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The Divine Office - Choral Music in Oxford

Ten choirs and instrumental groups, seven chapels and churches, seventeen concerts, four lectures.

The setting is Oxford: one of the world’s great historic cities.

Many university colleges are equipped with cloistral layouts and magnificent chapels, making this a singularly apposite location for a celebration of church music.

A unique feature of the festival is the complete Divine Office, the eight services of the monastic day, performed at the intended times – beginning at 1.00am and ending at about 10.00pm.

The music ranges from the Renaissance to the present day, and is from many countries across Europe as well as Britain.

Various accommodation options: from college rooms to 5-star hotels.

View a list of all possible tour combinations here

24 - 28 Sep 2018 £2,110 Book this tour

  • Oxford, choir of Christ Church Cathedral, aquatint 1813 by F.C. Lewis, after F. Nash.
    Oxford, choir of Christ Church Cathedral, aquatint 1813 by F.C. Lewis, after F. Nash.
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Overview

The oldest and finest college choirs

Provision for music to accompany the liturgy was stipulated by the founders of the major early colleges at Oxford, and choral church music there is still very much a living tradition. Magdalen, Merton, New College and The Queen’s College choirs remain among the finest in Oxford and enjoy international reputations for excellence. All perform in this festival. Many of Britain’s professional singers were members of college choirs here. As a consequence of this apprenticeship at Oxford and a couple of other universities, English liturgical and consort singing is the best in the world.

Acclaimed professional ensembles

Six professional choirs also participate: The Tallis Scholars, the world’s leading performers of Renaissance repertoire; Westminster Cathedral Choir, among the most exalted of liturgical choirs and uniquely experienced in plainsong; Stile Antico, an exciting ensemble which has rapidly risen to international acclaim; Intrada, an exciting new Russia-based ensemble; Contrapunctus, a consort that couples powerful interpretations with path-breaking scholarship; and Vigilate, an Oxford-based group which specialises in chant. Two top-class period instrument ensembles also participate, Instruments of Time & Truth, an ensemble drawn from among the leading specialist players in England, and The Brook Street Band, one of the country’s foremost interpreters of the music of Handel and his contemporaries.

Oxford and international composers

The music ranges from the Renaissance to the present day, and is from many countries across Europe as well as Britain. Music from the Tudor and early Stuart period (Taverner, Tallis, Sheppard), the golden age of English choral composition, underpins several of the programmes, and their Franco-Flemish, Italian and Spanish contemporaries (Josquin, Palestrina, Victoria) also feature spectacularly. There are Baroque and Classical pieces – the festival finishes with Mozart’s Requiem – and also music from the Late Romantic period (Brahms, Parry, Rachmaninov). The twentieth and twenty-first centuries are also represented. An exciting feature of the festival is that there are so many compositions by Oxford men, people who studied or taught here, from John Taverner (the first Master of Music at Christ Church) to Matthew Martin (current Director of Music at Keble), via Daniel Purcell and Sir John Stainer (both Informator Choristarum at Magdalen) and many others.

A beautiful and suitable city

Oxford is one of the world’s great historic cities: a dense accumulation of architecture in every style from the twelfth to the twenty-first century embedded in a web of picturesque streets and alleys and dappled with lawns, veteran trees and riverside meadows. Reflecting their quasi-monastic origins, many colleges are equipped with cloistral layouts and magnificent chapels, which make Oxford a uniquely apposite location for a celebration of church music – and especially for a recreation of the monastic hours.

The Divine Office Day itself

A unique feature of the festival is the complete Divine Office, the eight services of the monastic day, performed at the intended times – which means beginning at 1.00am and ending at about 10.00pm. Even were you to skip the less agreeably timed Offices, you would still be exposed to the oldest living musically-enriched ritual in the world. The most spiritually charged and aesthetically intense experience to have emerged from western civilization has, in essentials, changed little in fifteen hundred years. With nine fine choirs taking part, this rendering of the Divine Office will be musically as sublime as any in its history.

