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O is for…Oxford (specifically, Magdalen College)

Today, 15 December, we are in Oxford, home to many fine choirs. We are focusing on Magdalen College, whose choir was founded in 1480. Magdalen College was then one of the largest choral foundations in late-medieval England, and this historic legacy has been preserved and maintained over five centuries.

View our complete Advent Calendar here

Today the Choir will be singing one of its popular ‘Carols by Candlelight’ services in the College Chapel, for students, Fellows, staff, chorister families and members of the public.

‘Magdalen College Chapel is a magical place, but it really comes into its own in the candlelit services at Advent and Christmas.’ (Chorister parent)


‘I always watch King’s College, Cambridge on the TV at Christmas but I think I prefer our chapel, because it’s smaller and more friendly’ (Chorister)

Magdalen Chapel, Oxford

The Choir, which now enjoys an international reputation as one of the finest ensembles in the UK, exists primarily to sing the daily church services in Magdalen College Chapel. They also sing at a number of special occasions throughout the year, including the famous May Day celebrations, an ancient tradition dating back to the 16th century, when the Choir sings madrigals at 6 o’clock in the morning from the top of the College tower to thousands gathered in the streets below.

(Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The Choir’s director still holds the title of Informator Choristarum, and the post has been held by John Sheppard, Daniel Purcell, Sir Walter Parratt, Sir John Stainer and Bernard Rose amongst others. The present Informator is Mark Williams, who is also a Fellow and Tutor in Music at the College. Famous former choristers include Ivor Novello, Robin Blaze and Sir Thomas More, and famous former Academical Clerks (as the men of the choir are known) include the singers John Mark Ainsley and Roderick Williams, Harry Christophers, founder and director of The Sixteen, and Lord Briggs of Westbourne, Justice in the Supreme Court.

You can watch a video about the choir here:

 ‘A lot of students want to be your friend at Christmas, if they think it’s a way of getting a ticket to the carol service!’ (Academical Clerk)

The College Choir sings during Oxford University terms and is therefore not ordinarily in residence for Christmas. However, there are several carol services and concerts to prepare for, and December 2019 sees the group singing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ some seven times! The Men of Magdalen, a close harmony group made up of the Academical Clerks, add a touch of festive fun to the month with several performances around Oxford. The year closes with the Christmas Entertainment, held on the last evening before the College closes for Christmas, with a selection of Christmas carols and readings, both sacred and secular. Highlights this year include a concert with John Rutter in the Sheldonian Theatre and a special event to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Home Farm Trust in Dorchester Abbey.

The choristers enjoy the Christmas season:

‘Christmas is my favourite time of year. I love all the music, and it’s a special treat when the President of the College presents us with our Christmas presents.’

‘It’s fun to sing ‘Winter Wonderland’ at Christmas. Normally it’s only the men who get to sing ’shooby-dooby-doo’ pieces!’

Choristers of Magdalen College in the snow

A few years ago, the choir made an interesting Christmas CD. Watch a video about it here:

You can listen to the choir sing Harris’ ‘Bring us O Lord God’, a track from their latest CD, The Pillar of Cloud here:


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Find out more about the music and services at Magdalen College, Oxford