Ten years ago the choir now known as Cantores Literati made its inaugural weekend trip — to Tewkesbury Abbey. We sang for evensong, eucharist and a Civic Service that lasted two or three days.
In spite of this, we were undeterred, and returned for a second trip in Worcester the same year. We continued to do an average of two trips a year and I frankly can’t believe we’ve kept it up for ten!
Of course it’s witnessed a lot of changes, not least in personnel. Some of today’s regulars I’d not even met back in 2001, and some of the earliest members have disappeared off the radar altogether (has ANYONE seen Michael Anderson in the last ten years?!).
But we soldier on, pretty successfully most of the time, and more or less true to the original, er, ‘vision’.
The original, er, ‘vision’
I remember clearly lying awake in bed, post-graduation, on my last night as a resident in Exeter and realising gloomily that I no longer had a choir to conduct. Simultaneously, as I embarked on the next phase of my life, I was about to drift further from cherished musical friends of years past.
The solution? Set up my own choir! And that’s what I did.
I remember writing a sort of manifesto in my head, a short list of guidelines of what I wanted the choir to be about, and it went something like this:
Be a reunion choir for the talented and lovely past members of All Saints’ Wokingham (where I sang as an angelic treble and less angelic but excessively yodelling adolescent)
Be able to sing to a high standard on little rehearsal, so weekend trips could be mostly about the fun
Above all, make it an invitation-only choir and try at all costs to avoid the egos and anti-social twattishness found in so many choirs
The choir started life as an unofficial (and to be honest, ruthlessly select) “past members of All Saints Wokingham” choir but almost from the outset it needed to cast a wider net to cover all the voice parts and consequently evolved into what can only truthfully be described as “Tim’s mates” (a contender for the choir’s name put forward by Caroline Newton as I recall!). And all the better for it in my opinion. But then I would say that :-)
It’s given me great pleasure over the years to see people come together as strangers at the start of a weekend and leave as friends at the end. Sometimes more.
Indeed the number of enduring Can Lit romances has led me on occasion to consider a rebrand: ‘Cantores Literati: helping single men have sex since 2001’. In fact if you tell me the Latin for it maybe I will :-p
I always knew that it would bring old friends back in contact — and it’s been so gratifying to see old friendships rekindled — but I never planned for how many new friendships and relationships would be created. And that’s great.
We weren’t always Cantores Literati, y’know. Those with long memories will remember the ignominy of ‘All Saints Singers’ (unfortunate acronym) and the career-low of ‘Alma Vale Singers’ (sorry!). Around this time a few suggestions were made, including, from Robert Creech “The Year Doth Merit Singers” (being an anagram of Timothy Reader Singers). But I couldn’t possibly be so conceited as to have the choir named after me, could I? Or could I…
The best suggestion we’d had since the conception came after the 2002 Winchester trip. Clive Chaney, father of one of the singers and an erstwhile chorister patriarch to many of us, was in the congregation at evensong. He afterward commented that we all looked a very scholarly bunch in our academic hoods, and also that the latin for ‘Literati’ translates as ‘well read’, a play on yours truly’s surname.
Ack, well. It seemed too neat to ignore, so Cantores Literati was born. In 2004, thanks to the ever-pithy and insightful Dr Carpenter, our strapline was born too: ‘Sober Enough’. The Latin translation being pleasingly alliterative: sobrio soficio or abstemius amplus.
I’ve never quite decided whether I consider CL a serious name or a bit of a piss-take all along. I guess my opinion on that has evolved as has my take on choirs generally, most especially my own. There was certainly a time where I cherished running my own choir and wanted it to sound (in both senses) as grandiose and professional as possible. As time passed I began to value certain other qualities more highly — not taking yourself too seriously, for a start. And consequently I now think of our sobriquet somewhat ironically… a naff, puffed-up Latin name, designed that only fusty, aging cathedral canons will understand it without looking up the translation, combined with a wry, sarcastic implication that we’re somehow more ‘literati’ than any other choirs (which is of of course bollocks because practically every classical choir in the country is full of graduates, academics and high-performing professionals; it doesn’t set us apart at all).