Highly complex but immaculately administered

Since 1994, Martin Randall Travel has devised and run nearly ninety music festivals in a dozen European countries. Their defining feature is that they place great music, brilliantly performed, in appropriate historic buildings. The company has won accolades not only for promoting exceptional musical experiences but also for its skilful management of these highly complex events.

An all-inclusive festival

Access to the concerts is exclusive to those who buy a package which includes accommodation in hotels or college rooms, some dinners, lectures and much else besides. For full details of what is included, see the Practicalities section.

The concerts

Magdalen College Choir
in Magdalen College Chapel

Drawing on the wealth of music connected with Oxford, Mark Williams directs the choir in a programme entirely by Oxford composers including works by John Sheppard (Libera nos, salva nos), John Taverner (Dum transisset sabbatum), Daniel Purcell (Nunc Dimittis), John Stainer (God so loved the world from The Crucifixion) and Bernard Rose (Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house).

Merton College Choir
in Merton College Chapel

Merton’s choristers begin their concert with motets by Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1555–1612), Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) and Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). There follows a carol by Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), Hymn to the Virgin, written when the composer was a schoolboy. The Magnificat by Ēriks Ešenvalds was commissioned for the Merton Choirbook, a celebration of the College’s 750th anniversary in 2014. The programme ends with an anthem by Edward Elgar and a piece by one of Oxford’s youngest undergraduates, William Walton.

The Tallis Scholars
in Christ Church Cathedral

The Oxford connection lies with Matthew Martin, whose Lamentations were composed in 2017. Otherwise the programme consists of Continental Renaissance pieces: Palestrina’s Credo from the Missa Papae Marcelli, Gombert’s Credo a 8, Absalom fili mi by Josquin and two versions of Virgo prudentissima, by Palestrina and Heinrich Isaac. This programme will display the world’s finest interpreters of Renaissance polyphony at their very best.

New College Choir
in New College Chapel

Programme to be announced.

The Queen’s College Choir
in Merton College Chapel

The programme is dedicated to one of the greatest of English composers, and the first organist of Christ Church College (then Cardinal College), John Taverner (c. 1490–1545). Works include Leroy Kyrie, Audivi vocem de caelo and the magnificent Mass setting, Missa Gloria tibi trinitas.

Stile Antico
in New College Chapel

Arguably the finest work of the Spanish Renaissance, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s intense settings of the Tenebrae Responsories provide an unrivalled glimpse into the Catholic liturgy at the height of the church year. The Responsories were traditionally performed in the services at the end of Holy Week, and the emotionally charged motets follow the story of Christ’s passion from his betrayal to his burial.

Intrada
in the University Church of St Mary

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers is the best-known, and perhaps quite simply the best, musical setting of Russian Orthodox liturgy. More properly named All-Night Vigil as it also includes Matins, Lauds and Prime, it was the product of a movement to recover the authentic sounds of church singing before it was corrupted by western influence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Composed in 1915 – turbulent times – it immediately won popularity; after the Revolution two years later it was rarely heard in its native land. Russian choirs have now reclaimed it, splendidly.

The Brook Street Band
in The Queen’s College Chapel

Baroque chamber music is offered as an instrumental interlude midway through the festival, of similar date to the chapel in which it is played. The Brook Street Band perform trio sonatas (three parts, more players) by J.S. Bach and also G.F. Handel, a regular visitor to Oxford, where the university conferred on him an honorary doctorate.

Merton College Choir & Instruments of Time & Truth
in New College Chapel

The final concert consists of Mozart’s Requiem Mass, on which the composer was working at the time of his death. There have been many attempts to finish the work, but generally the first, that by Mozart’s pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, is regarded as the most loyal to the style and spirit of the master. The piece has come to occupy the highest pinnacle in the cannon of western music, its heartrending beauty and emotional force bursting beyond the ‘Classical’ category to which it is formally assigned. The soloists are Daisy Brown (soprano), Alex Chance (alto), Gwilym Bowen (tenor) and James Rutherford (bass). Benjamin Nicholas, director of music at Merton College, is the conductor.

