The petition to save the choir has amassed over 11,000 signaturesLouis Ashworth with permission for Varsity

Last month, the classical music world was sent into a tailspin by the announcement that St John’s College would be axing its second choir, St John’s Voices (SJV). On March 18, at the end of a three-day recording, choir members were informed by their director of music, Graham Walker, that the college had decided to axe the choir, making him redundant. Soon afterwards, a petition was launched calling for the college to reverse its decision, which was soon signed by the likes of the composer John Rutter and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. In response, the college released a statement explaining the reasoning behind its decision. By the end of that week, the news had been reported by The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.

Why was the choir’s disbandment such a big deal? Cambridge college choirs provide an excellent musical training to their members, including challenging repertoires and free singing lessons. As a result, choirs often reach an extremely high standard and build international reputations – SJV has been featured on BBC Radio 3 and has several critically acclaimed recordings under its belt. The petition against SJV’s disbandment focuses on the loss of these opportunities for female singers: St John’s main choir, SJCC, is also internationally renowned, but until 2021 only admitted male members, with a children’s choir filling the upper voice parts. Even now, SJCC only admits female altos and girl choristers, leaving the large proportion of women who are sopranos barred from entering. The petition points out that only one female student actually sings in SJCC, writing that disbanding SJV “will cut the number of female students who sing in the chapel from 15 to 1”.

“Classical music has an image problem. The solution isn’t to start scrapping choirs, but to increase accessibility at every level”

St John’s has doubled down on its decision, arguing that it has scrapped SJV in order “to pursue a broader approach to other co-curricular opportunities in music for our nearly 1,000 students”. These new opportunities will include free music lessons for all students, new musical ensembles, and the introduction of jazz or pop musicians-in-residence. The college also states that it will provide “music awards to all St John’s students who sing in auditioned choirs in the University”, in what would appear to be an attempt to mitigate the impact of SJV’s disbandment on female students who will no longer be able to sing in their own college chapel.

The college’s decision appears to be founded on perceptions that choral music is old-fashioned and elitist. The Guardian's article on the disbandment describes it as “a battle between tradition and the more progressive ideals of diversity and inclusion”, pointing to the college’s comment in its statement that “preferences and experiences in music today are different from those of previous generations”.

But the optics of a decision to increase diversity and inclusion by scrapping the college’s (let’s be real here) only truly mixed-gender choir are shockingly bad. Not only that, the choir which the college will retain in its place is attached to a private school, St John’s College School, which all of the choir’s child choristers attend. Music is one area in which the disparity between private and state education is particularly stark. According to a Sutton Trust report from 2019, “three quarters (75%) of top British Classic BRIT winners attended private schools”. An attempt to move away from the elitism of classical music by disbanding a mixed-gender choir in favour of a majority-male choir attached to a private school seems counterintuitive - and might even be said to perpetuate the very elitism it claims to combat.

“Disbanding a choir with such a far-reaching impact is a tremendous shame”

Against SJCC’s ardent traditionalism, SJV has long cultivated a welcoming image. Despite the college’s claim that young people don’t listen to choral music, it has managed to amass over 62k followers on TikTok. Its videos include 'day in the life montages and choral renditions of the theme music from the video game “My Singing Monsters”. These videos serve as outreach and give choral music a friendly face, encouraging young people to experience the likes of Howells and Finzi through an accessible, meme-able format. Disbanding a choir with such a far-reaching impact, even in favour of creating other opportunities, is a tremendous shame – especially from a college where, with its £619.6 million endowment, money surely can’t be in such short supply. Adding insult to injury, control of SJV’s social media accounts was later taken over by the college.


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Bearing all of this in mind, the decision to scrap SJV seems profoundly nonsensical. As has been said before, classical music has an image problem. However, the solution isn’t to start scrapping choirs, but rather to increase accessibility at every level. Choirs like SJV, with its mixed-voice members and its tongue-in-cheek TikTok, bring choral music to a younger audience. They show that choral music can be a thing of the future as well as a thing of the past. But if the people funding choral music limit it to the older world of overwhelmingly male voices and child choristers, then that’s where it will stay.