Giles Woodforde talks to the New College Choir director about his career and departure

New College Choir has been around in Oxford since the late 14th century, when William of Wykeham set up a choral foundation within his ‘New’ College, to sing services in the college chapel.

Some things have remained the same ever since: boy trebles rather than girls sing the top, soprano, line for instance. But you’ve only got to glance at the choir’s website for a few seconds to see that in other respects much has changed. The choir now tours all over the world, it was the first Oxford choir to offer webcasts of chapel services, it has its own CD label, and — of course — it’s on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. All these developments have been pioneered by Edward Higginbottom, who has been director of the choir for the last 38 years.

Now he is stepping down.

As we consume delicious coffee and croissants in his kitchen (he is very much a Francophile, and has been decorated for his work in France) I ask: why 38 years, rather than choosing a nice round number?

“You mean rather than wait until it was 100 years?” Edward laughs. “It’s very simple really: when you reach a certain age, the university likes to turn over its employees. It’s a good scheme in the sense that you’re expected to go before you fall apart, and you also give someone else the chance to do this very interesting job.

“It’s very difficult to know when the right time to leave might be if you’re working for an institution like New College, because you might feel comfortable there — you need a good friend or two to tell you when things are no longer as good as they were.

“Whereas if you’re a freelance musician, it’s very clear: you either get booked, or you don’t.

“But certainly working within an institution gives you stability, and the chance to plan long term. It also allows you to be a bit of a family man — although my family would say that might be wishful thinking, as this job has taken up so much of my time.”

The description ‘family man’ could have been invented for Edward. His wife Caroline is often to been seen keyboarding away in his college rooms, dealing with choir administration.

They have seven grown-up children, and are plainly extremely proud of them.

Eldest son Orlando, known professionally as Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, is also a musician — but in a very different field from his father.

“I taught him everything he knows,” Edward laughs. “He makes electronic dance music, and he DJs. He’s gained an international profile doing this work, and plays to far greater numbers than I ever have, or ever will, play to.

But I think I get what he’s at — he certainly gets what I’m at because he was a chorister under my direction. “But one can’t help but be pleased at what all my children have done, or are doing. I would never have guessed, for instance, that my eldest daughter would become an animal chiropractor: she’s very good at it. Another daughter makes fantastic jewellery. “There’s another musician, a doctor, a teacher, and a writer — it’s very diverse. Where all this came from, goodness only knows!”

Edward Higginbottom was convinced very early on that his choir needed to carry its skills well beyond the hallowed walls of New College, and so began a major touring programme.

I was offered the chance to make a documentary about once such tour for Radio Oxford. The 10-day schedule was intensive, and the problems numerous, beginning with a passport checker’s strike as we landed in France.

When we eventually arrived at our destination, it was to discover that the location chosen by French radio for a series of recording sessions was useless — it was immediately below the landing and take-off path for a major airport. Amazingly in the circumstances, Edward lost his cool only once — when the adult members of the choir were not up to scratch following a late-night trip round the local bars.

“I’d forgotten that particular episode,” Edward says tactfully. “But you have to expect that things will go wrong. I’ve done about 100 trips in my time, maybe more, and I will say with some pride that we’ve always brought back as many people as we took out!”

What, I ask Edward, took him into church music in the first place?

“I was a chorister at my local parish church, and I started playing the organ. I also had a very enriching experience at St Mary’s Church in Warwick: it gave me a huge leg-up in terms of knowledge of repertoire, experience, and working to professional standards when I was a teenager. Then I got an organ award to Cambridge, and things flowed on in a similar direction.”

This sounds like stating the very obvious, but presumably a belief in the Christian faith is a key qualification for anyone devoting their career to church music?

“Yes it is,” Edward replies. “But I don’t think I want to discuss my personal beliefs beyond saying that being in New College Chapel evening after evening, singing the music we do in that environment, is always a very spiritual experience.

“Let me put it this way: even those who are not signed up to all the doctrinal elements of the Christian faith will find that experience takes them to places they wouldn’t otherwise visit.

“So you must be open to that, and it becomes a way of life. If you had any antagonism to that faith, you wouldn’t be doing the job I’m doing.”

Edward’s departure from New College is truly the end of an era. During his 38 years in charge, he has vastly expanded the choir’s repertoire, and, hardly surprisingly, he delights in talking about the countless boys and adult students who have benefitted from the musical and general education they have received whilst members of the choir — with many of them going on to become top-rank professional opera soloists and oratorio singers.

“Although I say it myself, I’ve accumulated a huge amount of experience and know-how,” Edward says with a gentle smile. “It would be very nice to share that as I take on more freelance work. There’s plenty of life in me yet! ”