There are few places in the world better than Oxford University to experience great choral singing, and few masters of the craft who have achieved the status of Edward Higginbottom. He will be in Charleston this week to lead two concerts and two church services.
Higginbottom served as director of music at New College Oxford from 1976-2014, where he bolstered the reputation of its very fine choir, made many recordings, and taught several musical subjects. He is now professor emeritus of Oxford University and of New College, an honorary fellow of the Royal School of Church Music, honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music and a recipient of the Medal of the Royal College of Organists.
In short, he is one of the world’s great living practitioners of Anglican choral music.
The Western choral tradition can be traced back to the early Christian church where the only music permitted was produced by the human voice, created by God in his image and therefore worthy of the sacred worship experience.
It began with liturgical plainchant, but church singing eventually evolved. Around 900 A.D. someone inserted into a chant a second vocal line as embellishment and polyphony was born.
The Church of England would make music a central component of worship, and it would build a significant infrastructure to support it: schools and choirs populated with boys and men who spent years in rigorous training. Today, England boasts some 80 cathedral and college choirs, hundreds of excellent parish choirs and a culture informed in part by the pure tones and expert singing found in churches across the country.
In an interview with The Post and Courier, Higginbottom, 68, spoke of his experiences, saying that church music offered something special.
“The context with which you make music within a liturgy is particular,” he said. “It has meaning and significance over and above the musical. ... It gives you the best job satisfaction one can imagine.”
He spent six days a week in close proximity to high-caliber singers, some bright and motivated children, some dedicated university students.
“These guys are up for it,” Higginbottom said. “They can be immensely generous with their time and talents. That’s what they’re giving you, and you grow.”
Though he is a scholar of the French Baroque, he has no favorite composer or style, and has conducted all sorts of music, from chant to contemporary works.
“The thing I love about this job is its scope of repertory,” he said.
But he does have a particular affinity for a cappella singing. On Fridays, New College Chapel choristers sing without organ or other musical accompaniment, and it has always thrilled him.
“It’s very special,” Higginbottom said. “I love that sense of just doing it on the floor of the chapel and not having anything else around.”
Despite trends in the U.K. to embrace a more evangelistic style of worship, traditional Anglican choirs continue to thrive, probably because their contributions, while essential to the liturgical experience, have an independent musical value, Higginbottom said.
“Many go to hear the choir; very many are not there to worship,” he said. “But being there, they are part of this very present liturgical practice” that can feed their souls regardless their specific faith or their lack of faith.
And the singers are well-trained and very skilled, he said. They can perform an enormous quantity of music, record and tour. All this activity, inside and outside the chapel, helps ensure vitality and longevity, Higginbottom said.
New College Choir accepts just four new singers a year and maintains a roster of 14 young choristers and eight choral scholars, he said. Two generations ago, he would see more than 50 auditioners annually; today it is more like 12-16, “but it’s not falling away at this stage in a particularly worrying fashion.”
This cycling of singers regularly injects fresh voices, personalities and ideas into the music-making experience, “which is the way one keeps fresh.”
Now beginning the next phase of his musical career, Higginbottom is working with a newly formed group of singers and he is traveling to various cities to coach and conduct groups as a visiting choral master.
“I will certainly enjoy it, and I think they will get something out of it,” he said. “I can pick and choose what I want to do.” In this way, he remains engaged with the music and all the fun and satisfaction it affords. “It’s a good retirement activity,” he said.
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