Christmas choristers from Durham Chorister School

PUBLISHED: 12:12 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013

Head chorister Sylvan Rackham and deputy head chorister Miles Beney

Head chorister Sylvan Rackham and deputy head chorister Miles Beney

There is no more evocative sound associated with Christmas than that of a choirboy singing the opening bar of a much-loved carol in the vast chamber of an English cathedral.

Christmas morning for most children means waking early, excitedly opening presents and then having hours of fun playing with new toys that Santa has brought. So spare a thought this Christmas Day for the choristers of Durham Cathedral, for whom it is one of the busiest working days of the year. All the choristers, aged between eight and 13, are boarders at Durham Chorister School. Living in is a requirement of the exclusive status they hold. They will be woken on Christmas morning at eight and allowed to open two presents, one sent from home and the other provided by the school. The normal full English breakfast is replaced by a light breakfast of croissants on Christmas morning before the boys take an early, 100-yard walk across the green to Durham Cathedral for a rehearsal of the day's services. The 16 choristers who are singing will form part of the cathedral choir for the Matins service at 10am, the main Eucharist service at 11.15am and Evensong at 3.30pm. By about 4.30pm, their duties are over and they are free to go home. But before any thoughts arise that this is an austere and uncompassionate exploitation of young children who are forcibly separated from their parents and siblings at Christmas, a few moments in the company of the choristers themselves dispels any such illusions. 'It is a fantastic place to live and work,' one boy volunteers. 'We tend to think of it as normal - it is to us - and it is only when we see how school is for other children that we realise it isn't normal. It is very special. I love it here.' Chorister School headmaster Ian Hawksby expands on the long-established and keenly cherished rituals that give the boys' Christmas celebrations a unique sense of sparkle. 'Their duties begin on Christmas Eve with the big service of nine lessons and carols - that's my favourite of the year. The cathedral is packed. It's standing room only and usually all the boys' families are there. It's a really special atmosphere. The service starts with the lights out and the choristers are at the far end of the cathedral holding candles. One of the boys will sing the first verse of Once in Royal David's City unaccompanied, then the organ comes in
recitals of well-known carols and readings. It's just very special. 'Afterwards, everybody is invited back to the school and we have the choristers and their families for a party.We have a fantastic tea and there are usually silly party games, the traditional ones.' 'At about 6.30pm the parents leave and the boys usually watch a DVD or something like that. They're in bed quite early on Christmas Eve because they need to rest. They've got a big day ahead.' The school offers boarding accommodation to 30 pupils under the caring and watchful eyes of housemaster Tim Butcher, who lives on site with his wife Beth, two children and dog, Petra, and housemothers Dorothy Storey and Susan Round, one of whom is always on duty. They are assisted by two students from Australia and New Zealand who act as older brother and sister to the boys. All the 21 choristers in the school are boarders. In addition to the 16 who are selected for the cathedral choir to sing alongside the adult "lay clerkes" and "choral scholars", there are probationer choristers and choristers-elect, ready to step in to the choir if needed. Mr Hawksby, who has been headmaster for seven years following five years as head teacher at the Holy Trinity Church of England Primary School in Hartlepool, picks up the explanation of the longestablished Christmas routine. 'They don't usually need to be woken on Christmas Day and they open their first presents before having a special breakfast,' he says. 'It's a light breakfast because of the excitement and also because they will have a full Christmas lunch in school.When they get back after the big Eucharist family service on Christmas morning all their family are invited to lunch.We also invite any men in the choir who might be on their own and a couple of retired members of staff join us. But it's mainly the boys and their families, so we'll have 90 people for Christmas lunch. It's a lovely occasion.' When the choristers have finished singing at the Evensong service, usually about 4.30pm on Christmas Day, they are free to go home to spend Christmas night with their families and they do not return to school for three weeks. For the younger choristers who especially look forward to the arrival of Santa Claus, the school, through its close involvement with the cathedral, joins in the celebration of St Nicholas Day on December 6. Mr Hawksby said: 'The cathedral has its own special service in which the choristers are involved and St Nicholas walks up through the town. The story of St Nicholas and how he became known as Father Christmas is told in the cathedral. 'The boarding house staff also make special allowances for the younger ones, for whom it's their first Christmas in school.' Far from being deprived any of their seasonal celebrations, the choristers have a busy round of events to attend. The night before the school breaks up in mid- December, the Bishop of Durham hosts a chapel service at Auckland Castle, at which the choristers sing, and this is followed by a party attended by all the estate workers and volunteers at the castle. 'That really kicks off the choristers' Christmas,' said Mr Hawksby. 'In practise, they probably have three or four Christmas parties - one with the school before it breaks up, the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day lunchtime parties in school and then often another party at home with their families.' The exclusive group that comprises the 21 choristers stay in school while the other members of the 180-pupil population, now including girls among their number, break up for Christmas.While the school discourages elitism, the choristers are distinguished in school by their black blazers, which contrast with the light grey worn by other pupils. Life in a near-deserted school and boarding house after the other children have broken up assumes a much more relaxed regime for the young songsters in what is called the "chorister period". Mr Hawksby explains: 'The boys don't have lessons. Breakfast is at 8.30am instead of 7.30am and the housemaster plans a raft of activities, including visits to such places as the cinema,Wet and Wild, a laser attraction and the pantomime at the nearby Gala Theatre.' Nevertheless, the privilege that their exceptional young talent has afforded them comes with its responsibilities as the Christmas season approaches. They have rehearsals every day from 9am until 10am in the cathedral and then from 11am until noon. And they will continue to sing at seven services throughout the week, including Evensong from Tuesday to Saturday and three services on Sundays. Throughout the academic year they sing at the cathedral on 36 Sundays and devote between 16 and 20 hours per week rehearsing and singing. All must also learn to play an instrument. Their tutelage within the cathedral is overseen by Canon James Lancelot, Master of the Choristers and Organist. Raised for four years as a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral, London, Canon Lancelot became organ scholar at King's College, Cambridge, where he performed in the annual BBC Radio 4 broadcast of nine lessons and carols on Christmas Eve. He was then sub organist for ten years at Winchester Cathedral before moving to Durham as organist in 1985. The headmaster acknowledges that it takes a capable as well as highly gifted child to become a chorister. 'We are not normally a selective school,' said headmaster Mr Hawksby, 'but the choristers need to be able to hold their own academically because it's a busy life. They do a full school week and then about 20 hours on top. They will be called upon to do extra rehearsals, to go into a studio to make a CD or they may be taken out for a week to go on tour. So they've got to be able to hold their own academically.' Canon Lancelot, understandably as leader of one the leading cathedral choirs in the UK, if not the world, is equally focussed on his expectations of the boys. 'The chorister school was founded originally - well, its raison d'etre - is to educate the choristers of the cathedral but obviously it goes far, far wider than that now. This is why it's in this particular location, so close to the cathedral. The boys are members of the cathedral choir and we demand the highest standards.' Mr Hawksby explains the demarcation between school and the cathedral: 'The link between the two is the boys,' he says. 'I am responsible up to the archway between the school and the cathedral and anything that happens with the boys academically or pastorally is my responsibility. Anything that happens with the boys musically in the cathedral is James' responsibility.' Clearly a man who lives and breathes his work, Mr Hawksby acknowledges: 'It's fascinating. It's the most rewarding job you can imagine.When you are in the cathedral and you hear the boys - they just sing and they do exactly what they are supposed to do, which is to lead the worship. And when they sing brilliantly there is absolutely nothing better.'

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