Ultimately it’s hifalutin, pompous, more than a little tossy and any attempt at irony is sadly lost on the majority! Would I choose it again? Probably not.
Take a trip
This seems like a good time to take a trip down memory lane with a few photos and what little I can dredge from my memory. Thanks to Nigel Mellor for providing the archives!
2001 – Tewkesbury Abbey…
Quote of the trip, Chris walking into the Abbey toilets the morning after the curry, before Eucharist rehearsal, and sitting in the cubicle next to me, remarking, after a short pause: “when you said ‘humming in the morning’ I didn’t realise this is what you had in mind!”
…and Worcester Cathedral
Abiding memory is Nick Shaw making the trip up specially on Saturday night and looking forward to us all sitting in a quaint Worcestershire boozer sipping local ale. Instead we were all watching England hammer the Hun 5-1 in Munich. I felt bad so joined the anti-football breakaways out in the garden. To this day I’ve never seen a single goal from that game!
2002 – Bath Abbey
Several over-riding memories from this. Friday night’s rehearsal was sung in increasing darkness, Monkton Combe school having given us access to the chapel but not to the room with the light switch.
Also Huw Jenkins travelling down from Cambridge on the Friday arriving barely in time to catch last orders, and delivering the psalms he’d printed as promised, only to turn around again to play for a wedding in Cambridge the next morning. He was back in Bath in time for the closing chords of Saturday’s evensong. Dedication, see?
The week before the trip the queen mum had died so the Abbey tweaked evensong into a memorial service at short notice. I stood my ground and insisted we did most of the music we’d already programmed. In retrospect I don’t know that Howells St Paul’s really met with the mood of quiet contemplation they were trying to achieve!
… and Winchester Cathedral
Which is memorable for the first of Caroline’s foray’s into “getting to know” Tim’s friends… and I can only apologise Caro ;-)
It was the first of two appearances by the incomparable Joel Potts, who deafened many sopranos, but delighted the rest of us, with his top As in Hail Gladdening Light and Laudate Dominum.
Oh, and the Wykeham Arms. Fantastic boozer.
Pictured left is Chris Reed, impersonating a legendary old timer from singing trips past…
2003 – Canterbury Cathedral and All Saints Wokingham (september concert)
2004 – Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral and All Saints Wokingham (Christmas concert)
At Salisbury, who could forget ‘My fun with wood’ – which I believe Caroline STOLE (so hopefully still has) – or Huw and Emma getting locked outside the cathedral close and nearly having to spend the night in a hotel.
My own personal hell that weekend was in the pub after Sunday evensong where my mum, surrounded by much of the choir, and commenting on the prevailing colds and bad sinuses of my childhood, carelessly remarked “you could get through a box of tissues a week!”. Chris Reed tried to contain his laughter but lasted approximately a quarter of a second before he corpsed into stifled but ever-increasing hysterics, leaving my poor mother to ponder what it was she could possibly have said.
2005 – Bristol Cathedral (New Year’s Eve evensong)
Ian kindly organised a few extras — Angharad, Jenny and Richard — to lend a hand for this one. Total strangers to me then, but were soon to reappear and make their mark.
We also had Kit Perona-Wright playing Stanford in G’s relentless arpeggios with frozen fingers and Emma his wife providing a beautiful solo in the Leighton Coventry Carol. Kit was asked in the pub afterwards if he’d worn his thick leather gloves whilst playing. It was a genuine question — he looked so attached to them like he’d never taken them off — but could so easily have been a barbed insinuation about the accuracy of his arpeggios!
2006 – Bristol Cathedral
Who could forget the organ pedal sipher that burst in on the most plaintive moment of the Howells Gloucester Service sounding like the QE2 had just weighed anchor outside the cathedral.
Well if you have forgotten it, here it is soon after the 6 minute mark. Did I keep a straight face? I doubt it! But you carried on singing regardless. Professionals, see?
