Even during gloomy times there is a place for the joy and the solace that music brings. Choral consorts of liturgical repertoire, with or without organ accompaniment, bring to musical experience a purity and a spiritual and emotional dimension which is unmatched by other musical forms. That is why we have tried hard in difficult circumstances – and with the outlook uncertain – to launch this mini-festival of live music in beautiful places.
A day-long sequence of performances, talks and refreshments, our London Choral Days showcase top-flight professional choirs in appropriate, attractive and often little-known buildings in the capital. The audience moves between the venues on foot.
The three churches we have selected are located in Belgravia and Chelsea, among the most handsome and salubrious residential districts in London. (During the 19th century, St Peter's Eaton Square was reputed to yield the largest Sunday collection of any church in England.) Architecturally and decoratively, St Peter's, St Mary's Bourne Street and Holy Trinity Sloane Street are all of a high order, though all are very different from each other.
This much, however, they have in common: an exceptional musical tradition, and three of the finest church choirs in London, staffed by professional singers most of whom have busy careers in other choirs and consorts.
The days are conceived not as three discrete concerts but as an integrated, over-arching musical experience in which the individual parts illuminate and enlarge upon what has gone before. Sometimes there is some connection between the venues and the music performed in them; in this case the main link is with the season: Advent is very well provided with choral compositions from throughout the ages, and Christmas is only a month away.
Anticipating that some social distancing will still be required in late November, we have planned to run the programme twice, with two audiences following different timings. One starts at 11.30am and is provided with lunch as well as tea later, the other starts at 2.00pm and has two tea breaks and drinks after.
St Peter's Eaton Square
A third of a mile long, Eaton Square is one of the largest of London's 'squares' – an extended oblong in this case – and, along with nearby Belgrave Square, is the grandest. It lies at the heart of the 200-acre Five Fields estate which belonged to the Grosvenor family, and still largely does. Development began in earnest in the 1820s, and St Peter's was begun in 1824.
Externally, this is a Greek Revival church with an austerely magnificent Ionic portico by the architect Henry Hakewell. Fifty years later the interior was given a sumptuous High Victorian makeover, but that was largely destroyed by fire (arson) in 1987. The refurbishment by the Braithwaite Partnership resulted in a light and airy interior which well blends old with new, a Georgian space with slender steel columns, impressive woodwork and a gold mosaic apse.
The choir, under the directorship of Andrew-John Smith, is one of the very finest in London. They inaugurate this mini-festival with Tudor a cappella polyphony by the 'Morley Seven' – Fayrfax, Taverner, Byrd, Sheppard, White, Mundy and Parsons.
St Mary's Bourne Street
St Mary's was founded with a markedly different congregation in mind from that of St Peter's – the poor of the district, including servants. Begun in 1873 on a site cleared to build a tunnel for the District Line (faintly audible rumbling below), the cost was a fifth of that of St Peter's. The architect R. J. Withers produced a simple but noble red-brick Gothic design.
Its humble carcass, however, was progressively disguised in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th, with architectural additions by H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, working in a by then highly unfashionable High Gothic idiom, and with the accretion of Anglo-Catholic fittings, furnishings and works of art. These form a distinguished collection even by High-Church London standards.
The church is also famous for its choir, an endowment enabling the engagement of professional singers. Plainchant is a speciality. The director is Paul Brough, whose other appointments include director of music at Keble College Oxford. Their programme will focus on St John the Baptist, important in Advent liturgy and the subject of some very fine music.
Holy Trinity Sloane Street
John Betjemen dubbed the church of Holy Trinity ‘the Cathedral of the Arts & Crafts movement’. Paid for by Earl Cadogan, the landlord of much of this part of Chelsea (as is his descendant), building started in 1888 though embellishment continued well into the next century. The architect was John Dando Sedding, and William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were among the many leading artists and craftsmen of the time who contributed a range of fittings and artworks.
A Gesamtkunstwerk of architecture, sculpture, metalwork, painting and stained glass – and, for you, music – it is a place of staggering beauty, so it beggars belief that in the 1970s the church was closed and scheduled for demolition. (It now regularly achieves three-figure Sunday congregations and is a busy venue for concerts and other events.)
From early in its history, music has been important. Bishop Michael Marshall's vision led to the creation of the current professional octet in the early 2000s. Oliver Lallemant has been Organist and Director of Music since 2015 and leads an expanded ensemble for this very special London Day. The programme will include Britten's A Ceremony of Carols.
St Peter's, Eaton Square SW1 (7 mins on foot from Victoria). First audience 11.30am, second audience 2.00pm. Doors open half an hour earlier.
Holy Trinity Sloane Street SW3 (3 mins from Sloane Square Station), first audience by 5.45pm, the second by 7.30pm (followed by optional drinks).
Four short walks between venues together amounting to little more than a mile.
Price, per person
£199 for the 2.00pm option or £239 for the 11.30am option which includes lunch (in a good restaurant). This includes exclusive admission to the three concerts and two sets of refreshments.
This may change with regulations concerning distancing, but we are anticipating up to 60 in each of the two audiences.
We will return the full amount if you notify us 22 or more days before the event. We will retain 50% if cancellation is made within three weeks and 100% if within three days. Please put your cancellation in writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. We advise taking out insurance in case of cancellation and recommend that overseas clients are also covered for possible medical and repatriation costs.
'The Choral Day was the highlight of my six week trip to the UK and Europe this year.'
'A brilliantly well-organised and thoroughly enjoyable experience.'
'The churches selected for the music venues were well chosen for their architectural interest and as complements to the music programme.'
'Beautiful singing in the best English choral tradition. A lovely mixture of sacred & secular song.'
'It's a wonderful day, superbly organised, with excellent choirs, very interesting churches and a good lunch.'