History-maker: why one man decided it was time to spearhead the move to open St John’s College choir to girls and women

“I am very excited about creating an opportunity for boys and girls to sing together every day”

The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, is one of the finest collegiate choirs in the world – known and loved from its broadcasts, international concert tours and more than 100 recordings. Andrew Nethsingha, Director of Music, spoke to Jo Tynan about why breaking a 350-year-old tradition and inviting girls and women into the choir as full members was the right – and only – equitable thing to do.

The news that St John’s College was going to be the first Cambridge or Oxford College to include boys and girls, men and and women as full members of its choir rang out across social media like church bells on a Sunday morning.  

Many hailed the decision as ‘pioneering’, ‘bold’ and ‘transformative’, others said it was ‘brave and brilliant’. A handful of people, often those with avatars obscuring their identity rather than profile pictures, were rather more negative and felt it signalled the end of times for the College as a whole, which was a bit of an overreaction but heartfelt nonetheless. It also led to renewed enthusiasm for the choir with many more people attending Evensong after the news was released to the media than before. 

Andrew Nethsingha with the choristers
Andrew with choristers in the magnificent St John's College Chapel. Credit: Nordin Ćatić.

The choir was founded in the 1670s and the sight of the choirboys in bright red robes walking to and from the Chapel every day has been a familiar one for centuries. Their excited chatter can often be heard as they head over the Bridge of Sighs and pass through the College from St John’s College School on Grange Road where they all board. And from next year, girls will be able to don the iconic cloaks for the first time in history and join the boys as choristers. Women, largely recruited from the student body of St John’s, will also join the men in the choir for the first time. 

Andrew, who was himself a chorister at Exeter Cathedral, under his father's direction, said: “A lot of time was spent looking at the possible options of how to provide musical training to girls at the same standard and with the same opportunities offered to the boys. The only way to be completely fair was to open up full membership to girls and women. 

“I am very excited about creating an opportunity for boys and girls to sing together every day from the age of eight and I’m delighted that my proposal was so warmly endorsed by the Master, the Dean of Chapel, the College Council and the Governing Body. They asked pertinent questions about how it would work in practice, what it would mean for the distinctive sound the choir is so famous for, and the move was very much welcomed. I was offered a huge amount of support which was very heartening. 

“The reaction from the public was overwhelmingly positive, with some negative views expressed too, but that was to be expected and we still felt that if 2021 wasn’t the right time to announce this pivotal step, when would the time ever be right?”

“The St John’s style is to nurture the individuality of each singer, rather than trying to strait-jacket the voices into uniformity”

News cutting featuring the Ascension choir in 1937
A clipping from the Cambridge Daily News in 1937 about the Ascension Day Eucharist from the College Chapel Tower rooftop, which is still an annual tradition.

Andrew is the latest in a long line of eminent Directors of Music of the choir, and follows in the footsteps of Dr George Guest, Dr Christopher Robinson and Dr David Hill. He studied at the Royal College of Music, where he won seven prizes before going on to study as an undergraduate organ scholar at St John’s. He was previously Director of Music at Truro and Gloucester Cathedrals, and Artistic Director of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. 

In 2016, Andrew launched the College’s own recording label ‘St John’s Cambridge’, an imprint of Signum Classics. The choir’s first release, in May 2016, entered the specialist classical charts at number two and won five-star reviews and the Choral Award at the BBC Music Magazine Awards 2017. 

The choir sings at daily Evensong services at the College Chapel and Sung Eucharist on Sundays during university term. Its repertoire spans more than 500 years of sacred music. One of the choir’s more unusual traditions is the Ascension Day Eucharist. Cyril Rootham started the tradition in 1902 when he was Director of Music after a conversation he had with Sir Joseph Larmor, Fellow. Sir Joseph was insistent that a choir singing from the top of the tower would not be heard by those standing on the ground below. 

Cyril was keen to prove him wrong and to mark the feast of the Ascension, which celebrates the Christian belief in the Ascension of Jesus into heaven 40 days after his resurrection at Easter, the choir secretly climbed to the rooftop of the tower and as the clock struck noon, sang an Ascension Day motet. To Cyril’s great delight, Sir Joseph opened his window in the courtyard below to see where the music was coming from. The event proved extremely popular and has been repeated to a gathered crowd in First Court every year for more than a century. 

Andrew himself has a reputation for encouraging young singers, championing contemporary music, and commissioning new work from established and emerging composers. The inclusion of girls and women in the choir will begin in 2022. Choristers typically join in Year 4 of school and sing until the end of Year 8. The choristers come to Cambridge from a wide variety of backgrounds and generous scholarships are provided to support their education – the aim is that no child is prevented from joining the choir on financial grounds. He is always pleased to hear from parents of children who might be interested in joining.

Andrew said: “The transition will be very gradual. New choristers generally join in Year 4; it will be four or five years before all five year-groups contain both boys and girls. Boys’ voices tend to reach their peak around Year 8, whereas girls’ voices will continue to develop for many years after that. Our choir will continue to celebrate and give a platform to these unique moments in boys’ vocal development. My hope is that the overall soundscape will become even more colourful. The St John’s style is to nurture the individuality of each singer, rather than trying to strait-jacket the voices into uniformity … and to move the listener rather than simply impress them with technical accomplishment. None of those things will change.” 

“No one knows exactly what the choir will sound like in the future, but that is what makes this so exciting”

Andrew Nethsingha in his set at St John's.
Andrew in his set at St John's. Credit: Ben Phillips.

Andrew is married to Liberal Democrat Councillor Lucy Nethsingha, the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, and the couple have three children together – all of whom welcomed the news that their father was spearheading the bold move. 

Andrew said: “Alongside climate change and reducing income inequalities, having men and women respecting each other as equals is one of the most pressing issues for our society. I hope this small step will bring the day closer when there is gender equality amongst composers, organists and conductors, as well as among politicians, business leaders and other influential professions. How wonderful it will be for boys and girls to coexist in this unique environment from such a young age.”

Does Andrew have any misgivings about the change? He thoughtfully replied: “I continue to believe in the value of single-sex choirs; indeed my life’s work for the past 27 years has been running such choirs. Cambridge will still have two all-male and two all-female treble lines. However, I hope that many parents of prospective choristers will like the idea of their children being part of a mixed-gender choir. I always want the choir to seem like a happy, warm, supportive family - and many families contain both boys and girls.   

“In addition to their musical training, the choristers learn innumerable skills including team-work, attention to detail, self-confidence, leadership, professionalism, responsibility. These attributes stay with them for the rest of their lives. The choristers create something of extraordinary beauty every day.”

Is he apprehensive about the musical challenge ahead given some of the criticism has been about how to blend male and female voices successfully?

He said: “No one knows exactly what the choir will sound like in the future, but that is what makes this so exciting as we are entering uncharted territory. This is only the beginning; now I need to prove that it will work. The transition will be very gradual but there will be a lot of eyes on us. To anyone who thinks the choir’s sound will become ‘less good’ or ‘less distinctive’ I simply say, give me a few years to try to prove you wrong and then we can talk.”

Perhaps the final word ought to be given to the choristers themselves who were gathered together and given the news in person by Andrew on the October morning the plan was finally made public. According to Andrew, their reaction was ‘really lovely’ and they were excited that they would be part of history. Andrew added: “One of their main concerns was whether they would be able to continue playing football against King’s College Choir! And the answer was, of course, yes.”

* Evensong at St John’s College, Cambridge, is sung daily at 6.30pm during university term-time. It is free and open to all.

Published 14/12/2021

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