Now is the month of Maying

The bare-faced antics of Oxford students may distract from Magdalen's choral Mayfest. But the college choir is now moving into a new dawn. By Andrew Stewart

A few years back some bright spark hatched the idea of restoring Clerkenwell to the cultural map of London by holding an annual Ascension Day service on the roof of a local church. Despite trumpet flourishes and choral outbursts, the new "tradition" reached little further than a nearby team of jobbing builders and a handful of bemused Japanese tourists, adding little to Clerkenwell's status and even less to its popular history. Down in Oxford, where traditions mature more slowly, roof-top performance has been customary since Elizabethan times, when the choristers and academical clerks of Magdalen College first climbed the narrow stairs of the college's Great Tower to sing praises to the rising May Day sun.

The Magdalen Mayfest, unlike its short-lived Clerkenwell imitation, continues to attract a vast army of spectators, spaced out in more than one sense at the foot of the tower and packed sardine-like on Magdalen Bridge. While the choir sings Te Deum Patrem Colinus and delivers a lusty account of Morley's Now is the month of Maying, the bravest if not soberest of all- night revellers below prepare to leap into the chill shallows of the Cherwell. This year, a bare-arsed Scot and scantily-clad blondes provided the main attractions for eager tabloid photographers, although they were spared any greater danger by the earlier removal from the river of shopping trolleys, old bicycles and a roll of barbed-wire.

Last week's service was accompanied by expectant talk among the tower company of New Labour's new dawn, reinforced when lingering mists on the neighbouring water meadows dispersed as the sun rolled into a cloudless sky. In former times, the Magdalen choristers would finish their early morning's work, throw off their surplices and rush downstairs to tackle the bell ropes for a spot of wild "jangling". Today, a team of change- ringers is in place to ensure an ordered peal, although the effects of swinging bells on the foundationless Great Tower remain the same. I was told to grab the parapet by one May morning veteran: "It'll start to move in a second." Sure thing, I thought. Must be the combined effects of sleep deprivation and severe alcohol abuse, another Oxford May Day tradition. Seconds later it became clear that the college's 15th-century builders had allowed for a wide degree of lateral swing in William of Wayneflete's tower, not quite enough to produce a landslide result but sufficient to cause problems for those who prefer their medieval buildings to stay firmly in one place.

Magdalen's place in the history of English music rests on firmer foundations than either its tower or its annual novelty act. The statutes of William of Wayneflete's collegium beatae Mariae Magdalenae vulgariter dictum Maudeleyne College in Universitate Oxon, set down on 12 June 1458, make provision for eight clerks, 16 choristers and their master or informator choristarum. The new college attracted a succession of outstanding composers to the post of informator, including Richard Davy, whose work is well represented in the Eton Choirbook, John Mason, Thomas Appleby, Thomas Preston, and the brilliant John Sheppard, who served the college at various times during the 1540s. More recent Magdalen composer-musicians include Richard Nicholson, the first Heather Professor of Music at Oxford University, Henry Purcell's brother Daniel, John Stainer of Crucifixion fame, Walter Parratt, Bernard Rose and the present informator Grayston Ives, perhaps better known as ex-King's Singer Bill Ives.

A new disc from Collins Classics presents an unusually rich slice of Magdalen music history, offered up to the memory of Bernard Rose, who died towards the end of last year, and featuring contributions from many of his students. The 20-strong Magdalen Collection was convened by Harry Christophers last December, shortly after the Thanksgiving Mass that followed Rose's funeral, its members chosen from the ranks of former Academical Clerks to sing the sonorous, often florid works of Davy, Mason and Sheppard. Christophers, conductor of The Sixteen and, like his old choir master, a champion of Tudor church music, received musicological support from Magdalen graduates Roger Bray, David Wulstan and David Hiley, while Rose's conductor son Gregory served as producer for the Collins sessions. The vocal line-up included such seasoned pros as Hilliard Ensemble colleagues David James and Paul Elliott, two barristers, one general practitioner and a handful of rising star singers, counter-tenor Robin Blaze and tenor Mark Milhofer prominent among them.

"Seeing the way Anthony Smith, the President of Magdalen, is taking the whole college into the next century made many of us want to do something to help," explains Christophers. "We couldn't afford to donate big cheques, but realised that it might be possible to get together and make a recording. We made an absolute racket when we got together at an evensong for Bernard's 80th-birthday celebrations last May, but there were still traces of the special Magdalen sound he established. He was in favour of a free singing style and would never hold us back." Profits from the Magdalen Collection disc will go towards restoring the Magdalen chapel organ and the purchase of a new chamber organ. "We had an ancient Snetzler chamber organ in the chapel during my time in the choir," recalls Christophers, "which was a semitone flat. It offered a great training for the organ scholars, who had to transpose all these elaborate Tudor pieces up to modern pitch, much to Bernard's glee." Following Rose's retirement in 1981, the main organ was rebuilt and its cranky chamber associate banished from the chapel.

Although Rose earned the respect of his cathedral and collegiate organist colleagues, his choir never received the public acclaim given to those trained by Simon Preston down the road at Christ Church or David Willcocks over at King's College, Cambridge. "As an academic, he made a great contribution to the study of Tudor church music and encouraged his choir members to specialise in that repertory," observes Christophers. "I think this is what Oxbridge collegiate chapels, like Magdalen, should be doing now, rather than chasing record contracts. Bernard was never really one for making records, but people still appreciate just how much he contributed to the Tudor music revival through his scholarship and energy." The seeds of that revival were carefully propagated by Bernard Rose, encouraging the archival researches of Roger Bray, David Wulstan's more controversial ideas on performance practice and Harry Christophers' explorations of late 15th- and early 16th-century English church music.

"In the choirs he put together year after year, he never shied away from taking 'difficult' people. He didn't necessarily want only the best singers for Magdalen if they were lacking in character, but would rather tame those who were outspoken or individual. Although the youngsters on our disc were not there during Bernard's time, somehow his spirit comes through in their singing. The biggest tribute I could pay is to say that Bernard never made his choristers and clerks into clones of previous choir members, which happens all too often elsewhere." Christophers went up to Oxford in 1973 to study classics, switching to music without the support of an A-level in the subject. "It was Bernard who took me on and saw me through the degree. He wasn't one of those boorish academics who lack patience; even if you asked the most banal or stupid of questions during a choir practice, he would never make you look ridiculous in front of others. Through singing the music and talking to Bernard, somehow you became totally enveloped in it and passionate about it."

'Music from Magdalen', including works by Richard Davy, John Mason and John Sheppard, by the Magdalen Collection/ Harry Christophers is on Collins Classics 15112

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser