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‘Why did this small band of men and boys in a famous fenland town in England sing in the way they did in the 20th century?’ That is the primary question Timothy Day sets out to answer in this magisterial but extremely readable book, published in time for the centenary of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, which has made the sound of its choir famous all over the world, and for Stephen Cleobury’s last carol service before his retirement after 37 years as custodian of that sound.

The essence of the English cathedral/collegiate chapel sound was defined by Sir George Dyson in a 1952 Musical Times article as ‘the boy’s voice’, and he believed the men were at their best ‘when they blend with that clean white tone’. Richard Millar, in a 1997 study of national schools of singing, noted that this straight, vibrato-less singing style characterised English solo song literature and early music as well as cathedral music, and expressed the opinion that one aim of employing such a style was to direct conscious attention away from the emotional content of the music.

Timothy Day’s development of this thesis in relation to the King’s phenomenon is one of the most illuminating aspects of his book. He sets it in the context of music at other foundations, making it clear that the celebrated ‘unbroken tradition’ from the glories of pre-Reformation musical liturgy to the present was actually restraint that were so important to him and have continued to define the choir’s performances under his successors Philip Ledger and Stephen Cleobury.

As a former curator of western art music in the British Library’s sound archive, Day knows both the recorded literature of this subject and its printed sources inside out. His wonderful book is full of fascinating detail and shrewd insights. It concludes with a deeply moving chapter on the cultural and spiritual significance of the Anglican choral tradition, as exemplified by the singing at King’s … singing which even a spiritual free-thinker such as Peter Maxwell Davies considered ‘a crowning glory of our civilisation.’

CLARE STEVENS Read the full review on Agora Classica

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