Talent has Nothing to do with Wealth

Last night I went to St Martin in the Fields to listen to a performance of Fauré’s Requiem. It was sung by a choir called Inner Voices. It was sublime. But why was that remarkable?

Actually, my point is that it was not, strictly speaking, remarkable. The choristers are selected by audition. They rehearse weekly. They are directed by two outstandingly good musicians. It really isn’t surprising that their performances are excellent.

And yet many react to Inner Voices as Dr Johnson did to female preachers. They think it very peculiar that pupils from inner London state schools are able to sing great classical music. Surely, they say to themselves, only privately educated children can do that sort of thing.

It is tragic that those who run state schools often share that prejudice. Maybe they would concede that there is no logical reason why poor children should not be able to sing, but they tend to think that music is a luxury reserved for the middle classes: there is no place for it, at least in any serious form, in state schools.

Of course, there are exceptions. My own sons went to a comprehensive school in inner London which has one of the finest music departments of any school, state or independent, in Britain. But the London Oratory School is definitely an exception. Most state schools make practically no effort to teach music. And, when they do, they do it in an appallingly amateur way which reflects the horribly low expectations they have of their pupils.

I honestly do think this is a tragedy. And that thought was reinforced when I listened to the Inner Voices last night.

Perhaps I ought to explain what Inner Voices is. It is a choir set up by a veritable saint called Edward Watkins, director of music at the West London Free School (another state school which takes music seriously). He is an old Etonian. He was taught music at that great school by another saint. Ralph Allwood was director of music at Eton for sixteen years. When he retired his former pupil came up with a brilliant idea. Why shouldn’t there be a choir made up of inner London state school pupils which could compete with Eton?

Inner Voices was born. A few, sadly far too few, inner London schools agreed to support the venture. The idea was simple. Teenagers in state schools would be offered first class choral training, under the direction of Ralph Allwood, and would be given the opportunity to sing publicly in major concert halls, in cathedrals and at important festivals.

What a triumph it has been. I confess I was unaware of Inner Voices until a few months ago. But I am now a committed fan. I have only been to three public performances (evensong at Salisbury Cathedral, evensong at Westminster Abbey and last night’s performance in St Martin in the Fields). But all were magnificent. The aim, if that it was, to compete with Eton has certainly been achieved.

In the days when I used to praise performances by the pupils of the London Oratory School many of my kind friends tended to write comments to the effect that the school wasn’t a real comprehensive. They pointed out that Tony Blair sent his children there. It was obviously a middle class enclave. They were wrong about that, but I have forgiven them. More importantly, their objections to the Oratory School cannot be applied to Inner Voices. I admit that one of my sons is a member of Inner Voices. Yes, he is middle class and he is white (though not an academic genius). But, save for his ludicrous hair style and earring, he is in the minority in Inner Voices. The other boys and girls are almost all, not actually all I admit, as un-middle class as you could imagine. I wouldn’t be so patronising as to suggest that I knew anything about their family backgrounds. But I am confident that most of them do not live in the lap of luxury. They are ordinary pupils in bog standard urban comprehensive schools. And (not but) they have absolutely amazing talent.

Why did I say that last night’s performance reinforced my view that the poor teaching of music in many state schools is such a tragedy? The answer is simple. I listened to astoundingly good singers (the solos were out of this world) who had only been given a chance to show their talent because of Inner Voices. Without Ed Watkins and Ralph Allwood, that talent would have remained hidden for ever.

There was another pleasure last night. In the audience was one of the few people whom I can properly describe as a hero. John McIntosh, now long retired as headmaster of the London Oratory School, was there. I mentioned the school’s outstanding music department. What I didn’t mention was that it owes its existence to one man: John McIntosh. I am always amazed that he recognises me. He was headmaster for my older son’s first term at the Oratory (when the boy was seven – he is about to be eighteen). He never had the misfortune to have any responsibility for Peter (the younger boy), who is now a member of Inner Voices. But he saw me waiting outside at the end for Peter to come out. He bounded up to me, shook my hand warmly, reminded me that we hadn’t met for over a year and asked whether he was right in thinking he had seen Peter in the choir. As it happened, I had noticed that the programme, which purported to list the names of all the choristers, omitted Peter’s name. John McIntosh had spotted Peter in the choir and had remembered his name. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. An Oratory schoolmaster once told me that, when he was headmaster, McIntosh always remembered every boy’s name (even though there were over a thousand of them).

So, this piece is dedicated, in no particular order, to three giants in the world of musical education: Ed Watkins, Ralph Allwood and John McIntosh.

Charles

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