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Take one from Sixteen: inside A Choral History

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Eamonn Dougan Eamonn Dougan | 21:40 UK Time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Filming at St Augustine's, Kilburn

Eamonn Dougan, assistant conductor and a bass with The Sixteen, writes about recording Sacred Music's Christmas specials for BBC TV

Wednesday 20th October may seem an unlikely time of year to be singing carols and festive polyphony, but the members of The Sixteen are doing just that today at St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, filming and recording two Sacred Music programmes (A Christmas History - documentary and A Choral Christmas - concert), which chart the develpment of of christmas music through the ages.

 We’re all very proud of the previous two series, so are looking forward to adding another instalment, albeit without the company of Simon Russell Beale who is working elsewhere today, although he will be presenting the programme as usual.

The crew and director have been on site for some time. Lighting, preparing shots and the sequence of the pieces all require careful consideration, but under the watchful eye of director Andy King-Dabbs, all will no doubt run smoothly. Andy has repeatedly impressed us by being well read (on sometimes obscure musical subjects), good at time-management (crucial when working within tight schedules and budgets) and good-humoured (a sure way to get the best out of everyone), so we feel in safe hands. Having seen the huge amount of music we have to cover, he’s going to need all these attributes, but he and our conductor Harry Christophers soon make it clear that they know precisely what needs to be done, and we get started very quickly.

The scope of the programme is enormously wide ranging: plainsong, Palestrina and Praetorius through to Howells, Holst, Rutter and Maxwell Davies, via Mozart and Mendelssohn. The Missa Puer Natus Est by Tallis, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium and A Spotless Rose by Howells are favourites of mine, but it’s David Miller’s mellifluous guitar accompanying Gruber’s Silent Night that stands out as a gorgeous new colour. Harry does great work in guiding us between styles and centuries, while the crew endeavour to keep the shoot moving as fluently as possible. Despite it being only October, the church is bitterly cold and the sopranos, clad only in concert dresses, cluster around the few heaters between takes.

As ever, there are occasional moments of improvisation: our tours and concerts manager having to relay the beat to organist Robert Quinney when the placing of the choir left him unsighted; and the lottery of who will be handed the tambourines to play in the medieval Make We Joy. It’s a relief when we break for dinner and retire to a nearby pub where a steaming pot of chilli awaits to warm us. It’s interesting to note what sticks in the mind on days like this. With such a wealth of music there are obviously musical highlights, but two things in the pub also stand out.

First is the sign behind the bar - 'Thierry Henry barred for life from this pub'. It transpires that the landlord is an Irishman who will not forgive the Arsenal legend denying the Irish team their place at the World Cup finals with his infamous handball. The second is the lady serving behind the bar who breathlessly informs us that she has taken  Viagra 'to see what it’s like'. 'That one doesn’t need Viagra,' mutters the landlord with his eyes raised heavenwards. Initially this might seem somehow incongruous in the context of much of what we have recorded earlier in the day, but when singing William Walton’s Make We Joy, I think it’s the kind of comment that his impish sense of humour would have enjoyed. Call it a touch of festive spice!


Solo group, with Eamonn Dougan, recording Byrd's Lullaby

Solo group, with Eamonn Dougan, recording Byrd's Lullaby


  • Comment number 1.

    The Sixteen have given me enormous listening pleasure throughout both of the Sacred Music series. This i made clear to Harry when they performed in Wells Cathedral in September It is rare even amongst the world's eminent conductors to see and feel the dedication and enthusiasm for the score that Harry puts into his interpretations. The singers also appear to disply their respect for him together with their own satisfaction and enjoyment of the music and of a job well done. I eagerly await their Christmas celebration concert tonight and to a further series of Sacred Music they have only touched the tip of the ice berg so far. In my comments I have tended to concentrate on the music but i must also say how much I have enjoyed the enthusiastic and professional presentations of Simon Russell Beale to whom I wrote but sadly received no acknowledgement. Well Done to Everyone involved and a Happy & Blessed Christmas.


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