‘You can’t get boys to sing these days,” is the complaint of choirmasters the length and breadth of Britain, and they don’t exaggerate. Gareth Malone may dedicate his life to selling the idea that choral singing can be cool and an appropriate activity for alpha males, but getting younger ones to take an interest in anything that looks remotely like a church choir is a struggle. Hence the rarity of a small problem bothering Charles Coles.
Coles directs the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School: a boys’ choir that leads a double life, singing the daily services in the school chapel, tucked away in deepest Fulham, but also making a weekly trek up to Brompton Road to sing the Saturday Vigil Mass at the Oratory itself. And his problem? He has more boys in his choir than he can accommodate.
“I’ve got 55 right now,” he says, “all of them happy to turn up at 8am every weekday morning for practice, as well as Saturday afternoons, and I have trouble squeezing them into their allotted space in chapel – though of course it’s nice trouble to have.”
Beyond nice, it’s extraordinary: a word that fits the Oratory School in every aspect of its life. Touring the precincts, as I did last week, it’s far from obvious that you’re in a state-funded comprehensive with no fees, no boarding and no selective entry – because everything about it suggests otherwise. There’s an impressive sense of quiet civility and serious learning of a kind you don’t associate with comprehensive education – fixed, of course, by the prevailing Catholic culture of the Oratory Fathers who set up the school in 1863.
But it’s the choir, the Schola, that stands out for me – not least because it’s just released a CD. And while any choir can make a CD these days – the technology is easy – this one isn’t an own-label project engineered in someone’s bedroom. It’s on Sony Masterworks. It comes with a promotional film sumptuous enough to play in cinemas. And as I write these words, its sales rank No 6 in Billboard’s classical album charts, and No 3 in Amazon’s. Extraordinary or what?
Called Sacred Treasures of England, it’s the first in a planned series of CDs in which the Schola will explore the choral music of selected countries. And as Cole explains: “Most of the things on it are the repertoire we sing on a regular basis: Tallis, Byrd, Christopher Tye and other English Renaissance masters.”
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