The Divine Office day

The central component of the festival is the performance of the complete Divine Office, within the span of a single day and at the appropriate times. There are eight Offices of the Hours; the first, Matins, begins at 1.00am and the eighth, Compline, finishes towards 10.00pm.

The principal features of the Offices are the chanting of psalms with their antiphons, the singing of hymns and canticles, and the chanting of readings from the Bible with sung responsories. The most spiritually charged musical tradition to have emerged from western civilization has, in essentials, changed little in nearly fifteen hundred years. Aspects may go back further: the roots of plainchant (‘Gregorian’ chant) may lie in Jewish or Pharaonic practice.

Though this ‘performance’ of the Divine Office (they are concerts, not services) is basically an authentic rendering as might have been performed in late-mediaeval or Renaissance Britain or Europe, there are some departures from liturgical correctness. It does not follow the texts prescribed for a particular day, and we err on the side of musical elaboration beyond what is canonically necessary. The polyphonic passages have been selected from among the finest ever composed, within an overarching Marian theme, though this is hardly limiting.

Seven choirs take part, two of which – The Tallis Scholars, Westminster Cathedral Choir – have opted to participate in all eight Offices. There are two challenges facing contemporary choirs wishing to perform the complete Divine Office, apart from sleep deprivation: vocal stamina, and the quantity of plainchant whose singing is a specialist skill not easily mastered. Our solution is to engage two choirs for most of the Hours, one to perform the chant and the other the polyphony, which used to be standard practice in the better endowed cathedrals and colleges.

Were you to attend all eight Hours, you would become one of an elite few among living souls who had done so, so rare is the opportunity now. Even were you to skip the less agreeably timed ones, you would be exposed to what is one of the most potent spiritual and aesthetic experiences available in the world today. Moreover it could be said, at the risk of divine wrath for extreme hubris, that, musically, this manifestation of the Divine Office will rank as the finest ever performed (along with the two previous editions of this festival), it being unprecedented for so many firstrate choirs to participate.

As the capacity of the chapels is limited, all but one of the Offices are performed in two chapels simultaneously. Audience members are assigned to a particular stream of the eight Hours to ensure maximum variety of choirs and chapels.

We shall ask that there be no applause at any time during this extraordinary day, and that silence prevail while in the chapels.

Matins, 1.00am

The liturgical day starts with the Night Office, potentially the longest of the Canonical Hours, though we are limiting it to 60 minutes. Musically it is also one of the most important of the Offices, including some of the most ancient chants and finishing with a Te Deum.

Merton College Chapel: Merton College Choir (polyphony) and the men of Westminster Cathedral Choir (chant).

Christ Church Cathedral: The Tallis Scholars (polyphony) and Vigilate (chant).

Lauds, 4.00am

Also called Morning Prayer, Lauds, which in high summer might be at daybreak, is musically also one of the three most important Offices. It includes the canticle Beata es Maria.

Christ Church Cathedral: The Tallis Scholars (polyphony) and Vigilate (chant).

Merton College Chapel: Stile Antico (polyphony) and the men of Westminster Cathedral Choir (chant).

Prime, 6.30am

A short service, the first of the ‘Little Hours’, we have timed this so that the congregations enter the chapels before dawn and leave in daylight – and therefore chosen chapels with outstanding stained glass.

Magdalen College Chapel: the men of Westminster Cathedral Choir (chant and polyphony).

All Souls College Chapel: The Tallis Scholars (polyphony) and Vigilate (chant).

Terce & Mass, 9.15am

The second of the ‘Little Hours’ is followed immediately by Morning Mass, the principal service of the Catholic Church. New College Chapel has the capacity to accommodate the whole audience so there is only one performance of this Office.

New College Chapel: The Tallis Scholars (polyphony) and the men of Westminster Cathedral Choir (chant).

Sext, 12.00 noon

The third of the ‘Little Hours’ is at the hour which is the sixth, according to the system by which twelve hours are counted from dawn to sundown.

Christ Church Cathedral: The Tallis Scholars (polyphony) and Vigilate (chant).

Magdalen College Chapel: Magdalen College Choir (polyphony) and the men of Westminster Cathedral Choir (chant).

