Girls and women to sing as members of The Choir of St John’s

Posted on: 15 October 2021

St John’s College will continue its reputation for musical excellence by featuring male and female voices – both adults and children – in its world-renowned choir for the first time.

Founded in the 1670s, The Choir of St John’s has a rich, warm and distinctive sound. Known internationally for its broadcasts, concert tours and more than 100 recordings, the choir is made up of around 20 choristers, who join from the age of eight, and around 16 adult choral scholars who are largely students at St John's College, one of the 31 constituent Colleges of the University of Cambridge.

The choir enhances services of the College Chapel through daily Evensong services and Sung Eucharist on Sundays during university term.

The decision to admit girls and women will mean the choir will be unique in a Cambridge or Oxford College – no other choir of its kind combines the voices of males and females in both adults and children.

Andrew Nethsingha, former organ scholar at St John’s, has directed the choir for 14 years and its repertoire spans 500 years of sacred music. Nethsingha has a reputation for encouraging young singers, championing contemporary music, and commissioning new work from established and emerging composers. He has spearheaded the move to admit girls and women to the choir.

Andrew Nethsingha

Andrew Nethsingha, Director of Music. Credit: James Beddoe

The Director of Music said: “Providing an opportunity for girls and women to sing as members of The Choir of St John’s is a very exciting development for the choral tradition of the College. Choral singing is a specialised art form, and our choir has played a formative role in the careers of many globally recognised musicians.

“Extending membership to talented female singers creates an exceptional new musical opportunity for women and girls, as our much loved choir continues to make a highly valued contribution to the musical life of St John’s and the wider world.”

The inclusion of girls and women will begin in 2022. Men and women will be largely recruited to the choir from the student body of the College. Choristers typically join in Year 4 of school and sing until the end of Year 8. Boy and girl choristers admitted into the choir are educated at St John’s College School. 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.

Choristers facing the Bridge of Sighs

Choristers facing the Bridge of Sighs. Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Nethsingha added: “Much of the St John’s style is created by a particular approach to phrasing, to tone-colour, to suppleness of line, by warmth and generosity, by emotional engagement with the text, by a desire to move the listener rather than simply impress them with technical accomplishment – the choristers create something of extraordinary beauty every day.

“Our choir is a family, with an emphasis on mutual encouragement, enjoyment, kindness, praise and empathetic support. In addition to their musical training, the choristers learn innumerable skills including teamwork, attention to detail, self-confidence, leadership, professionalism and responsibility. These attributes stay with them for the rest of their lives.

 “Each singer is an individual with their own vocal colour, their own personality and their own strengths and weaknesses – we nurture each singer’s voice. New choristers generally join in Year 4 and it will be four or five years before all five year-groups of the choir contain both boys and girls. The total number of choristers will increase from 20 to 25.

“Boys’ voices tend to reach their peak around Year 8, whereas girls’ voices continue to develop for many years after that. Our choir will continue to celebrate and give a platform to those unique moments in boys’ vocal development whilst ensuring girls and women are also given the chance to benefit from a musical education that will transform the rest of their lives.

“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 in all other walks of life.”

Heather Hancock, Master of St John’s College, said: “The Choir of St John’s has a stellar reputation for its contribution to the rich choral tradition of the UK. It is a musical treasure of St John’s, the university and, indeed, the world.

“Being a member of the choir provides participants with an outstanding choral education and vocal training. The College is delighted to support our exceptional Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, as he recruits women and girls, as well as men and boys, to become members of the choir. This pioneering step will continue the distinctive tradition of choral excellence at St John’s and honours the College’s overarching commitment to equality.”

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

Andrew Nethsingha will be pleased to hear from parents of boys or girls who are currently in Years 2 or 3, who would like to know more about chorister-ships at St John’s. Generous scholarships are awarded to all choristers. Additional means-tested bursaries are available, covering up to 100% of the school fees; the aim is that no child should be prevented from joining the choir on financial grounds. If you’d like to speak to Andrew please contact him at: choir@joh.cam.ac.uk or 01223 338718.

A Press Pack is available here.

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Recorded on
20 November 2021
  • Responses and Preces: Rose
  • Psalm 104 vv.1-10 (tone iii)
  • Readings: Genesis 45.1-15, John 20.19-23
  • Kennedy (Worcester Service)
  • Biebl: Ave Maria
  • Voluntary: Franck Choral no.1 in E major
The contribution of Andrew Nethsingha and St John's College, Cambridge to the Evensong tradition - both in the chapel and on record - deserves great praise

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