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The Parliamentary Choir

by Michael Ford last modified 12 Nov, 2019 11:01 AM

(With huge thanks to the New Yorker Magazine)

The Parliament Choir is open to anyone who works in Parliament; its members have included ministers, but also policemen, cleaning staff, and even one holder of the office of Black Rod — the figure who, for ceremonial reasons, has the door of the Commons slammed in his or her face at the State Opening of Parliament.

Singers are drawn from both Houses: its current ranks include Lord Aberdare, a cross-bench hereditary peer; David Lidington, a Conservative MP who was Theresa May’s de-facto deputy; David Lammy, a pro-Remain Labour MP; and Sir Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative MP who is among the hard-line Brexiteers. Sir Bernard is fond of saying that in the choir there are only four parties: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses.

Given a political climate in which Parliament is, apparently, divided between sopranos and basses who persist in singing loudly in different keys, the choir offers a rare opportunity for harmony.

Lord German, the treasurer of the Liberal Democrats, who sings bass, explains before rehearsal:

“In an enterprise where we are designed to work against each other, in tribes, this is a way of us trying to see through and make an understanding for ourselves about how we relate to each other.”

Neither the current Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition is, or has ever been, a member of the choir, though German testified that Boris Johnson is capable of holding a tune, having been seated near him at a memorial service for Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was murdered by a pro-Brexit assailant during the 2016 referendum campaign:

"What I would call campfire singing."

The choir was founded almost twenty years ago by Simon Over, its conductor. He is also the music director of Southbank Sinfonia. He says:

“I was working at Westminster Abbey, and I had a little choral society in which some members of both Houses sang.”

Members kept having to miss rehearsal because of voting obligations, so Over started a new choir in the Palace of Westminster, where members can easily slip upstairs when the division bell is sounded.

There’s no cell service in the chapel, which was built in the thirteenth century and lavishly refurbished in the nineteenth, so singers have to wait until rehearsal is over to find out whether a motion has been passed.

Occasionally, Parliamentary business does get in the way of the choir’s commitments: in 2017, after Theresa May called a snap election, a concert had to be cancelled, because the choir was necessarily dissolved along with Parliament.

“People say to me, ‘Do the politicians take instruction?’ And they absolutely do,” Over says. “I think they rather relish it, because they are constantly having to think on their feet. The great thing about belonging to a choir is simply that they have to do as they’re asked.”

In mid-November, about a month before Election Day, the Parliament Choir will be performing Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” at Westminster Cathedral. The work is a setting of a poem by John Henry Newman, the Victorian divine recently canonised by Pope Francis, and portrays a faithful soul’s entry into Purgatory before ascending to Heaven.

Over agrees that the theme of the work is remarkably apt:

“There’s an absolutely marvellous moment, when the soul sees God and there is a cataclysmic chord, after which the soul screams, ‘Take me away,’ ” Over said. “Effectively, what he is saying is ‘Get me through what I need to get through, and I will get to where I need to be.’ And I think there really is a sense of: We’ve got to get through it, and we’ve got to get to somewhere where things will be better.”

The above contains extracts from the original article written for the New Yorker Mgazine by Rebecca Mead.

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