None, 3.30pm

The last of the ‘Little Hours’, with a duration of about half an hour.

The Queen’s College Chapel: The Queen’s College Choir (polyphony) and the men of Westminster Cathedral Choir (chant).

All Souls College Chapel: The Tallis Scholars (polyphony) and Vigilate (chant).

Vespers, 6.45pm

Vespers is musically the most significant of the Offices, being the first to admit polyphony and progressing to become the arena for some of the greatest music ever written. The Magnificat is the principal canticle. The boys join the men of Westminster Cathedral Choir.

Merton College Chapel: The Tallis Scholars (polyphony) and Vigilate (chant).

The Queen’s College Chapel: Westminster Cathedral Choir. Supper follows in either Magdalen or Trinity College Hall.

Compline, 9.15pm

The last Office of the day features the singing of the votive antiphon of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

All Souls College Chapel: Stile Antico (polyphony) and the men of Westminster Cathedral Choir (chant).

Christ Church Cathedral: The Tallis Scholars (polyphony) and Vigilate (chant).

Image of Jon McNeill

John McNeill

Architectural historian and a specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education and is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited collections of essays on mediaeval Anjou, King’s Lynn and the Fens, Cloisters, and Romanesque and the Mediterranean.

Image of Cathy Oakes

Dr Cathy Oakes

Lecturer in History of Art at Oxford University with a focus on the mediaeval. Having herself graduated from Oxford, she worked in the Education Department at the V&A and then ran the art history programme for the Department for Continuing Education at Bristol – where she completed her PhD on late mediaeval Marian iconography. She has published widely on French and English Romanesque.

The festival package

Concerts. The package includes access to all seventeen concerts including the eight offices of the Divine Office. A few tickets for individual events may be available from August 2018.

Lectures. There are four talks by leading academics. See page 10 for details.

Accommodation. Four nights are spent either in hotels or in college rooms. The choice of accommodation is the sole determinant of variations in the prices.

Meals. We include all breakfasts and three dinners.

Transport. Coaches are provided for some of the events for those staying at the Old Parsonage Hotel and, on the last day, for anyone who wants to be taken to the railway station, bus station or ‘park and ride’ car parks.

Extras. Tips for restaurant and hotel staff and all taxes and obligatory charges are included.

Festival staff. A team comprising staff from the MRT office and experienced event managers will be present to assist.

Programme booklet. A publication containing a timetable, practical information, programme notes and much else is issued to all participants.

Getting to Oxford

All Oxford authorities discourage the use of cars. There are five ‘Park and Ride’ car parks surrounding the city. Parking costs c. £10 for 7 days in these and the bus costs £2.80 per person. Parking is available at some hotels; see the hotel descriptions. There is no parking at the colleges.

There are regular direct trains from London, Southampton, Manchester, York and various other places, and there are frequent coach services from London.

Festival staff will be at the railway station between 12.00 noon and 2.15pm on 24th September to despatch you in taxis, for which there will be no charge on this day.

Immediately after the last concert, coaches will be available to take you to the railway and coach stations and to the Redbridge ‘park and ride’ car park.

Starting and finishing times: 24th September, 2.45pm: the festival begins with a lecture at the Oxford Union at 2.45pm, with the first concerts at 4.00pm. 28th September, 12.30pm: the last concert will finish by 12.30pm.

Accommodation and prices

Accommodation for four nights is included in the price. We have selected five hotels and two colleges for you to choose from. The choice of hotel or college is the main determinant of variations in the festival package price.

Notes on accommodation

Rooms vary. As is inevitable in historic buildings, which most of these are, rooms vary in size and outlook.

Quiet?

Those staying in hotels may be affected by some traffic noise. Accommodation in the colleges is quieter.

Suites

Some hotels have suites and deluxe rooms. All are subject to availability at the time of booking.

Magdalen College

These are student rooms, so most are for single occupancy and all are fairly basic and institutional. On the other hand, they have to be smart and comfortable enough to be let during vacations for conferences and events (an essential source of revenue), and all have en-suite bathrooms (with showers, not baths). Some rooms are fairly large. All were refurbished in 2016.

