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Quiristers of Winchester Chapel

by on 21 December 2020

Bright and Crisp

Quiristers of Winchester Chapel

West Green Opera at West Green House, Hartley Wintney, until 17th December

Review by Mark Aspen

There is something peculiarly English about open-air performances: perhaps we like to match the cussedness of the weather with peculiar English stoicism.  Perhaps surprisingly, it always works.  In summer the open-air picnic on the lawn watching Shakespeare has its own genteel charm, even if from time to time parasols are replaced by umbrellas (or neither when the performance is underway).   However, the whole concept is notched up in wintertime, when genteel charm becomes sheer enchantment. 

The Illuminated Garden at West Green House transforms the cold darkness of a winter’s evening into an ethereal world whose atmosphere is pure magic.  It was here, a week before Christmas, that the Quiristers and Choir of Winchester Chapel infused the spiritual message of the coming of The Light at the special season of Christmas into the wonderland of light that is the Illuminated Garden.  

The opening night of the Quiristers’ performance was blessed in a way that uncannily often seems to touch open-air performances: the weather at the last moment was fine.  It had rained heavily up until under an hour before the start and suddenly we had a fine crisp night and clear skies.  It was almost as if the heavens had decided to add the stars of nature to those of the Illuminated Garden.    We entered and passed along twinkling paths, albeit underfoot muddy and heavy, but over-foot happy, and light in all senses of the word.  This sparkling way leads us appropriately past the Temple Garden where an angel silently heralds what is to come.   Bijoux bridges take us across streams shining in the dark, offering views across the Lake.  The scattered oriental motifs, like the Chinese bridge and the huge illuminated lotus flowers, floating on the water and in the air, are symbols of birth.  Since our way is lit with stars, we can imagine we are the Magi, coming from the east. 

Have you noticed how the cold denseness of the winter air brings a silence into which sounds penetrate with a unique clarity?   Approaching the Fountain Garden, the sound that penetrated that silence was the warm buzz of the stalwart audience, waiting expectantly.  (A nearby booth supplied the warmth in the form of hot waffles and chocolate.)

Where the ancient city of Winchester dissolves at its edge into the Water Meadows of the Itchen, its most venerable buildings, the Cathedral, the College and its chapel, and the erstwhile bishop’s palace of Wolvesey Castle, lie.  Within these purlieus there are a network of choirs and choir schools, as prestigious as they are remarkable in the talent they nurture. 

The Pilgrims’ School is one such school, from which are drawn the Quiristers, sixteen boy trebles.  Quiristers have sung services in Winchester College Chapel for over 625 years.

A temporary gazebo had been erected in front of the formal parterre that forms the Fountain Garden, from which a masked Georgian lady perused the scene with some interest.  She was clearly cut-out to be one of the audience.  Many of the audience sat of straw bales, many more stood, all attentive.

It was a time-honoured opening that broke the stillness of the winter air, a solo treble voice, the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, clear and precise.   Two more traditional carols followed, See Amid the Winter Snow, again with a section from (another) soloist, and O Come All Ye Faithful.  All of these are mid-Victorian in their current form (although Adeste Fideles may go back to Tudor times), but all seem timeless. 

Timelessness is a notion legitimately embraced by the Quiristers, whose predecessors have been singing sacred music at Winchester since 1394 almost without interruption.  Church services were sung in Winchester Chapel throughout both world wars, but Covid has resulted in the boys singing in isolation and only being brought together by technology.  Their conductor, Benjamin Cunningham, the Assistant Director of Chapel Music, told us that that performance was the first performance to a live audience since the mid-March lockdown.  It was a great privilege for us to be in that position, especially as the excellence of the singing did not seem to have diminished.

Nativity Carol, the first modern carol in the performance was which worked particularly well with the young voices holding the refrain, “Christ is Born for Aye”.   Choirboys seem to go with the Christmas card picture we were presented with, sixteen (ostensibly) angelic boys clad in red cassocks, although sensibly overlaid with dark navy greatcoats. 

Sixteen seems to be a number associate with choirs, including of course The Sixteen, a well-established choral (and early instruments) ensemble.   Even they, though, have been hit by the effects of the current pandemic, with it is reported two of their number working in supermarkets and one retraining as a plumber.  Early in the Covid crisis there was great concern about the fate of cathedral and church choirs, some even disbanded, including the professional choir at “the parish church of the House of Commons”, St. Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey.  However, now according to the Cathedral Music Trust, there has been a resurgence of interest in choral singing.  And not only sacred music: a recent survey estimated that two million people in Britain participate in choirs, from pub singers and rock choirs, through folk and gospel groups, to classical choirs and of course church choirs.   Choral evensong is a quintessentially Anglican tradition that goes back to the Reformation and encompasses the most beautiful of choral singing.   What an enormous treat then to hear the Quiristers.

In the Illuminated Garden, the mighty organ was substituted by an electric piano accompaniment, although the boy’s treble voices formed the perfect vehicle for the ambience of light from the darkness and warmth from cold.  No carol recital would be complete without two other traditional carols Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of the Victorian favourite O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Silent Night, which had its origin in Austria over two centuries ago as Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.

John Rutter

It was however with the twentieth century carols that the Quiristers excelled.  They seemed to especially enjoy singing Benjamin Britten’s New Year’s Carol, a setting based on Levy-Dew, a folk song with its origins in the Marcher lands.  It opens, “We bring new water from the well” signifying that the Christ-child will sprinkle water to make us clean.  However, our audience was not lustrated, a relief in view of the weather (and it is to happen in the figurative new year).   The final piece was John Rutter’s arrangement of the medieval folk carol Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.  This was a lovely carol to close the performance as, in spite of its hint at Christ’s crucifixion, it has a joyful feel, and a musical sparkle that matched the sparkling surroundings, each a foil to the other.  We left the Fountain Garden feeling quite uplifted.

The route back continues the magical journey with a delicacy and a brightness brought out by pinpoints of lights and luminous expressions of the imagination.  There is the willow-pattern Lake with its Chinese bridge, the purple mystery of a floating grotto, the cracker razzmatazz of the Walled Garden, and the enthralling vista to the Nymphaeum.   Then we hit on the modest crib, tucked in a corner, the Nativity scene.  This is the very heart of Christmas.   It is almost hidden … but then again, we have been following a bright star.

Mark Aspen, December 2020

Photography courtesy of Winchester College and John Rutter.

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