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Music returns to Norwich Cathedral after six months of silence due to COVID-19

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Music has been an important part of life at Norwich Cathedral for more than 900 years, ever since the chants of the Benedictine monks who first founded the Cathedral back in the 11th century.

This week members of the Cathedral’s modern day choir are returning to rehearsals and looking forward to resuming their roles in services, after what was the first break in music at the Cathedral since the Commonwealth Period from 1649 to 1660 when music was forbidden in Churches.

The first sung service will take place in Norwich Cathedral on Thursday 10 September when the choir’s adult singers – the lay clerks and choral scholars – will sing at the 5.30pm Choral Evensong

The boy choristers’ first service will be on Sunday 13 September when they will join the lay clerks and choral scholars for the 10.30am Sung Eucharist and the 3.30pm Choral Evensong.

The girl choristers will sing their first Choral Evensong at 5.30pm on Tuesday 15 September, six months to the day since public worship was suspended due to COVID-19.

Public worship was allowed to resume in July without singing, and the government’s latest guidance now allows Cathedral Choirs to sing but not the congregation.

The Revd Canon Aidan Platten, Canon Precentor at Norwich Cathedral, said: “Singing has been at the heart of worship in Norwich Cathedral since its foundation when the monks chanted their services. With many new safety measures now in place, we are very excited to be welcoming back our girl and boy choristers and the lay clerks and choral scholars of the Cathedral Choir to their musical home. Worship is always supposed to give a glimpse through the gates of heaven; those open gates seem to be open even wider when our prayers are lifted heavenward by the voices of our choir.”

A lot of planning and risk assessment has taken place to ensure choral worship can return to Norwich Cathedral safely and in a COVID-secure manner.

Instead of the choir singing in the traditional choir stalls, all choral services will now take place in the Cathedral’s nave to allow for greater social distancing, with all the singers facing forwards rather than towards each other.

Rehearsals for the full choir will take place in the Cathedral’s nave, where there is more space available for the choir members to socially distance.

The boy and girl choristers will have rehearsals in their well-ventilated practice room, known as the Song School, where there are a number of extra safety measures in place. While each group of choristers forms a ‘bubble’, during rehearsals choristers will still be required to stay at least one metre away from each other and will not be allowed to share music. The music desks will also be regularly sanitised and the choristers will also have a larger area for robing before services.

Ashley Grote, Norwich Cathedral’s Master of Music, said: “Up and down the country, Cathedral Choirs have been unable to sing together since public worship was suspended back in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has left a huge hole in the lives of not only the choristers, but also the many people who worship in our nation’s cathedrals.

“Here at Norwich we were proud to lead the way on the ‘Sing Forever’ project, producing a video featuring 269 choristers from across the country, singing in their own homes in aid of the Cathedral Music Trust.

“It is now an incredibly special time, when we can all finally sing together again after the longest break in the Cathedral Choir’s history. Whilst things won’t feel exactly the same as our previous ‘normal’, we are all desperately looking forward to making music together in the Cathedral once again and filling the space with the sound of voices after such a long time away”.

Alongside the return of choral singing, the Cathedral’s music department is also launching a special series of free organ recitals this month.

Brian Runnett (c) Norwich Cathedral Library

The recitals are a tribute to Brian Runnett, who became the Cathedral’s Organist and Master of the Choristers in 1967, but tragically died in a car crash in August 1970 shortly after giving an organ recital at Westminster Abbey. Following his death, his parents donated his collection of sheet music to Norwich Cathedral and the collection is housed in Norwich Cathedral’s Library.

On this 50th anniversary since Mr Runnett’s death, the Cathedral’s three current organists – David Dunnett, Ashley Grote and George Inscoe – will perform a series of six concerts which will also be made available to watch at a later date on the Cathedral’s YouTube channel.

The recitals will take place at 7.30pm on 16 September, 30 September, 14 October, 28 October, 11 November and 25 November.

Each concert in the Brian Runnett Memorial Organ Recital Series will also include music by Louis Vierne to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the French composer who was the Titular Organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris from 1900 until his death in 1937.

Ashley Grote said: “It is wonderful that we are able to welcome an audience back into the Cathedral again to enjoy organ concerts after such a long break.

“It seemed right that this concert series should mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Brian Runnett, one of my predecessors, a brilliant young organist who was regarded as one of the bright lights of Cathedral music, and whose life was so tragically cut short after only a few years in post here at Norwich.

“Brian Runnett would himself have played works by Vierne, so it is good also to be able to include Vierne’s music in this series of concerts.”

The organ recitals are free but tickets must be booked in advance via the Cathedral’s website

All the latest details about Norwich Cathedral’s services are also available on the Cathedral website.