For me, one of the most appealing things about going to Oxford University (and university in general) is the opportunity it presents to encounter such diversity of beliefs, cultures and perspectives amongst the student body. Given that the university originated from a monastic institution, it is uplifting to see how it has developed to be a place where people of all religions and viewpoints are included and encouraged to share their beliefs. Despite this, the university still retains some of its appealing ancient Christian traditions, most notably the weekly singing of evensong by college choirs.
Within every college there is a chapel, varying significantly in size and style. In Christ Church College their chapel is, of course, the world famous Christ Church Cathedral, built between 1160 and 1200, whereas in my college (St Hugh’s), the chapel is a single upstairs room built in the early 20th century. Every chapel, to my knowledge, has its own chapel choir who are responsible for singing the traditional evensong service. Again, the nature of these choirs can be very different, with colleges such as Exeter and Queen’s having auditioned choirs which sing multiple times a week, whilst in other college choirs the atmosphere is much more relaxed. This is the case for my chapel choir where you are not required to audition and we sing just once a week on a Sunday evening.
A traditional aspect of these choirs is the appointment of students to be organ and choral scholars. We have three organ scholars at St Hugh’s who receive a monetary reward (as well as the right to wear the prestigious scholars’ gown!) in return for conducting and playing the organ during services. Colleges may also appoint choral scholars to lead the different singing parts; I am lucky enough to have a choral award at St Hugh’s, although this does mean that I am expected to be at all services and rehearsals (even in the midst of an essay crisis). Our college chapel choir is a lovely community consisting of undergraduates, graduates and even senior college staff, which is enhanced by all the opportunities we have to eat together. We have tea and cake before every rehearsal, as well as supper together after every service. As well as singing evensong, we also have the opportunity to sing at other occasions, like formal dinners.
The highlight of the year is definitely the Carol Service of Michaelmas term. Complete with candles, carols and mulled wine, this service really sets the mood for the festive season (although perhaps slightly prematurely as it normally happens in November). The evensong service itself consists of a range of musical pieces sang by the choir, including psalms, anthems and canticles, as well as prayers and an interesting talk from our college chaplain or an invited speaker. In Hilary term (the second term of the year) we join with other chapel choirs in the University Church for an intercollegiate evensong. It’s a truly amazing experience to hear the voices of so many amplified in such a large space. From a cultural, community and musical perspective, the chapel choirs of Oxford are truly a blessing to the university.