So with the funeral of Margaret Thatcher coming up (I’m going to refrain from political views in this article) it reminded me of my time as a chorister at Westminster Abbey and performing for important occasions.
My five years as a chorister at the abbey did not give me the experience of a truly national event being watched from all over the world. I missed singing at Diana’s funeral by a year, I’d left the choir in 1996. Watching the funeral on television gave me a chance to see, probably for the first time since I left, many of my former friends and classmates singing for the service in the building I knew so well.
I’d certainly performed at many important services, one that comes to mind is former England football captain Bobby Moore’s memorial service in 1993. I was fairly new to the main choir at this stage but I do remember the abbey bursting at the seams. I’m sure there were many famous footballers there, but at the age of nine even though I had a keen interest in football I was still pretty oblivious to much of the day to day goings on in the game.
As far as I can remember it was business as usual for us in the choir. The same high standards we were always drilled to were of course expected for this service. The music we performed was nothing out of the ordinary for us, in fact, it was all standard repertoire which we were able to pull out the bag.
I think many would assume at these big events that the choir rehearses relentlessly before hand. It wouldn’t surprise me if the St Paul’s choir were not required to attend any extra rehearsals before the funeral. The fact is that much of the music they will perform is from their standard repertoire that they perform week in, week out at the daily services. There will be no new commissioned works that need to be learnt so really the choir will be able to get on with their usual business.
Of course in a situation like this the choristers will be reminded about their behaviour on camera and Director of Music Andrew Carwood will probably pay closer attention to the music in rehearsals than they normally would but really they will already know these pieces extremely well.
Actually, on the day of the funeral the choristers will be quite excited. It will a break from their normal school routine. They’d usually be in lessons but the timing of the funeral in the morning means their usually stringent timetable will be altered.
My time at the abbey was based around a strict routine. We only ever sung at morning services on Sundays, apart from the special services, like Bobby Moore’s memorial.
I did also have the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela at a commonwealth service back when South Africa were re-admitted to the commonwealth. He took the time to shake every single choristers hand. Even at a young age I knew this was an honour but it wasn’t unusual for us to meet important people.
The choristers of St Paul’s will seem non-plussed at the attendance of famous people and royalty. I myself sang for the Queen countless times whilst at the Abbey. It became normal to see the Queen up close several times a year.
The choir is usually protected from the media for these events, they’re part of the back drop really for the whole service so they shouldn’t be hounded by the press. Perhaps a lone photographer might get a few snaps in the song school with a couple of choristers but that will be it.
As for the music itself, don’t expect the large orchestra from the last royal wedding to be there. It will probably just be the organist with maybe a small chamber group, perhaps some fanfare trumpets at most as it’s a military funeral but there certainly won’t be any lavish musical arrangements going on. Of course, I could well end up being wrong here.
The choristers will be straight back into school after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. No afternoon off, they will have classes to catch up on. They will expect this as they’re used to performing to the highest standards everyday whilst juggling a demanding educational curriculum.
I’m looking forward to hearing the choir sing. it will be up to the usual high standards I’ve come to expect and as I’ve grown older several of my former classmates have found themselves singing with the men in the back rows of the choir so I’ll be looking out for them.
So whilst the nation observes the funeral of the most controversial prime minister of the 20th century, the choristers and men of St Paul’s Cathedral Choir will do what they do best without any fuss. Business as usual at the cathedral for them. They’ve done all this before.