But what you sacrifice in comfort you gain in historic and scenic setting within the cloistered confines of ancient colleges. At Magdalen rooms overlook the Deer Park. (Note there is no access to indoor common areas except the hall and chapel for breakfasts, dinners and concerts.)

There are a few twin rooms. Otherwise adjacent rooms could be reserved for couples where that is possible.

Price, per person: £2,110.

Pembroke College

The rooms are in a handsome new development, opened in 2013, which is built around a clutch of small quads and terraces. The bedrooms and their en-suite bathrooms (showers, not baths) are compact and sparse: this is student accommodation, and the college is not a hotel (which also means there are no receptionists as such). Rooms are for single occupancy. There is a café on site which is open during the day but there is no lounge or communal space. Stone steps are a feature.

Architecturally this is a pleasing environment, and antiquity is amply supplied by the need to pass through two quads in order to reach the street, and by the hall where breakfast is served, which is modified mediaeval. Pembroke is opposite the Tom Gate entrance to Christ Church College. 

Price, per person: £2,110.

Eastgate Hotel, 4-star

Built on the site of a former coaching inn, the Eastgate – a Mercure hotel – is excellently located for many of the concerts. Bedrooms have little character but are comfortable with all mod cons. Public rooms are agreeable.

Its location in narrow Merton Street makes it one of the quietest of our selection of hotels though some rooms overlook the High Street. There is a car park which costs c. £20 per night; there is no need to pre-book. Website: google ‘mercure eastgate oxford’

Prices, per person: £2,550 for single occupancy, or £2,290 for two sharing

Vanbrugh House Hotel, 4-star

A former post office, the Vanbrugh House Hotel is based in two eighteenth-century houses on a quiet side street in central Oxford. Due to the historic nature of the building, bedrooms vary in size and outlook. It has been tastefully decorated in neutral colours throughout and has a pleasant, though small, lounge. The hotel will be used exclusively by Divine Office participants.

There is a restaurant in the basement where breakfast is served, though it is too small to accommodate all guests simultaneously.

There is no parking available at this hotel.

Prices, per person: £2,800 for single occupancy, or £2,430 for two sharing a Standard Double or Twin room, or £2,610 for two sharing a Suite.

Old Parsonage Hotel, 5-star

This is a very attractive hotel. Its core is a lovely seventeenthcentury rectory and the public areas in this part are delightful – colourful, comfortable and idiosyncratic. A remarkable collection of twentieth-century paintings covers the walls. The restaurant is good. After all this charm and warmth, the bedrooms in the new block to the rear are disappointingly ordinary, though they are equipped with all the usual mod cons. The hotel has recently been entirely refurbished.

Due to its situation on the edge of central Oxford, transport by private coach will be arranged for some of the concerts, but many journeys will be on foot and could be up to 30 minutes. Taxis are easily obtained.

There is very limited parking at The Old Parsonage and they cannot guarantee spaces.

Prices, per person: £3,010 for single occupancy, or £2,670 for two sharing a Standard Double or Twin room, or £2,810 for two sharing a Junior Suite, or £2,930 for two sharing a Suite.

Old Bank Hotel, 5-star

Housed in a former bank built in the nineteenth century, this boutique hotel is comfortable and stylish and very well run; service is excellent. It was winner of a Good Hotel Guide Editor’s Choice award in 2015. Rooms have modern décor and many have views of spires and rooftops. Rooms at the front of the hotel look out over the busy High Street though noise-proof glazing is effective. Venues are within 10 or 12 minutes on foot.

Parking at The Old Bank Hotel is available at no charge and there is no need to pre-book.

Prices, per person: £3,170 for single occupancy, or £2,810 for two sharing a Standard Double or Twin room, or £2,970 for two sharing a Superior Double or Twin room.

