Ralph Allwood will maintain musical tradition in St John’s

The top choir trainer from Eton is set to workin the Hampstead church

�St John-at-Hampstead is one of the few churches in these parts to maintain a serious musical tradition – with a paid, professional choir delivering a full sung Mass and Evensong most Sundays. It may not be a cathedral, but it tries.

And it will certainly be trying in the next three months when the St John’s tradition gets a bonus in the form of Ralph Allwood, one of the most eminent choir-trainers around.

Standing in while the usual St John’s music director takes a sabbatical, Allwood is internationally known for running choral courses. But above all he’s known as the man who, for the past 26 years, has been head of music at Eton College and built his department there into something few schools could compete with.

Rising stars

It’s enormous, sprawling, handsomely equipped with concert halls and practice rooms, state-of-the-art technology, and a recording studio as good as anything the BBC has ever given me to broadcast from.

Two chapel choirs sing every day in term-time. And when Allwood brought his 26-year tenure to a close this summer, the school orchestra could grace his farewell concert with a creditable reading of Tchaikovsky’s 5th.

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With half its 1,300 pupils learning instruments, you can appreciate why Eton has in recent years produced a bizarrely disproportionate number of the rising stars in British music. Conductors Edward Gardiner (music director at ENO), Nicholas Collon (of the happening Aurora orchestra), Richard Farnes (at Opera North) and Stephen Layton (of Polyphony) are all Etonians. As are organist Robert Quinney (Westminster Abbey) and a host of others.

As the product of an East End comprehensive I confess to being envious and slightly angry about all this. State schools these days offer almost nothing in the way of music education; and it’s reaching the point where the only way for a musical child to get proper support is to have parents with the spare �30,000 a year it costs to buy good schooling.

The injustice isn’t lost on Allwood, who is himself the product of a grammar school. And you can hardly blame him for his quarter-century of making Eton’s music what it is. It’s an achievement with self-evident results – as he will tell you.

“I can’t deny that Eton is elitist: even with the fees as they are, it still has 900 applicants a year for 260 places, so it takes the best. But what you then have is a community of exceptionally able young people in keen competition with each other,” he said.

“Etonians are sometimes seen as arrogant, with the world in their lap. But I always say if you’ve got an arrogant child, send him here – because he’ll almost certainly find someone better than him in all the things he thinks he’s good at.”

Eton’s wealth at least means that the school can offer all-inclusive scholarships to the particularly bright; and the music department happens to be well-endowed in that respect, with eight full-scholarships a year on offer. So to that extent you could say music at the college is a more egalitarian world than most.

But in any event, after 26 years steeped in privilege, Allwood has decided that the time has come to broaden his horizons. He’s taking early retirement, as he says, to ‘give myself the chance to do other things before I’m too old for it’.

Some of the things will be more of the same: he’ll carry on running the well-known Eton Choral Courses that encourage teenagers to take a serious interest in singing.


But the main project of his new life will be Inner Voices, a scheme to promote singing within the inner London education system that launches in November and will create an elite (that word again) choir from a pool of participating state schools to see what can be achieved.

Funding is in place from trusts and individuals. Allwood is hoping for support from Boris Johnson (‘his brother sang for me at Eton’). And if nothing else, it will be a challenge.

Meanwhile, from next week until Christmas Day he faces the less exacting challenge of St John-at-Hampstead where, he says, he’s planning nothing radical.

“I’m only filling in, and the tradition there is strong. I just plan to do some good music. And enjoy it.”

nRalph Allwood’s starts at St John’s, Hampstead, September 11, 10.30am.