Bringing the sacred choral tradition back to France
France is renowned for its choral composers but its choirs have taken a backseat recently compared to their British counterparts. An Englishman's hoping to help France rediscover an important part of its musical heritage.
The Académie Vocale de Paris is no ordinary French choir. The 50 boys and girls who meet at the Eglise Saint Merri several times a week to practise music from across the centuries are part of its director's attempt to bring back a tradition that had largely been lost in France.
Although the nation has given the world some of its finest choral composers, including Poulenc, Fauré and Duruflé, its tradition of choral singing is weaker than that of neighbouring countries like Germany and England.
According to Professor Ariel Alonso, head of choral singing at the Sorbonne, that weak tradition is partly down to France's turbulent history.
"At the time of the French Revolution, all the choral traditions that were in place in cathedrals were abolished," Alonso said. "A few years later, the conservatoires were founded, but it wasn't in the same spirit. Other kinds of music were prioritised."
France is an officially secular, or 'laïque', state, so national occasions involve no religious ceremony, and therefore no sacred music, unlike their equivalents in Britain. Indeed, on Remembrance Sunday, the Dean of Notre Dame Cathedral told a congregation of British churchgoers that France had much to learn from Britain when it came to commemorating - and celebrating - national events. In addition, the liturgical reforms brought in by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s mean there is less call for the kinds of professional singers who used to make up Catholic cathedral and church choirs.
The director of Académie Vocale, Iain Simcock, is trying to bring some of that skill back to France, where there’s no real word for a skilled smaller choir ('choeur' being for massed ranks of singers, 'chorale' implying a lower standard amateur group.)
The Académie Vocale's approach is different from the accepted French norm. Once the boys and girls have been recruited, via workshops and talks at schools in Paris, Simcock puts the members through their paces every week, changing the repertoire so that the choir can give a new concert every Saturday in term time.
This, rather than building up to just a few big concerts a year, and rehearsing the same piece for months, is very much part of the English choral tradition. It allows the choristers to build up their skills, confidence and knowledge of a vast range of music, putting them much more on a par with their counterparts in cathedrals all over the UK. When they get older, they can progress from the younger boys' and girls' 'maîtrises' to the Académie's Ensemble group, still tackling challenging choral pieces every week from the Renaissance to the present day.
The approach is certainly getting results. Judge for yourself by clicking on the video above.