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Behind the scenes at Norwich Cathedral during Christmas

Advent open evening at Norwich Cathedral. Picture: Bill Smith/Norwich Cathedral
Advent open evening at Norwich Cathedral. Picture: Bill Smith/Norwich Cathedral

Candles, carols, choristers, a child bishop and a crib service with real animals are all part of a Norwich cathedral Christmas. We find out how they prepare for the season.

 

As most children look forward to a holiday at Christmas, the young choristers of Norwich Cathedral Choir are preparing for a festive season packed with services, concerts, processions and broadcasts.

For centuries the pure, sweet voices of children have sung out the good tidings of Christmas to the people of Norfolk.

Choristers create the festive soundtrack of fun services for families and seasonal classical concerts, and the expectant hush as a young soloist steps forward to send the opening lines of Once in Royal David City soaring heavenwards. As the rest of choir, and then the congregation join in, the whole cathedral seems to resonate with the joy of that holy night.

The children making this music, conjuring up visions of cherubs in their cerise robes and white ruffs, are world class musicians, although the oldest of the boys are barely into their teens. But as the heavenly notes fade their heads are also full of football, friendships, hobbies and homework.

Great British Life: Norwich Cathedral chorister William Lambert. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill SmithNorwich Cathedral chorister William Lambert. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

Will Lambert was just seven when he became a Norwich Cathedral chorister.

Now 12, he still loves being part of the cathedral choir and, amid all the excitement of Christmas, it is singing that he is most looking forward to.

A sports-lover, he describes being in the choir as ‘singing in a team which is closely bonded together.’

When most other children of his age are fast asleep on Christmas Eve he will be heading out to Norwich cathedral to sing at Midnight Mass.

‘The best bit is when the person who has a watch tells you it is 12 o’clock and it is officially Christmas. Everyone gets excited,’ said Will.

He will be back at the cathedral by 10am, ahead of the big Christmas morning service and then again for Evensong. ‘And then head home to eat and open presents!’ he said.

His life is not all about singing though. Will enjoys sport, especially football, and listening to music.

And is there any aspect of the choir he is not so keen on? ‘Singing psalms every night is not terrible but it is probably the thing I enjoy least!’ said Will.

Great British Life: Norwich Cathedral chorister Eden Calver. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill SmithNorwich Cathedral chorister Eden Calver. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

Seventeen-year old Eden Calver joined the Norwich Cathedral girls’ choir at 13 after her mum suggested she should audition.

She loves the social side of choir, as well as the challenge of learning and performing new pieces of music.

‘Although at first I was very nervous, the girls couldn’t have been more welcoming and kind and now I really do think of them as lifelong friends, said Eden.

‘You have to be willing to make sacrifices to attend services and rehearsals, and sometimes move dates around in your personal life. I feel happy to do this as I enjoy my time at the cathedral so much, but there definitely have been occasions where I’ve missed out on events I’d have liked to have been at as well!’

Her favourite part of Christmas in the cathedral is the atmosphere. ‘Standing up to perform in a still, candle-lit, cathedral, or outside in the cloister with a colourfully wrapped-up, anticipating audience, is definitely something really special,’ she said. ‘Midnight mass is the final performance before we break up for Christmas, and it usually goes on until around 1am - right into Christmas Day. It’s a wonderful feeling being amidst all the celebrations and Christmas spirit!

Great British Life: Christmas with the Norwich Cathedral Choir and Norwich Cathedral Brass conducted by Ashley Grote. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill SmithChristmas with the Norwich Cathedral Choir and Norwich Cathedral Brass conducted by Ashley Grote. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

Cathedral master of music Ashley Grote is in charge of the cathedral choir and the highlight of his Christmas at the cathedral is the start of the Christmas Eve carol service. ‘I find it incredibly moving to see the building packed with thousands of people from our city and community, whether they are regular cathedral-goers or not. Standing in the middle of it all is a very great privilege,’ he said.

He was a choirboy himself at King’s College Cambridge, and went on to become assistant organist at Westminster Abbey, where he played for big national and royal occasions.

