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A unique non-denominational and non-religious Oxonian choir is performing this December at the NCPA. By Devanshi Shah

In 1879, the charming town of Oxford was privy to a significant educational shift. Named in honour of the Scottish mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville, Somerville Hall opened its doors to allow women to get an education at a time when they were barred from the University. Eventually in 1894, the institution transformed from a ‘hall’ to a ‘college’. An initiative that started out as a humble desire to boost the hopes of women now boasts alumnae that include Vera Brittain, Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Hodgkin, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher. Eventually in 1994, the college voted to open up its doors to men for the first time.

THE YOUNG AND THE SECULAR

Through all its changes, the founding commitment of the college remained ‘to include the excluded’. This is why Somerville was the first college at Oxford to be non-denominational and continues to be religiously non-aligned.

Adding to the college’s repertoire of community activities is the relatively young Choir of Somerville College. Established in 2001 by Francis Knights, former Director of Chapel Music, and Sam Bayliss, Organ Scholar/College Organist, the 28-member choir consists of choral scholars and volunteers. Since 2017, the choir has been conducted by Will Dawes, Director of Chapel Music. During the college term the choir sings for the evening service every Sunday for the College Chapel. Much like the college’s non-denominational characteristic, the choir is known to perform secular pieces.

According to Dawes, “Somerville College Chapel is unique in Oxford, by being the only non-consecrated chapel with regular services. This means that we are the only Oxford college choir that doesn’t have to sing music suitable for the service of Evensong on a regular basis. This gives us the ability to sing a lot of secular music, and music from other faiths, and leads to the Sunday service being a more inclusive event where people of any faith and none, can come together as a community.” Expanding the possibilities, the Somerville choir can include a significantly larger quantity of works, in addition to Anglican anthems which are more common in the choral tradition. “It’s also nice to offer something different to the Oxford College Chapel scene,” adds Dawes. 

A STRONG FOOTING

In spite of being a relatively young ensemble, the choir has performed in many cathedrals around the UK, namely Wells, Winchester, Worcester, Blackburn, Southwark and St Paul’s. It has also recorded two commercial CDs and appeared on BBC Radio 3. One of the performances at St Paul’s Cathedral was to mark the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne. Their performance repertoire includes large-scale works like Händel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, and Bach’s St John Passion, as well as full-scale productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.  Having performed prestigious concerts in Oxford, Brighton, Swindon and Upton, the choir has also appeared in a memorial concert for Iris Murdoch, performing John Tavener’s Song for Athene in the presence of the composer.

The choir is also the only auditioned college choir in Oxford, which adds a distinct essence to the sound of the choir. Dawes elaborates, “The choir is auditioned to try to maintain a good quality of singing, and to indicate to prospective members that the group aims for a high standard of music-making.  It also provides an opportunity to keep the singers at a similar level, and therefore avoid any bad feeling. To choose to come to an audition displays a level of commitment that is essential in this sort of choir, and members feel very close, knowing that they’ve all come through the audition process to be a member of the choir.”

Will Dawes, in addition to being the Director of Chapel Music of Somerville College, Oxford, is also the Director of Music at the church of St Mary Magdalen, Conductor of Ensemble 45 and Director of Frideswide Voices. His work with different choirs has seen performances of a variety of works, from Händel and Bach, to national premieres of works by Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Eric Whitacre. He has studied music at the University of Edinburgh and then Choral Conducting and Voice at the Royal Academy of Music. On graduating, he was awarded the Thomas Armstrong Prize for Choral Direction. In addition to being a conductor, Dawes is also active as a singer. He is a member of the internationally-acclaimed and Grammy-nominated vocal ensemble Stile Antico. Having travelled with Stile Antico across the globe, including tours to the USA, Mexico, Portugal, Estonia and Canada, this December marks his first voyage to the subcontinent.

ON THE ROAD

International tours are a key element of the Somerville Chapel Choir’s identity; they have performed in Germany, Italy and the United States between 2014 and 2016. Dawes elaborates on the impact the tours have on the synergy of members of the choir and its sense of community. “Tours are a brilliant way for the choir to develop both on an individual and group basis. Individually, most of the members of the choir have barely left Europe before, let alone been to somewhere as vibrant as India, so it’s a chance for them to experience new customs and traditions, and as you say, engage with the local culture. The group will also come back from the trip being closer together, leading to better music-making. It’s also wonderful to be able to take the name of Somerville College abroad, so that people from all over the world can see and hear what we’re doing first-hand.”

When asked what they were looking forward to during their upcoming tour to India, the excitement was clear. “So many things”, Dawes says. “This is my first tour leading the college choir, and as we’ll be the first Oxford college choir to visit India, I’m certainly looking forward to us acting as ambassadors for the College, the University and the English choral tradition. I’m also looking forward to the chance to perform in an iconic venue and to meet people afterwards. We’ll be taking part in several workshops with Songbound (a musical outreach initiative for marginalised children), which promises to be highly memorable. Above all, it’s exciting that the tour will benefit both us and the local communities at the time and into the future.”


The Choir of Somerville College, Oxford will make their debut performance in India on 13th December at the Tata Theatre.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2018 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.