Saturday 28 September 2019

From folk-song and jazz to singing at Royal weddings: I meet members of The Queen's Six

The Queen's Six
The Queen's Six
Like many all male a cappella groups whose repertoire mixes polyphony with jazz and more popular numbers, the members of the Queen's Six all started out as part of a collegiate or cathedral choir. In fact, they still are. One of the unusual things about the group is that the six men (Dan, Tim, Nick, Dom, Andrew and Simon) are all still members of the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor and form half of the sum total of Lay Clerks (adult men singing alto, tenor and bass alongside the boy trebles). The group has recently released its latest disc, The Last Rose of Summer on Signum Classics. It is the group's fifth disc, and its first on Signum. A recently met Tim and Simon from the group, directly after their recent appearance on BBC Radio 3's In Tune, to chat more about the group and the disc.

The disc is a programme of folk-songs, a mix of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh (and they sing in Welsh on the last track of the disc). The group has always had folk-songs in its repertoire, they form an important strand in their programming, and they know a number of arrangers whose work they enjoy, so most of the items on the disc were arranged especially for the Queen's Six, with a handful by composers such as RVW and Holst. And all the music on the disc has been or is part of the group's live programmes.

They tour one or two programmes each season, and usually there are a few folk-songs in each. Sometimes they are requested to do an all sacred programme and sometimes and all-secular one, but the group's favourite type of programme is one which starts with polyphony and works its way towards more popular items, folk-songs and jazz.

In their live shows, the members of the group talk to the audience and each member of the group does some of the presenting. Tim and Simon describe this as 'putting on a show', and their aim is to draw audience members into the music. For the last two years, they have been learning material from memory which they felt was the next step, communicating more directly with the audience. And their spoken sections are similarly from memory, trying to make them sound off the cuff.

The Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in 2018
The Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in 2018
The members of the group all have to be members of the Lay Clerks of St George's Chapel, this is part of the group's USP. The Lay Clerks' main commitment is to sing Evensong daily (except Wednesdays) with two services on Sunday. Because the boys get school holidays, the men have a similar commitment which means that the group's touring is restricted to holidays and Wednesdays. And in fact, eight or ten times a year they go off somewhere on Wednesday morning, sing in the evening and return the following day in time for Evensong at St George's Chapel. They have gone as far afield as Madeira, Croatia and Bayreuth in this fashion, and on a Wednesday at the beginning of October are off to Belgrade. They have also been known to fit concerts in after Evensong, but logistics here can be a bit tight.

Despite this close working relationship, the members of the group all get on and describe themselves as 'best mates'. And they are now experienced enough to be able to deal with the tensions that inevitably arise when touring. And in fact they enjoy being together and touring together. And it isn't just that, they live together too!

The Lay Clerks get grace-and-favour accommodation in the Horseshoe Cloister at Windsor (it is a short distance from the West Front of St George's Chapel). And both Simon and Tim find it a great community in which to live, and it as a good place to bring up children and evidently most of the Lay Clerks have children.

Whilst Simon does the group's programming, all members are involved in suggesting repertoire. Most of the men sing with other groups as well (for instance, Simon sings with groups such as the Tallis Scholars, Tenebrae and Exaudi). And repertoire they sing elsewhere can influence what the group sings. Both Tim and Simon admit that there is no point pretending that they are not influenced by the King's Singers, all members of the Queen's Six grew up listening to the King's Singers' recordings. And frankly, if someone says they are like the King's Singers then it is a nice comparison for them to make!

The group initially got together because they sang on an ad hoc basis at after dinner entertainments in Windsor (and inevitably used the King's Singers' repertoire). But now they are conscious of creating their own distinctive blend and personality with the group.

One of this season's programmes is Royal Windsor, Then and Now which inevitably means there are items from the chapel choir's regular repertoire (in fact there are two items which the choir sang at the recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex). One of the pieces in the programme is Quam Pulchr Es by Richard Sampson who was Dean of Windsor and one of King Henry VIII's main agents in his divorce from Catharine of Aragon. Simon first sang the piece with the Cardinall's Musick, it is now in the Queen's Six's repertoire and they have passed it to the organist at St George's Chapel.

Looking ahead, the group wants to expand into new territories, and Tim and Simon mention the possibility of going to China and Hong Kong, where there is a big following for a cappella music. After Christmas the group makes its first visit to Estonia.

Full details of the Queen's Six's programme from their website.
Further details of the new album, The Last Rose of Summer

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