At St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir School in Dublin, which has been educating choristers for six centuries, rehearsals are in full swing for its Christmas services
It is a pure sound; clear, exact, surprisingly powerful but evoking serenity. Few things compare with the beauty of a soaring treble voice singing the opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City. Music is the communal heart of Christmas, and the choral repertoire is rich and uplifting.
A good choir is created by voices sharing a vision. Carol singers on a street corner will gladden passersby. Yet the traditional choir inhabits a special place, particularly boys’ choirs, historically the training grounds of generations of gifted singers. One such choir belongs to the oldest choir school in Ireland, established in 1432 by Archbishop Richard Talbot.
Moments before they took their places on stage, the 12 small boys dressed in school uniforms had been discussing football; now, as the choristers of St Patrick’s Cathedral school in Dublin, they settle quickly into their singing.
On a dull December afternoon the boys have walked over from their famous school for a short rehearsal at the National Concert Hall, in preparation for a performance that evening. “Stand up tall now,” says Stuart Nicholson, the choirmaster, who then suggests that some of the boys hold their folders a little lower, away from their faces.
They are all pupils at the cathedral’s choir school, selected for the quality of their voices. None of the boys sounds posh; their accents mainly reflect a mixture of Dublin’s middle and working classes, and the choristers come from both the suburbs and the city centre. There are as many Catholics as Church of Ireland boys in the choir. The emphasis is on music, not religion.
Nicholson, a British organist who has held similar posts at Edinburgh and Birmingham cathedrals, was appointed master of choristers in 2010. He is proud of the choir, which he is acknowledged as having revitalised. “They are very young and came along just as the previous choir had left. By then those boys had a heavier, gritty sound. They were obviously older, on the verge of secondary school. This choir is younger, and the sound is pure, lighter, but also gutsy. They have developed very well and very quickly . . . They’re used to filling the vast space of the cathedral. Although the acoustic is very kind,” he says with a laugh, pausing for effect, “it’s still a very big church.”
On Christmas Eve they will sing the traditional Nine Lessons and Carols in the cathedral. That service, which will be broadcast live on RTÉ Radio 1, is for ticket-holders only. All-comers can attend the same service at the cathedral next Sunday.
Recently the choristers released an album, In Dublin’s Fair City. The works that Nicholson selected for it represent an evolving repertoire, exclusively sung by boys.
Before Nicholson’s arrival a much smaller boys’ choir, of seven or eight choristers, had been singing the full choir repertoire as part of the adult male choir, with which they still sing at many services.
The CD, which was recorded at the cathedral last March, is a sophisticated, original, often surprising balance of new arrangements, works already in the choir’s repertoire and music by composers linked with the cathedral, such as Handel. How Beautiful Are the Feet, from Messiah, is a highlight, as is a rendition of The Song of the Tree of Life, which Ralph Vaughan Williams adapted from Revelation.
Choirs infiltrate the wider public consciousness at Christmas and Easter with the always popular performances of Messiah. Yet it is a full-time commitment, and, as any choir member will vouch, a great deal of time goes into preparing to perform in German, Latin, French and Italian for major concerts.
At St Patrick’s the now enlarged choir of 12 choristers and seven younger members, known as probationers, begin each school day with a brief warm-up in the music room before crossing the narrow close to the cathedral for the morning service, to sing matins. St Patrick’s is the only cathedral on these islands to retain this tradition. Afterwards the boys attend ordinary classes, as would any national-school pupils. Lessons end at 2.30pm; then they resume their music training, which includes instrumental and vocal tuition. Saturday is the only day off.
Nicholson has also continued to broaden the evensong repertoire, to include some works sung only by the boys.
None of the boys seems strained or self-conscious. There is no stiff formality, no aura of musical prodigy about any of the 19 boys currently at the school. Nicholson is jolly and relaxed, with the demeanour of a cricket captain, and very aware of the choir’s great tradition yet not burdened by it. “The school enjoys tremendous support from the cathedral and from the community. It is very much a Dublin choir,” he says.
As the pupils grow older their voices break, so new students are always needed to sustain the choir. Nicholson auditions prospective pupils from other national schools. But there is a more pressing modern reality to deal with, increasingly noticeable over the past 20 years: the choristers’ voices are breaking much earlier.
When, in 1749, the 16-year-old Joseph Haydn wrote his Missa Brevis in F for two soprano soloists, choir and orchestra, the composer and his younger brother Michael are believed to have performed the solo parts. In the 1980s, when the outstanding treble Welsh Aled Jones emerged, most choirboys were still singing treble until the age of 14 or 15. Jones’s voice did not break until he was 16. “I was still singing treble until I was almost 16,” says Nicholson. “Some of my friends lasted a bit longer.”
Nowadays more and more boy sopranos are maturing at 12, “just when the voices – and the boys – are getting interesting. When I first arrived here we still had a 15-year-old in the choir, but the eldest now is 13. It is a problem.”
Even the Vienna Boys’ Choir, founded in 1498, 66 years after St Patrick’s Choir School, is now openly looking for singers; previously, hopeful choristers would apply to join. It recently recruited two boys from Ite O’Donovan’s Piccolo Lasso children’s choir. O’Donovan shares Nicholson’s concerns. “By the time a talented boy has learned to use his voice and is musically accomplished,” she says, “the voice is gone.”
Nicholson remains optimistic. “It may make my life a bit trickier, but it also means the choir remains fresh, and the younger boys are always coming through.
In Dublin’s Fair City is available from the cathedral and online