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Quirister Easter trip to Westminster


The sun finally shone and welcomed the Chapel Choir to Westminster Abbey for a weekend of services. The Quiristers enjoyed a picnic in Parliament Square, explored iconic London sights and had fun staying together in their hotel.

It was turning back the years for several of the Winchester College boys who had been choristers at the abbey school, as well as for Mr Cunningham who had worked there as organist and was therefore able to play the mighty five-manual instrument. This is not always possible for a visiting choir, and just hearing the rehearsal from the nave was already a notable experience. I was pleased to see how popular Evensong is, with a full crowd queued up in front of the rood screen half an hour before the service started. We were then admitted into the lantern and the parents were fortunate enough to sit in the choir stalls, while the crossing filled up on both sides. Having only seen the chancel on television before it was remarkable how intimate the space is, and as the choir and clergy processed in the sense was of something quite familiar unfolding.

The singing and playing sounded as if the performers felt at home too, and as the familiar structure of Evensong unfolded we heard a precise rendition of Sumsion in G, a favourite ‘Mag & Nunc’ of the Qs. The anthem was the much rarer Evening Hymn by Gardiner, which had been focused on a year ago for the choir’s recent recording. Perhaps it is just the shortcomings of my stereo, but hearing it now live, accompanied by the Abbey organ as opposed to an orchestra, was transformational. At the end of the a cappella section, the singers and organ reunite on a spread of Bs, leaving nowhere to hide if voices have drifted out of tune. To my ear, at least they landed perfectly. 

After the service, the whole choir headed out for dinner and then a night at their hotel just across Westminster Bridge, while the parents enjoyed themselves in the traditional way. Many of us had the unfamiliar experience of waking on Sunday with nothing to do except breakfast late and stroll through sunny St James's Park to the 11:15 Eucharist. 

Both the services on Sunday would use settings by Howells, continuing the use of twentieth century works by British composers. Sunday morning was the Collegium Regale, completed in 1956 after being initiated in 1941 to win a bet of one guinea made at King's Cambridge. The Abbey’s Sunday Eucharist is a longer service than we are used to but this allowed us to hear the Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei of this setting. The motet was Palestrina’s Sicut servus, the familiar panting hart of Psalm 42, but in the Latin the composer would have known. In its second visit to the well, the choir became more fluent, and as on Saturday, two of the girl altos moved forward to augment the boy trebles, demonstrating both the range of their voices and the valuable flexibility they give to the choir master. 

After a gentle stroll to Parliament Square for a picnic lunch, we assembled for the final part of this small but perfectly formed tour. The setting for Sunday Evensong was Howells' Gloucester Service, written in 1946. The choir continued to improve, with pinpoint timing bringing out the serene beauty of the Magnificat better than I have previously heard them do. We came in turn to the Anthem, Samuel Wesley’s Blessed be the God and Father. S. S. Wesley held the position of organist at both Winchester Cathedral and Winchester College, and his lovely piece was well served by his old choir, including an assured solo by Sam H. We are not used to hearing a sermon at Evensong, but the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles then delighted us with a witty and engaging address, in which he gave a graceful nod to the singing he had just heard. Mr Cunningham stirred up a rousing voluntary and we emerged into the warm spring afternoon greatly refreshed and feeling that this was the Anglican choral tradition as it should be done.

Thank you to Mr Leslie and Mrs Allen for overseeing the Qs and to all the College staff who made this memorable weekend possible.

Simon Holmes
Q parent


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