“This is not the immaculate sound I should expect from the semi-professional choir of Oriel College! Back to the beginning of the anthem!” The bespectacled director was clearly unhappy with our reading of the sixteenth-century anonymous piece, “Rejoice in the Lord Alway.” But let’s start at the beginning.
As I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to be involved in everything, I signed up for six auditions for various college choirs and a cappella groups. In hindsight, perhaps that wasn’t the best idea, but I wanted to feel out the various college choirs and decide which might be the best fit. I was offered a place in the Lincoln and Oriel College choirs, and in the end, the perks of Oriel got me. Perks like two Christmas feasts at the college hall after Candlemas services, Evensong every week in the beautiful University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, a concert of the Faure Requiem, a stipend, annual tours to the continent, and best of all, invitations to formal dinners after every sung service, the first of which I attended last night.
I veritably flew down Headington Hill on my bike yesterday, and zoomed to the University Church to make the first 4:00 rehearsal. After a few minutes of meeting people and being handed the music for the Evensong service, we all found our places and began to sing.
I did not know what to do when the singing began. I have been in choirs that could sight-read pieces, but I’ve never been in a group that not only sang the correct pitches, but collectively decided on phrasing and dynamic interpretation on the first run. It was astonishing. Between the “minims” (half-notes) and “semi-quarrels” (or something like that – sixteenth-notes), I was soon learning an entirely foreign musical vocabulary. Thankfully, the alto on my right, Sophia, was an excellent sight-reader, and so I did my best to listen to her when I wasn’t sure.
After a lovely hour and a half rehearsal, and then the lovelier hour-long Evensong service, I had the chance to meet some of the choir members: John Mark, a D. Phil. student in theoretical physics; Solia, a French tutor; Sarah, an Oriel fresher. They were so kind and friendly, and after the service ended, I followed them back to Oriel College. As we walked into a gorgeous parlor with chandeliers, richly-colored carpet, and portraits on the walls with gilded frames, I observed that the room was full of older-looking men and women in formal black and white. I whispered to John-Mark, “Where are we?” He smiled and responded, “This is the Senior Common Room, and these are the Fellows of the College.” After some polite conversation with other choristers in which I did my best not to spill wine or say anything offensive, the Fellows exited through a small door at the back of the parlor, and we made our way to the hall.
The ornate hall was lit only by lamplight, and it was full of Oriel members. I found a place with the choir and began to make small talk with the guy beside me when everyone suddenly grew silent and stood up. The Fellows entered through a separate door and took their places at a table on an elevated platform. In the silent hall, someone banged a gavel, someone recited prayers in Latin, someone banged a gavel again, and everyone sat down. A three-course meal commenced: a hearty British meal of potato soup, steak, Yorkshire pudding, potatoes and vegetables, and a dessert of chocolate raspberry cake. I spent the hour and a half talking to the friendly guy beside me, Max, a D. Phil. student researching Byzantine history. He regaled me with stories of his travels to Turkey, archaeological digs and translations of Byzantine texts. It was so fascinating. He explained the history behind all the portraits in the hall of former members of Oriel: the Matthew Arnold (a poet that I love), Cardinal John Henry Newman, John Keble, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others. And we laughed about all the tourists that point at him when he wears his gown and whisper “Harry Potter” to each other, and who stand outside the Radcliffe Camera taking pictures of people’s bikes. Max thought it was funny that I was so enthused by all of it, because as he’s been at Oriel for five years now, these kinds of dinners are nothing special. But for me, it was utterly enchanting. The food was excellent, but the space was even better; attending a formal hall has been on my bucket list for awhile now, and with Oriel choir I get to go twice a week.
Around 9 p.m., everyone except the Fellows dispersed to go their separate ways, and I walked back to my bike in Radcliffe Square, only a little bit dazzled. Only a little.
Oriel College Formal Hall