Next month he will help audition girls, as well as boys, from the age of six, for the cathedral choir. ‘What we are looking for is potential: a natural singing voice, a good musical ear and a child who is bright, responsive and quick to learn. If they have the right potential and character, we can do the rest!’ he said.

And are the choristers as angelic as they look?

‘The important thing to know is that our boys and girls are normal children from in and around Norwich, the same as any other children their age.

‘Of course they are talented singers, but they enjoy the same things in life as any other child – being with friends, school, sport, drama.

Any child can be a cathedral chorister if they have the right potential and qualities – and being angelic is not one of those!’

Great British Life: Norwich Cathedral Choir Christmas Concert conducted by Ashley Grote. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill SmithNorwich Cathedral Choir Christmas Concert conducted by Ashley Grote. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

On song

For centuries Norwich Cathedral Choir has honed the voices of small boys, but from next month girls and boys can audition for the choir and apply for Norwich School’s choral scholarships.

The current choir has two separate sets of choristers – 20 boys aged eight to 13 and 24 girls aged 11-18.

The young choristers rehearse before school every morning, and before each of the five cathedral services they sing for every week. The girls’ choir rehearses twice a week.

Next year boys and girls will have the same musical and educational opportunities.

Boys and girls can audition from the age of six, to join the choir in September, when the choristers will rehearse and sing at services together up to the age of 13.

Boy choristers have sung in Norwich Cathedral since the 16th century. They were educated at the Norwich Cathedral Choir School until 1952 and are now awarded choral scholarships by the Norwich School. In 1995 Norwich cathedral was one of the first to start a girls’ choir.

Great British Life: Choristers around the Christmas tree at Norwich Cathedral. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill SmithChoristers around the Christmas tree at Norwich Cathedral. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

A new group of senior boy choristers will also be launched, mirroring the current senior girls’ choir. They can attend schools across Norfolk but are also considered part of Norwich Cathedral Choir.

Auditions for children in school years three and four will be held on January 20. They will be asked to sing a song they enjoy and complete simple vocal and aural exercises, with the cathedral’s music team looking for a love of music, a natural singing voice and musical potential. No choral experience is necessary.

Auditions for senior girl and boy choristers will take place later in the year.

The girls’ choir currently rehearses twice a week and sings with the adult choir at two services a week.

Norwich Cathedral is also home to an informal, non-auditioned choir for primary school-aged children which meets on Saturday mornings, and the Norwich Cathedral Chamber Choir.

To find out more about Norwich Cathedral Choir email music@cathedral.org.uk or call 01603 218306.

Great British Life: Christmas with the Norwich Cathedral Choir and Norwich Cathedral Brass conducted by Ashley Grote. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill SmithChristmas with the Norwich Cathedral Choir and Norwich Cathedral Brass conducted by Ashley Grote. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

Christmas at Norwich Cathedral

Candlelit Advent Procession with carols and readings, December 3, 6pm.

Advent Open Evening, December 6, 6.30-8.30pm. Free. See the blessing of the outdoor crib (with real farm animals), sing carols with the Cathedral Choir, hear the cathedral’s newly-restored organ, and enjoy festive activities for children, free mini-tours of the cathedral and the candlelit cloister labyrinth. Plus gift shop.

Hang a star on the Tree of Remembrance, December 6 to January 5.

Handel’s Messiah by candlelight, performed by Norwich Cathedral Choir, Norwich Baroque and acclaimed soloists. December 9, 7pm.

Christmas concert with Norwich Cathedral Choir, December 15, 7.30pm. Sacred and secular festive music, with carols for choir and audience.

Carols in the Cloister, Saturday December 16, 4pm. A festive singalong with the girl choristers. Free with collection for The Children’s Society.

Choral Evensong broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, December 20, 4pm. Congregation must be seated by 3.45pm.

Christmas procession, carols and readings, December 22, 7pm, December 23 and 24, 3.30pm.

Crib Service, Christmas Eve, midday. See the Christmas story brought to life. Children invited to dress as Nativity characters. Music from the Cathedral Children’s Choir.

Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve, 11.15pm.

Christmas Day family service, 10.30am.

Christmas Day Evensong, 3.30pm.

Full details and tickets cathedral.org.uk



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