Harmony in the House: the Parliament Choir
It’s not often parliamentarians sing from the same hymn sheet, but the Parliament Choir sees political differences set aside as peers and MPs concentrate on making music. Sally Dawson reports
“There are only four parties in this choir. There are sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. And there’s only one weapon; that’s the man with the white stick.”
This is the favoured analogy of Simon Over, founder-conductor of the Parliament Choir, to describe his ensemble of politicians and parliamentary staff which he extols as the “most egalitarian and the most binding-together entity there is in Parliament”.
It’s an early winter’s evening, and we’re sitting in a pew at the back of a warmly-lit St Clement Danes church on the Strand, surrounded by the chatter of choir members as the orchestra warms up. “I don’t know of any other group in Parliament where people can come together as absolute equals,” he says.
His words are competing with the sound of violins, and there is a palpable sense of anticipation borne from a gathering of people who have not performed in person for some time. The church is host this evening to the final rehearsal ahead of the choir’s performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor the next day – a piece of music Over describes as one of the “huge, great works of the choral repertoire”.
It was very cathartic to just sing and forget about all the arguments happening in Parliament
“It is very complex,” he says. “There is never a dull moment, so it has at least kept everybody’s interest [over lockdown].”
Over was “really quite ill” with Covid at the start of the UK outbreak in March 2020, but thanks to the organisational skills of a soprano friend who stepped into the breach, Sally Martin-Brown, the choir continued to rehearse over Zoom – something Over describes as an “intense experience” that some members managed better than others.
Former choir chair Baroness Hayman of Ullock, who as Sue Hayman was Labour MP for Workington, says her shared office in the Lords made online practice impossible, while other members admit they felt inhibited by having to sing “alone” with the rest of the choir on mute. But for former Conservative MPs and choir members Mary Macleod and Mark Prisk, the Zoom sessions proved vital to maintaining a sense of routine.
“Singing generally lifts the spirits and makes you believe in something else,” says Macleod – and for those like her who had never attempted Bach before, the choir’s rehearsals became the art of making “the impossible possible”.
With talk of further lockdowns, Over is “thrilled” to have made it to this point: “I just thought, ‘I can’t bear it if we can’t do it.’
“I will probably shed a tear tomorrow evening,” he adds. “The final movement of the work is Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace), and with all we have been through, it will be quite a moving moment.”
Over says he is proud of the choir and how they’ve kept going through this difficult time. “They have kept the faith,” he says.
With the rehearsal now in full swing, Harwich and North Essex MP Sir Bernard Jenkin jogs up the stairs apologising for being a bit breathless – he has come direct from a meeting of the Liaison Committee and must rush back early for votes at 7pm.
It’s a state of affairs Over has had to get used to. He’s put many vocal groups through their paces during his career, but with their “minds on a thousand things at once,” he says when it comes to rehearsals, politicians are the “worst”.
“The thing they’re really bad about is remembering to bring their books… because they’re used to people running around after them. Some politicians, we can give them four or five scores in the course of a work we’re doing – they keep losing them.”
The actual performance, however, is a different matter: “They’ve got an audience, they know how to deliver… and that really gives it an energy.”
So are politicians natural performers? “Yes. And, of course, there are politicians in the audience too. So there’s a real electricity in the room.”
Formed in 2000, the choir came into being following a conversation between the Labour peer, Lord Filkin, and Over (who was the then music director of St Margaret’s Church in Westminster) about the difficulty parliamentarians had in joining a regular choir due to the restrictions of their “day-job”. “When I first was elected in 1992, we still regularly sat very late, into the small hours of the morning,” says founder member David Lidington, “and because you’re hanging out for votes you couldn’t commit yourself to sing with a London-based choir.” So when Lord Filkin proposed founding a parliamentary choir, Lidington immediately joined up. The choir gave its first performance in the December of that year, and over the next two decades performed in locations as varied as the Bundestag, Notre Dame and St Vitus cathedral in Prague (where the current Parliament Choir chair, Lord German, recalls it being -8C inside the cathedral and the musicians wore fingerless gloves).
From its inception, it was decided the choir should be inclusive so all parliamentary pass holders are eligible to join, from the police to catering and Hansard staff, to journalists from the press gallery. The choir takes singers from a range of abilities, and auditions are not required.
Fast forward two decades, and the choir found itself celebrating its 20th anniversary silenced and in lockdown. Its Christmas concert last year was performed to a virtual audience.
Prevented from using their traditional haunt of the crypt below St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster – St Mary Undercroft – due to a combination of poor ventilation and lack of space for social distancing - the choir has been meeting in St Margaret’s church, conveniently located directly opposite the Commons (the venue was unavailable for tonight’s dress rehearsal).
Lord German says choir membership suffered over lockdown, with fewer people joining – and a big “churn” of MPs following the 2019 general election. “So we’re going to rebuild,” he says. Macleod is actively reaching out to parliamentarians in order to get them involved, whether it be singing or becoming a “supporter”, as well as trying to raise the profile of the choir generally. “We want people to know more about what the choir does and make them feel wanted. It’s their choir. It’s not for us. It’s for everybody,” she says.
Macleod gives full credit to Over and chorus master Nicholas O’Neill for having done “an amazing job” during a difficult time. An autonomous body of Parliament – but not in receipt of any parliamentary funding – the choir counts the Speakers of the Commons and Lords as its joint-presidents. Its membership is evenly split between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats, but there is not currently an SNP member – although “funnily enough,” Macleod says as a thoughtful aside, “the Westminster leader of the SNP [Ian Blackford] hasn’t got a bad voice.”
Westminster has been marked by division in recent years, meaning cross-party friendships formed in the choir are more important than ever, says Baroness Hayman. This was particularly true when the Brexit battles were dividing Parliament. “During those couple of turbulent years… it was very cathartic to be able to come and just sing and forget about all the arguments and difficulties that were happening in Parliament,” she says.
This ability to heal divisions also appears to transcend borders. Jenkin recalls performing Mozart in 2018 with the German Bundestag Choir: “We had just voted for Brexit – it didn’t matter a damn.”
Over recounts the example of the online Christmas concert last year when Jenkin sang a duet with Labour’s David Lammy: “David said, ‘We couldn’t be further apart but it’s great to sing together.’ David had been a chorister at Peterborough Cathedral and Bernard was a chorister at Cambridge, so music is very important to them both. To put aside political differences is really important, particularly given what we have been through.”
Normal service has currently resumed. With a “Westminster Christmas” concert going ahead with an audience, and a trip to perform at the Vatican planned for next year, Macleod believes the choir’s creative industry soft power can help “take Britain to the world and build relationships with other parliaments”.
And she’d like Westminster to make more of its choir: “We’re saying, use us, whether it’s on State Openings, or other events that are held in Parliament,” she says. “Hopefully, we’re a credit to Parliament.”
As the rehearsal comes to an end, Over says to the choir: “This is a great moment. We’re going to tell our audience how great it is to be singing again after two years of silence.”
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