Randolph Hotel, 5-star

The most famous hotel in Oxford, the venerable Randolph is housed in an austere Gothic Revival building in Beaumont Street. The bedrooms, of which there are several categories, are well decorated in a fairly traditional way and are very comfortable. Public rooms include a ‘Morse’ bar, a bright and airy lounge and a fine restaurant. Run by the Macdonald hotel group, service is more comparable to that of a 4-star hotel. Rooms with a street view may hear some traffic noise.

Most venues are 15–20 minutes away on foot.

Parking at the hotel costs c. £29 per night and must be pre-booked with the concierge.

Prices, per person: £3,230 for single occupancy, or £2,810 for two sharing a Standard Double or Twin room, or £2,970 for two sharing a Superior Double or Twin room or £3,270 for two sharing a Suite.

Meals

Three dinners are provided in the festival package.

On the first night you dine in the hotel or college in which you are staying. On the second evening everyone has dinner in New College.

On the fourth evening dinner is provided between Vespers and Compline in either Trinity or Magdalen College Hall. Please note: the food provided in college halls is of high quality and such as one might expect of a good restaurant. It is of a standard provided for high table on special occasions and not for students.

Lectures

Four lectures are part of the package, all by leading experts on subjects central to the festival. They are given in the Oxford Union.

Professor Stephen Darlington. One of the country’s leading choral conductors – for over thirty years he was Director of Music at Christ Church, establishing it as an acknowledged centre of academic musical excellence, and maintaining the highest choral traditions of the Church of England in the Cathedral.

Revd Dr Simon Jones. The chaplain of Merton College teaches liturgy and worship to theology students at Oxford University. He is a member of the Church of England Liturgical Commission and chairs the Oxford Diocesan Liturgical Committee. He talks about liturgy and the history of the Divine Office.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch. Three books by Oxford’s Professor of the History of the Church have won major prizes: Thomas Cranmer: A Life, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490–1700 and A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, which was also an acclaimed six-part television series. He was knighted in 2012.

Fitness for the festival

There is a lot of walking involved in this festival, and some halls are reached via flights of stairs. Participants will need to be able to walk unaided for up to 30 minutes, the time it will take slow walkers to get to the furthest event (though most walks are shorter). Festival staff will not have the resources to assist individuals with walking difficulties. Traffic restrictions and congestion render coach transport impractical.

Self-assessment tests. There is no age limit for this festival or the pre-festival tour, but we do ask that prospective participants assess their fitness by trying these simple exercises:

1. Chair stands. Sit in a dining chair, with arms folded and hands on opposite shoulders. Stand up and sit down at least eight times in thirty seconds.

2. Step test. Mark a wall at a height that is halfway between your knee and your hip bone. Raise each knee in turn to the mark at least sixty times in two minutes.

3. Agility test. Place an object three yards from the edge of a chair, sit, and record the time it takes to stand up, walk to the object and sit back down. You should be able to do this in under seven seconds.

Map for the Divine Office.

'I considered the Divine Office an incomparable musical experience that exceeded all expectations. Bravo everyone!'

'I doubt I will ever again have such an educational and aesthetic experience. To say 'I was there'; at the Divine Office is something I shall treasure.'

'It was an honour to be part of an audience in such auspicious surroundings. We were essentially provided with a divine and memorable week and a sense of individual achievement. Thank you so much.'

'What a wondrous week of outstanding groups and singing. Never to be forgotten.'

'Just to say how much I enjoyed my time in Oxford and being a part of the Divine Office. It really was a remarkable night and day - the music just sublime, it was educational, atmospheric in the extreme, very moving, and a beautiful thing all round.'

'A truly wonderful and unforgettable experience. A great privilege to have been a part of it.'

'A week of memorable music in timeless venues.'

'Compliments on the quality of your festival. It was wonderful - program, planning, information and, particularly staff were all outstanding. It would be impossible to experience such a wonderful programme except with Martin Randall Travel.'

'MRT created a profound spriritual and aesthetic experience, and your attention to our every requirement ensured that we were able to enjoy the experience to the full without worries over practicalities.'

'The combination of an interesting and inspired musicians all brought together in such beautiful settings makes for a very special experience The festival really provided so many special moments that I will carry with me for years to come.'