Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Death of a choir

Yet another musical institution is brutally disbanded

St John's Voices in the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge. Photo: DataImages

Always make your redundancy announcement when the people at the receiving end of it are on a high. This seems to be the favoured method of today’s managing executives, who perhaps imagine that adrenalin will somehow anaesthetise the blow of getting the sack.

For the Cambridge student choir St John’s Voices, the news of its imminent disbanding and the redundancy of its director Graham Walker came just two minutes after the light was switched off at the end of a three-day recording session of Russian choral masterpieces last week.

Does egalitarianism have to be promoted at the expense of up-and-running excellence?

In a two-paragraph round-robin email to the choir that evening, the Master of St John’s College, Heather Hancock, explained that, in the light of findings by an ad-hoc committee (plus a report on the contribution of the chapel to the wider life of the college), the ‘council has decided to adopt a broader approach to the provision of co-curricular opportunities in music for our students, including in different genres’, and that as a consequence, the college’s funding would be redirected and ‘St John’s Voices will be disbanded at the end of Easter term 2024’.

The news was greeted with an outpouring of dismay and fury, not only by choir members, but also by hundreds of supporters across the country who are getting wearily used to signing petitions and writing letters in an effort to save the nation’s musical institutions. These signatories (Sir Simon Rattle and Rowan Williams among them) can’t bear to see the diminishment or disbandment of something specific and excellent that does exist, in favour of something unspecific and well-meaning that does not exist.

The brutal disbandment of yet another choir may seem a minor matter in the scheme of recent arts-world debacles, but it’s symptomatic of the casual ‘drop bombshell and retreat behind your comms team’ methods of today’s managerial class, who can’t bear to keep institutions as they find them but feel an urge to leave their mark, often woefully ignorant of exactly what it is that they’re destroying. The St John’s decision was, rather sinisterly, made during a decanal interregnum; the new dean, Victoria Johnson, who starts next term, is extremely musical, and I’m told by people who know her that she would not have favoured such a decision.

I rang the college’s communications department at once and asked if I could speak to the Master. They responded: ‘We aren’t in a position to comment this week’. When I pressed them, they said: ‘Unfortunately the timeline for being in a position to comment is not flexible.’

The next day, under pressure, the college issued a statement explaining in more detail what it intends to do. The new initiatives include: ‘masterclasses in song-writing’, ‘a scheme to provide music lessons for any St John’s student’, ‘enabling new ensembles and community music-making’, ‘extending the musician-in-residence scheme to include jazz and pop’, ‘new opportunities for non-auditioned singing’, ‘innovative interdisciplinary projects’ and ‘outreach and engagement programmes.’ All of which may sound worthy, especially in the current climate in which Oxbridge colleges are keen to make themselves attractive and approachable to state-educated pupils who may not have been fortunate enough to have the same standards of choral and musical training as their privately educated peers.

But can’t all these well-intentioned initiatives happen alongside the continued existence of St John’s Voices? Does egalitarianism have to be promoted at the expense of up-and-running excellence? And does St John’s Voices cost so much to run that it needs to be disbanded to make way for these new schemes? The choir’s only paid member is the director, who I can’t imagine is paid so very much for this one-day-a-week job. St John’s is the second-wealthiest Cambridge college, with an endowment of more than £619 million.

St John’s Voices is a mixed choir, singing choral evensong to an extremely high standard. It’s the only choir at the college where sopranos have a chance to sing in their own chapel choir (its world-renowned six-days-a-week main choir has child choristers singing the top line).

In her email to the choir, the Master said that she wanted to keep the chapel free on Mondays to ‘enable other uses of the space and free time for the Dean and Chaplain to progress student programmes for civic engagement and for understanding faith’. Well, if they must. But the chapel is free and empty for many others hours, the choir only using it for two in the early evening.

Hancock was appointed Master in 2020, having been a senior civil servant (private secretary to three home secretaries), and then a managing partner at Deloitte. She was an undergraduate at St John’s in the 1980s, graduating with a first in Land Economy. With her husband Mark she owns a grouse moor in Yorkshire. You can hear her bright, feminist-seeming voice on her new St John’s College podcast called Souvient, inspired by the college’s Tudor founder Lady Margaret Beaufort. She interviews high-achieving female alumni of the college, and both of them gush about how wonderful it was to be at St John’s as a woman. Well, it isn’t quite so wonderful now if you happen to be a woman who loves singing and longs to do so in your own college chapel.

I’m told that Hancock has never attended any services, concerts, events or rehearsals with St John’s Voices, so she has no personal experience of how excellent they are, and has shown little interest in informing herself about what they do. As one St John’s Voices singer said to me: ‘No one should be naive enough about their responsibilities to take on the burden of running a college without understanding how delicate, fragile and vulnerable to managerial abuse it will prove to be, and that destroyed institutions and reputations can take decades to recover.’

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