St John’s College at Cambridge University breaks 350-year-old tradition by allowing women and girls to become choristers
- St John’s College, Cambridge, broke 350-year tradition with women choristers
- It will be the only Oxbridge choir with both sexes in adults and children
- The College’s music director Andrew Nethsingha said it was ‘great and historic’
St John’s College at Cambridge University will break a 350-year-old tradition by allowing girls and women to become choristers for the first time.
Girls and women will be allowed to join the historically all-male group at St John’s College choir that was set up in 1670 from next year.
Andrew Nethsingha has directed the choir for 14 years and is a former organ scholar at St John’s.
The College said he had ‘spearheaded’ the move, strengthening his ‘reputation for encouraging young singers’.
It added he was known for ‘championing contemporary music and commissioning new work from established and emerging composers’.
Mr Nethsingha said it was a ‘great and historic day’ for the choir.
He said: ‘I hope this small step will bring the day closer when there is gender equality amongst composers, organists and conductors, as well as among politicians, business leaders and in all other walks of life.
St John’s College at Cambridge University will break a 350-year-old tradition by allowing girls and women to become choristers (pictured) for the first time
New choristers usually join when they are eight years old. It will be four or five years before all five year-groups of the choir contain both boys and girls
St John’s (pictured) is one of Cambridge University’s 31 colleges and is thought to be the second wealthiest Cambridge college with assets of around £780million
The announcement today marks another departure from the English tradition of cathedral choirs being exclusively for men and boys
‘Providing an opportunity for girls and women to sing as members of The Choir of St John’s is a very exciting development for the choral tradition of the College.
‘Choral singing is a specialised art form, and our choir has played a formative role in the careers of many globally recognised musicians.
‘Extending membership to talented female singers creates an exceptional new musical opportunity for women and girls, as our much-loved choir continues to make a highly valued contribution to the musical life of St John’s and the wider world.’
‘Much of the St John’s style is created by a particular approach to phrasing, to tone-colour, to suppleness of line, by warmth and generosity, by emotional engagement with the text, by a desire to move the listener rather than simply impress them with technical accomplishment.
‘The choristers create something of extraordinary beauty every day.
Andrew Nethsingha (left) has directed the choir for 14 years and is a former organ scholar at St John’s. The College said he had ‘spearheaded’ the move, strengthening his ‘reputation for encouraging young singers’. Heather Hancock (right) was admitted as the new Master of St John’s last year. She is the first woman to hold the position
‘Our choir is a family, with an emphasis on mutual encouragement, enjoyment, kindness, praise and empathetic support. In addition to their musical training, the choristers learn innumerable skills including teamwork, attention to detail, self-confidence, leadership, professionalism and responsibility.
‘These attributes stay with them for the rest of their lives.
‘Each singer is an individual with their own vocal colour, their own personality and their own strengths and weaknesses – we nurture each singer’s voice.
‘New choristers generally join in Year 4 and it will be four or five years before all five year-groups of the choir contain both boys and girls. The total number of choristers will increase from 20 to 25.
‘Boys’ voices tend to reach their peak around Year 8, whereas girls’ voices continue to develop for many years after that.
The richest Oxbridge colleges
St John’s £780.1m
University plus Colleges total: £11.8billion
St John’s £592.3m
Christ Church £512.9m
All Souls £429.8m
The Queen’s College £329.0m
University plus Colleges total: £9.1billion
‘Our choir will continue to celebrate and give a platform to those unique moments in boys’ vocal development whilst ensuring girls and women are also given the chance to benefit from a musical education that will transform the rest of their lives.’
The decision to admit girls and women will mean the choir will be unique in a Cambridge or Oxford College.
No other choir of its kind combines the voices of males and females in both adults and children.
Master of St John’s College Heather Hancock said: ‘This pioneering step will continue the distinctive tradition of choral excellence at St John’s and honours the college’s overarching commitment to equality.
‘The college is delighted to support our exceptional director of music as he recruits women and girls, as well as men and boys, to become members of the choir.’
Ms Hancock became the first female Master of 500-year-old St John’s College last year after Professor Sir Christopher Dobson died in September 2019 after 12 years as Master.
She is the 45th Master of St John’s and is a former Cambridge student.
She was the first woman to take up the role since the founding of the college in 1511 and was admitted in front of 30 Fellows wearing masks at a special socially distanced ceremony at the College’s Victorian Chapel.
The inclusion of girls and women in St John’s Choir, which tours in England and across the world, will begin in 2022.
The College will also recruit younger choristers who typically join in Year 4 of school, with both girls and boys being selected.
St John’s Choir is made up of around 20 choristers, who join from the age of eight, and around 16 adult choral scholars who are largely students at St John’s College.
St John’s is one of Cambridge University’s 31 colleges and is thought to be the second wealthiest Cambridge college with assets of around £780million.
Only Trinity has more with £1.4billion.
The announcement today marks another departure from the English tradition of cathedral choirs being exclusively for men and boys.
Other choirs at Cambridge University, including Christ’s College and Gonville & Caius College, already admit female singers.
However, King’s College choir, the University’s most famous group that performs televised Christmas carols each year, retains exclusively male membership.
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