The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, currently under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha, is one of the great collegiate choir in the world, although a relative newcomer to the choral scene. The choir began in the late 17th century, but it was not until the 20th century that its reputation rose to international status, thanks to Dr. George Guest, the choir’s director from 1951 to 1991. In one way St. John’s is similar to King’s (both in Cambridge). Boys form the treble line while college undergraduates sing alto, tenor and bass. On the other hand, the choral sound is very different. King’s tends toward a very pure, strait tone (veddy English and veddy Anglican) while St. John’s sings with a more continental tone (think more along the lines of Westminster Cathedral and a prudential use of vibrato), introduced by Guest. I personally like St. John’s sound very much.
Lastly, I want to write a few things about George Guest (I could write a year’s worth of posts about him). He had a legendary way of getting his choir to truly communicate text and music to the listener, as opposed to merely singing the piece. I remember asking someone one (I can’t even remember who, but it was someone who had attended a workshop of Guest’s) how he did this and the man responded that he thought it was Guest’s wonderful, almost poetic command of language. Guest knew how to communicate well in the spoken medium and was able to transfer this to St. John’s Choir as they sang.
There are two videos below from a two part series made about St. John’s in the late 1970s. There are plenty of clips of the choir as well as interviews with Guest. Especially listen to Guest’s command of the English language in the beginning of the second video. He knew how to use words. Period. Something more choir directors learn to do!