Pies to Penderecki: the King's SingersChoral Scholars in drag

Brian Kay

The Guardian, Friday 25 April 2008 Article history

It is said that if you can remember the swinging 60s, then you weren't there. But I can clearly recall the three memorable years I spent studying for a degree in music and singing as a Choral Scholar in the choir of King's College, Cambridge, four decades ago. It was a wonderful time and place to be developing a passionate interest in music: my fellow students included would-be conductors John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Davis and David Atherton, early-music pioneers David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood, a young man already making waves as a composer called John Rutter, and six of us who went on to become the King's Singers.

The Choral Scholars at King's had inherited from previous generations a flourishing library of close harmony arrangements: light-hearted cover versions of well-known pop songs, folk and show songs, glees and madrigals. We used these as an escape from the serious business of daily services in the college chapel, and were in demand as performers at university rag days, dinners and at "smoker" concerts for the Footlights Club. My generation, having indulged ourselves in this field perhaps more than some, put together enough material for a long-playing gramophone record, and decided that we should spend some of our vacations visiting our old schools and performing concerts.

Trading under the eye-catching name Schola Cantorum pro Musica Profana in Cantabridgiense, we put the best sacred music from our experience in the chapel choir together with the more "fun" items from our somewhat scurrilous extra-curricular musical activities. It went down a storm. By the time of our London debut - on May 1 1968, when we shared the platform of the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Neville Marriner's Academy of St Martin in the Fields - we had, thankfully, become known as the King's Singers.

Music clubs, festivals and broadcasters began to take an interest. Steve Race fell for our "new sound" and played us on his BBC radio show. There had been plenty of male-voice groups before, made up of tenors and basses, but our addition of two countertenors gave the King's Singers a unique colour. There's little doubt, too, that our mixed programme format appealed, bringing together sacred works from the 14th to the 16th centuries, Romantic part-songs, Victorian parlour songs, and an increasing wealth of contemporary music - both serious and light - which began to pour in from composers and arrangers keen to exploit our new sound.


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