Music in College at St John’s – a statement

A comprehensive review of music in College was recently completed. After considering the recommendations of the review, the St John’s College Council made a unanimous decision to pursue a broader approach to other co-curricular opportunities in music for our nearly 1,000 students.

This direction reflects our students’ feedback on their needs and aspirations, and takes into account the wider musical landscape in Cambridge and the UK education system prior to university. Students’ preferences and experiences in music today are different from those of previous generations, and many of them have had fewer musical opportunities in school than might have been the case in the past.

St John’s will create new co-curricular music programmes to meet these changing needs.

The proposals include:

  • a scheme to provide music lessons for any St John’s student, from beginners to those who want to revive their music experience
  • masterclasses in music, for example on song writing
  • enabling new ensembles and community music-making
  • supporting other kinds of singing in College, including Aquila, the existing all-female choir, and new opportunities for non-auditioned singing
  • extending the musician-in-residence scheme, for example to include jazz and pop
  • music awards to all St John’s students who sing in auditioned choirs in the University
  • innovative inter-disciplinary projects
  • outreach and engagement programmes 

The College will maintain its significant commitments to excellence in academic music, to St John’s College Choir, founded in the 1670s, to our classical ensembles, and to our current classical musician-in-residence scheme. The new approach sits alongside plans to develop a programme of non-musical activities in the Chapel, as recommended in a review in 2023 of the contribution the Chapel makes to the life of St John’s.   

To pursue these new opportunities in music, the College will redirect the significant resources currently devoted to St John’s Voices, its second Chapel choir. This decision has been taken in the context of the relative levels of support provided to different student co-curricular activities in the College and the choral opportunities already available in the collegiate university, to which St John’s College Choir will continue to make an important and distinctive contribution.

While St John’s College Choir is not able to offer opportunities for soprano singers, talented classical singers of all voice-types are exceptionally well provided for across the University of Cambridge, with around 25 College Chapel choirs catering primarily for the Anglican choral tradition with varying levels of commitment required. All of these choirs have members who are students from other Colleges, and the St John’s College plan for music will see us offering vocal awards and enhanced support for sopranos from St John’s as well as students of other voice-parts who secure places in other College Choirs.

In recent years, St John’s has been unusual in contributing two Chapel choirs to this diverse choral landscape for Cambridge students. The St John’s College Choir sings seven services a week, has existed for more than 350 years and is widely considered to make a globally important contribution to sustaining and extending the Anglican choral tradition. The St John’s College Choir provides an exceptional choral education and training and many of its members progress to international careers in music. St John's remains fully committed to the College Choir.

For the last decade, the College has also maintained a second Chapel choir, the St John’s Voices, to sing one service of Evensong a week during each term. This second Chapel choir was originally intended primarily to be for members of the College, but more recently it has expanded, and more members are now from the wider University. The College intends to redirect the resources used for this second Chapel choir towards wider opportunities in music for more members of St John’s.

As part of this decision, St John’s has been exploring with the University’s Centre for Music Performance the opportunity to create a successor choir to St John’s Voices, independent of the College, along the lines of Oxford’s Schola Cantorum. This could be a route for the corpus of the choir and its director to stay together if they wish and, by meeting a gap in provision in the University, could add a fresh dimension to classical singing in Cambridge. The greatest hurdle to this plan is financial; the Centre would require an endowment of at least £500,000 to make this a sustainable direction.    

The upset this decision has caused to the St John’s Voices community is regrettable. The decision is in no way a reflection on the high standards achieved by the choir and its director, Graham Walker. The College will provide support to members of St John’s Voices who wish to identify and secure alternative choral and accompanist opportunities. There will be time next term to pay tribute to all that they have achieved in their ten-year history.

Before releasing this statement, the College sought to complete an HR process with an affected member of staff.

Published: 21/3/2024