The Choir

An introduction to the Old Saint Paul’s Choir, by Director of Music John Kitchen:

SO FAR AS we can tell from the archival material available, Old Saint Paul’s has had a choir for most of its life, perhaps from the late 19th century when the congregation moved into the present building.

The members would have been men and boys. Apparently women were sometimes drafted in to swell the ranks, but were obliged to sing from the Memorial Chapel, since they were not permitted to appear in the choir stalls!  Happily, times have changed. We have recently hung a number of interesting old choir photographs, some dating from the late 19th century,  on display at the top of the stairs,  just outside the choir vestry.  Please come up and have a look.

The late Alistair Pow worked hard to build up the choir’s contribution to the liturgy during the 1970s. New music was introduced and recruitment of boys and men was vigorously pursued to great effect.  Around this time the choir also became affiliated to the Royal School of Church Music, and we have in the choir vestry a report from 1975 when the choir was ‘inspected’ by an RSCM official. The numbers recorded are 23 boys and 18 men — rather more than we currently boast.

Leslie Shankland was assistant to Alistair Pow from the 1970s onwards, and eventually took over as Director of Music on Easter Day 1980 when Alistair moved on. Les continued to diversify and extend the choral repertoire, and steadily to raise musical standards.

A Mixed Choir

I became Old Saint Paul’s organist in 1988, working alongside Les for 20 years. During our time, the choir evolved in various ways. By the early 1990s it was clear that we could no longer manage to maintain a treble line of boys alone as we had done in the past. Instead, we followed the lead of our own St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh in building up a treble line of boys and girls (up to about the age of 15 or 16).

Among British cathedrals, St Mary’s had been pioneering in having a mixed treble line as early as the 1970s. The arrangement worked well at Old Saint Paul’s for several years; ultimately, however, it proved difficult to recruit sufficient trebles, and the next development was to introduce female sopranos and altos. We now have an adult choir of men and women, many of them students.

In June 2007, Les Shankland resigned because of family commitments, having given more than 30 years of unstinting service to Old Saint Paul’s. At that time I took over as Director of Music, and I am assisted by Calum Robertson.  Calum was educated at The Edinburgh Academy and graduated (in July 2011) with first-class honours from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.  His first-study instrument is clarinet and he has been heard to play his clarinet in several services!  In 2012 he completed a Masters programme at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire (formerly the RSAMD) and he continues as assistant organist in OSP.  Calum works as a freelance clarinettist with orchestras such as the SCO, BBC Scottish, RSNO, Northern Sinfonia, CBSO and others; and he is also busy as a freelance organist.

Joining the choir

There is great competition among Edinburgh city-centre churches for student choir members and many churches now offer choral scholarships.  For many years now our Vestry has funded four choral scholarships, one each for SATB.  The rest of our choir members are volunteers, and we are always happy to hear from new volunteers. Since we sing a wide range of music on minimal rehearsal, good sight-reading skills are essential.

The music we sing

We sing at Mass and Evensong every Sunday, occasionally on weekdays (such as Ascension Day and Corpus Christi), and at the carol services of Advent and Christmas.  We are particularly busy in Holy Week, when we sing the evocative service of Tenebrae on Holy Wednesday, and at the solemn liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Easter Day is everyone’s favourite day of the year: the Vigil Mass is at 5am, and is celebrated with full musical splendour, as is the 10.30am Mass and Choral Evensong at 6.30pm. 

Week by week, we rehearse on Thursday evenings from 7.30-9pm.  Each service is preceded by a short but vital rehearsal. The repertoire is wide-ranging: Renaissance masses and motets by Palestrina, Byrd and others;  Viennese masses by Mozart and Haydn;  French masses by Gounod, Widor and Vierne;  17th- and 18th- century music by Purcell, Greene, Charpentier and many others;  standard works from the Anglican liturgical tradition by Stainer, Parry, Stanford, Howells;  and more recent works, including challenging pieces such as James MacMillan’s ‘Westminster’ Mass. 

Hymns and shorter liturgical items are considered a vitally important part of the services at OSP, and much care is given to their preparation.  Organ music and improvisation also play a significant role in our services.  Much effort is made to integrate liturgy and music as fully as possible;  we hope that we succeed most of the time! 

Full details of current forthcoming music are available on the website.


The Choir enter for a candlelit service

The Choir enter for a candlelit service

Director of Music John Kitchen

Director of Music John Kitchen

Organ scholar Calum Robertson at the organ with clarinet and John Kitchen

Organ scholar Calum Robertson at the organ with clarinet and John Kitchen