cultural exchange is really rewarding.

5. There are some very prestigious venues on your tour list so far. How did these come about?

Tom: All of the major cathedrals in the UK have visiting choir arrangements during their holidays. You fill in a form saying you’d like to come at some point with a choir to provide music for Evensong, or another service. They let you know what dates are available and you choose the repertoire. And that’s that!

You do also have to send them a recording, you have to be of a certain calibre to come along. But if they trust that you understand how the service runs and that the Choir is going to sing the music well, then there’s nothing else for them to be concerned about. At the end of the day, you’re providing them with a service. Particularly places like St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, as they require some music at every service throughout the year. If they can’t fill the slots that’s a problem for them. We went to St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey last year and they asked us to come back.

Singing at the Vatican is more unusual for a Ƶappchoir, and it’s certainly not something I’ve heard of in the time I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for quite a long time!

Getting in touch for the Italian leg of our tour was similar to Westminster and St Paul’s. We sent out some preliminary emails to a bunch of different venues in Rome to ask about availability for a service or a concert.

St Peter’s Basilica was slightly different in that we know they have visiting choirs doing services, but we would never expect them to host a concert. They were very straightforward in the end – they said: ‘we’ve got this opening on Thursday 5 September, feel free to come along’. And then I pushed it as I tend to do, and said we can do some more singing it you want. So we’re singing for a further 20 minutes before the service in what they call a ‘spiritual elevation’ in St Peter’s beforehand which is open to the public.

6. What are you expecting when you perform in Rome?

Tom: I haven’t been made aware if it’ll be a papal audience at the Vatican, they might not know themselves. But it’ll certainly be some fairly important liturgical figures from St Peter’s who’ll be there for Mass. And it’s open to the general public as well.

When we sing in our venues in Rome, we’ll need to make sure that we’ve got shoulders covered for example, as the Catholic Church is quite conservative on dress. We’ll also need to be aware of when to sing and when not to sing, where to look and what to say, because they line out their Masses in a slightly different way to the Anglican Church. We’ll be singing sections of the Mass that we normally wouldn’t sing either – like motets in between each section of the Mass. This should be quite nice because it’s permitted to be repertoire that reflects our heritage and the Anglican tradition, so that’s quite exciting for us. We can bring some music to show off!

We’re singing at St Paul’s in London the day before we fly to Rome. St Paul’s design based on St Peter’s Basilica, so to be going from one to the other is quite nice. Now that we’ve been to St Paul’s before, we can trust that that will go smoothly. And then Rome is the ‘oh gosh, this is new’ feeling. I think it’ll go well.

7. Is the Choir excited to sing in Rome?

Tom: Yes, they’re very excited! I think for singers, it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. It’s not very often that people will get the opportunity to sing at the Vatican and it’s definitely a bucket list thing for everyone involved. I’m not sure when I’ll get the next opportunity to conduct there.

We’ve also got two very keen organists this year, and they’re coming along. I think if I refused our organists the chance to play at the Vatican they might be a bit upset!

I’d like to encourage anyone who is available to drop by for a performance, perhaps even follow us to Rome.

Ellen: There will be a drinks reception for our alumni after the concert at Westminster Abbey too, so I’d also encourage our alumni to sign up and join the choir for a drink afterwards if they wish.

We’re really proud of Tom and the team. His leadership has been incredible in both musical terms, but also in building that sense of community within the Choir.

Follow the choir on their tour

Confirmed dates:

  • Wednesday 10 July - St George’s Chapel, Windsor, UK
  • Thursday 22 August – Westminster Abbey, London, UK
  • Monday 2 September – St Paul’s Cathedral, London, UK
  • Thursday 5 September – St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, Italy

The Choir is hoping to firm up performances at the Church of St Ignatius and the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Rome at the start of September.

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