Choristers pictured before the pandemic at Westminster Cathedral in London, England. Credit: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk
Musicians in England are warning that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to inflict lasting damage on the country’s church choirs.
Charles Cole, the director of two Catholic choirs in London, said that children’s choirs were among the worst affected.
“The situation is truly dreadful for all singers: for professionals, their livelihood is at risk, and for amateur singers there will be an acute sense of loss. However, nowhere will the impact be felt more than in children’s choirs, which I am particularly concerned about,” he told CNA.
Cole, the director of the London Oratory Junior Choir and the London Oratory Schola, sounded the alarm last month in an article for the New Liturgical Movement website.
He noted that a nationwide lockdown, imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, had silenced the nation’s choirs. But as lockdown measures were eased, the government continued to impose strict limitations on singing, based on disputed scientific advice that the activity poses a high risk of transmitting the coronavirus.
“Britain’s choral tradition is now under major threat due to the UK government’s proposed guidance which will make it difficult or impossible for choirs to meaningfully rehearse or perform,” he wrote.
The latest UK government guidelines, updated July 9, forbid group singing inside churches. Small groups of professional singers are permitted to sing outside in front of worshippers, who must also be outdoors.
Cole explained why the restrictions were likely to have a severe impact on boys’ choirs.
“Children’s choirs are especially vulnerable at the present time, because you can’t simply put the process of growth and development on ice,” he said.
“It’s like failing to tend a lawn, which takes years to get right, but a relatively short amount of time to ruin. For boys’ choirs in particular, the situation is exacerbated by the process of changing voices: boys only get to sing in their prime as trebles for a couple of years at most, so what many are losing under lockdown is irrecoverable.”
Cole said that online rehearsals were a poor substitute for face-to-face meetings.
“My own choirs, the London Oratory Schola and the London Oratory Junior Choir, have had frequent and regular online rehearsals and they have maintained a rigorous routine which we hope will stand us in good stead when we resume,” he said.
“However, it is simply no replacement for standing side by side, blending voices together and creating an ensemble sound. Choral singers are no more meant to be isolated from one another than any human beings are.”
Cole wrote to government officials emphasizing the need for urgent action, but was disappointed by the response.
He said: “Children’s choirs in many cases will face a long process of rebuilding. In my letter to Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), I estimated that if the damage continues, the process of recovery could take 3-5 years for a boys’ choir like the Oratory Schola, which covers an age range of 8-18, and all four voice parts.”
“Unfortunately the form response I received from the DCMS made no reference to children’s choirs and I fear that the point was lost. Several MPs also received the same letter which failed to address the specific issues.”
Cole was among the signatories of a letter from more than 200 leading figures in the music world published in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday. It said that the work of church musicians was “under serious threat, with some professional choirs already facing permanent disbandment.”
The pianist Matthew Schellhorn told CNA that Church leaders, charities and politicians had a shared responsibility to ensure that choirs survived the pandemic.
“The situation for musicians is dire, and particularly lamentable for those in churches, whose work has been doubly hit by the cancellations they have endured and the closure of churches,” he said.
“There is a lack of certainty over singing in a church setting. Church leaders, charities, and government have a joint responsibility to respond to the plight of the arts sector.”
The charity Friends of Cathedral Music and the Ouseley Church Music Trust has launched a Cathedral Choirs’ Emergency Fund, which is seeking to raise $1.3 million for cathedral choirs in need.
The two groups conducted a survey which found that many UK choral foundations required additional financial support to survive the next few months.
“The UK is the only country in the world where the tradition of daily sung liturgy in cathedrals has been so widely maintained. This precious inheritance is now clearly at risk,” they said.
The Church Commissioners, a body managing the property assets of the Anglican Church of England, have promised to match the funds raised.
But choirs are likely to struggle as long as scientific advisers deem singing to be a dangerous activity. The government has reportedly commissioned new research into droplet transmission by singers to determine whether the current restrictions should be eased. But there is no indication when choral singing will be allowed to resume in churches.
Cole said: “We live in a society in which liability is everything, and no risk is deemed acceptable. Stringent measures may or may not keep us safe, and certainly, the jury is still out on this. But what is beyond any doubt is the fact that they stifle and impede the ability of our choirs to sing, and indeed survive.”
“Choirs are absolutely integral to the liturgy, which they adorn and beautify to help make it truly worthy of God. They also draw in the faithful and lead them to prayer. Our choirs are essential, and we need to prioritise their return without equivocation and without delay.”