After half a year of silence owing to tight lock-down restrictions in the face of Covid-19, Salisbury Cathedral Choir will resume singing from Friday 4 September. In March, cathedrals and churches across the land were instructed to close as a response to the pandemic, bringing to an abrupt halt all acts of worship within their buildings. Whilst certain acts of worship were permitted to resume in July, it has only recently become possible for choirs to take up their duties, owing to fears concerning the spread of Coronavirus via the ‘aerosol’ produced when singing. This ban left the future of many of the country’s precious choirs, not to mention the wider music industry, hanging in the balance.
The Cathedral’s Director of Music, David Halls, said, ‘We are delighted that, after such a prolonged and worrying period of silence, our Cathedral Choir can resume its duties once more. At various points in history the worship of the Church of England has seen dramatic changes, but never in any of our lifetimes has church music experienced such an extended period of interruption. Even during the first and second world wars, choral services would have been kept going in some form.’
Salisbury Cathedral Choir consists of sixteen boy choristers and sixteen girl choristers aged between 8 and 13 years, all educated at Salisbury Cathedral School. The choir also comprises six adult singers or ‘Lay Vicars’, an organist, and the Director of Music.
‘The lock-down posed a serious threat to the future of many choirs,’ said David. ‘Each year our Cathedral Choir evolves through the admission of new young choristers (probationers), but we also lose the older and more experienced choristers as they move on to new schools. It is therefore a huge relief that we are able to resume both rehearsals and services, so that this heritage can continue to be passed down.’
But it certainly won’t be ‘back to normal’. The risk assessment and safety measures for the resumption of choral rehearsals and services have been months in the planning, and the Cathedral is still operating on a severely reduced capacity. Congregation members are required to book a place at services, and the choir will sing at some considerable distance from worshippers. The boy and girl choristers will rotate duties performing in separate group ‘bubbles’ (allowing them to stand next to each other), whilst the adult musicians must maintain a safe distance at all times. Esther Lycett, a Cathedral verger, said, ‘During the choir’s absence we have been working hard to ensure the safe return of our musicians. The quire stalls will remain closed to the general public, and in order to prevent cross-contamination between the boys’ and girls’ choirs, each child will use an individual folder to prevent the mixing of music copies. The choir will not be processing down the nave, and the quire stalls will be disinfected after use.’
Even the choir’s robes, newly dry-cleaned, will be hung in separate laundry bags. The choristers will have a new routine for robing, a revised schedule, and they will use larger rehearsal spaces to provide sufficient ventilation. ‘I am particularly looking forward to rehearsing the choristers in the large and beautiful Cathedral Chapter House,’ said David.
Furthermore, Salisbury Cathedral Choir has played a crucial role in the national effort to resume safe singing in our churches and cathedrals. In July Jonathan Woodhouse and Richard Hooper, two of the Cathedral’s Lay Vicars, participated in experiments held at the headquarters of Public Health England at Porton Down. Early results from experimentation held at various locations indicate that, despite initial concerns about the spread of the virus, singing may pose no higher risk than speaking. In controlled laboratory conditions, and on separate visits, Jonathan and Richard were asked to cough, breathe, speak at various volumes, and to sing verses from the Christmas carol ‘O come all ye faithful’. Petri dishes, carefully labelled and dispersed throughout the room, were collected at the end of each experiment, and then cultivated to allow bacteria to grow. Singing in other languages (such as German) was also factored into the research.
Despite all these special measures and a drastically altered routine, the return of sung services at the Cathedral marks a significant step in the direction towards recovery. The first Choral Evensong will be sung by the Lay Vicars only at 1730 on Friday 4 September, with full choir services resuming on Saturday 5 September. Advance booking is required for all services. This may be done online here or for those who are unable to book online, via the telephone booking line on 01722 512156.
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