The Cambridge Singers

John Rutter writes about the Cambridge Singers:

When I formed the Cambridge Singers in the early 1980s as a professional mixed chamber choir with recording rather than public performance as its principal focus, the idea was a new one, and I never dreamed that we would still be recording – albeit with changing though still Cambridge-leaning membership – thirty years later.

The seeds of the idea were sown during my days in the late 1970s as Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge. It was an exciting period of change in the choral life of Cambridge University: in 1972 three of our 25 or so men’s colleges, including Clare, began to admit women students for the first time in the university’s 750-year history. This transformed the whole nature of many Cambridge chapel choirs as more and more men’s colleges became mixed during the 1970s, and choirs such as Clare’s, which had been male-voice groups, were now mixed choirs with soaring female soprano sections, and alto sections no longer consisting just of counter-tenors.

Suddenly we were able to perform the same repertoire as the renowned boys-and-men choirs of King’s and St John’s Colleges, and to branch out in directions of our own. I never saw the new mixed chapel choirs as being in competition with King’s and St John’s, but rather as enriching the choral life of what was already a celebrated city of choirs. An adult mixed student choir (quite rightly) does not sound the same as a boys-and-men choir, but it offers a valid and valuable alternative, having sopranos who can bring their adult sensibilities and experience to the interpretation of the music they sing, often with voices that still have the purity and focus of boy sopranos. For those few critics who questioned whether a mixed choir should be singing literature intended for boys and men, it was fair for us to point out that William Byrd’s towering masses and motets were very likely first performed by small ad hoc mixed choirs made up of the families and servants residing in Catholic country houses.

I relished my four years directing Clare Choir, but with a day job as composer in danger of becoming neglected, I reluctantly stepped down in 1979 to concentrate on composition. I soon realised how much I missed having a choir to make music with, and when I was asked in 1982 to create a choir specially for a Christmas television programme, I naturally turned mainly to my former Clare Choir members – many of them by now working as freelance singers in London. We needed a name, and ‘The Cambridge Singers’ seemed the obvious one. I was 3 impressed by the ease with which we came together musically, and by coincidence I was shortly afterwards asked by a US-based record company to make an album of my church music with the Gloria as the centrepiece, so the group was assembled once again to make the recording.

The Gloria album, released in 1984, marked the recording début of the Cambridge Singers. Its unexpected success encouraged us to continue, and the Fauré Requiem, in its hitherto little-known chamber version which I had edited from the composer’s manuscript, soon followed; it won a Gramophone magazine award. Through no one’s fault, there were constraints and obstacles with both the labels to which these two recordings were contracted, and it seemed like the right moment to start a new record label as a permanent home for me and the Cambridge Singers. The name ‘Collegium’ was the result of a brainstorming session my wife and I had over dinner; many names were written down on our notepad, Collegium was the one chosen. Fortunately the two labels who held the rights to the Gloria and Fauré albums amicably relinquished them, and the Collegium label was born.

So – I now had my own choir, and my own record label, both the result of pure chance. With regret, I decided that the Cambridge Singers would be purely a recording choir. Some tempting offers of live appearances came our way, but it seemed to me that if I had to conduct and manage concerts as well as recordings, composition would once again risk neglect.

Our artistic policy was set, in a way, by our first two recordings – namely, that we would record fine choral music, sacred or secular, of any period, provided it was suited to a mixed chamber choir of flexible size but generally of about 26 voices – and we would also, from time to time, record my own music so I could, literally, leave a record of it.

Find recordings of the Cambridge Singers by visiting our shop