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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