2007 – St David’s Cathedral, Wales
The Farmers Arms, fish n chips on the beach, a swim in the sea, a good old fashioned YHA with dorms, brilliant singing, top banter and many fine memories. One of the best..
2008 – Bristol Cathedral
For this trip I planned the Widor double choir mass envisaging the twenty or so of us on choir one, and then twenty or so men from my choral society to pitch up and be the beefy baritone choir. As it transpired we had two of them. Thanks gents. But we did also acquire Messrs Gray and Condy, and we’ve never really given them back, which is our gain.
…and Christ Church Oxford
Memorable for Nick Abbott valiantly taking on the notoriously obstinate organ — and winning — and with one of the harder pieces in the repertoire, For Lo I Raise Up (Stanford).
2009 – Wells Cathedral
Can Lit’s first week-long residency! And what a week. Different choir for every rehearsal – a dectet only on Tuesday, full strings on Wednesday, a party in a 14th century hall on the Saturday, and a 3-service marathon the day after. 8 services, at least as many hangovers, and many more happy memories. Loads of pics on facebook.
Such a let down this trip! I was sick as a dog and had to miss all the shenanigans on Saturday night, and then hand over half the conducting duties for Sunday! (to Huw who coped admirably). Also, we were possibly a bit stretched to do the Walton Missa Brevis on our forces. Though we acquitted ourselves with Dove’s The Darkling Thrush in the evening.
2010 – Wells Cathedral and Axbridge
And that pretty much brings us back to the modern day, with an exceptionally fun weekend in Wells and Axbridge late last summer. I’ll never forget that Nick’s delayed emigration to Seattle was the answer to our harpsichord prayers, and what a fine job he did too.
We’ve rarely strayed from the tried and trusted standard church/cathedral repertoire but we’ve done a few things which stand out in my memory either because they were a challenge, ambitious, original or just because they gave me sleepless nights and thinning hair.
Ceremony of Carols (Britten) with harp (2004)
Many an Ian Carpenter premiere including the Alleluia in Salisbury Cathedral (2004) as an introit up by the Easter Garden, which was ‘shaped like a flange’ (Dave McKee)
Conducting at Salisbury Cathedral was a huge honour; I still consider it my favourite cathedral in the country.
Doing a full week’s residency at Wells in 2009 also felt a real privilege, somehow feeling we can claim a bigger part in the building’s musical history having done a full cycle of the week’s worship. In that sense and every other, the week was… intoxicating. The week culminated with a party in the grand, medieval Vicars’ Hall to celebrate my 30th birthday, attended by many loved ones and featuring rather a lot of Bath Ales (a 72-pint cask of which had to be rolled through the cathedral and up to the hall during evensong!). Somehow we got up and sang 3 services in the 7 hours the following day…
However, it is St David’s that holds a special place in my heart for being about as perfect a choir trip as you could hope for. Picturesque cathedral, beach, walkable distances, legendary pubs, great people, top music and sunny weather. If you weren’t there, you can see from the photos what fun we had.
And if you have never seen this — or even if you have — stop what you’re doing and watch: Cantores Literati’s first pop video. Sarah Topp you are a genius!
There’s a great temptation to keep going from one big venue to the next. Certainly Durham is at the top of my hitlist. But thereafter, we’ve kind of done all my personal favourites in the UK now, possibly with the exception of Liverpool, York and Norwich though I feel all three of those will be difficult to get a predominantly south-based group to travel to. A tour to Seattle (and possibly Portland and Vancouver too) is in the pipeline.
The other option is to start uncovering some of the smaller, lesser-known churches in the country — do a few rural evensongs. A distinct possibility for this is to visit Argyll in the west of Scotland where Ben Brown has a (spacious) holiday home and sing some services or concerts at Inverary Parish Church, amongst others.
But whatever the future holds, we’ll continue to sing and to make new friends, I’m certain of that – hopefully for another ten years. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for being a part of it.