Alexander Armstrong | My Music: ‘I’m devoted to Choral Evensong. I find the liturgy so beautiful... it’s just such a part of me, I adore it’

Gramophone
Friday, January 22, 2016

From St Mary’s Cathedral to Trinity College, Cambridge, the comedian, actor – and baritone – on the long path to recording his debut album

Alexander Armstrong (by Philip Bannister)
Alexander Armstrong (by Philip Bannister)

It’s been a wonderful experience doing this album – an ambition ever since I left Cambridge, when I finally said goodbye, for the first time since the age of 11, to full-time choral commitment. That was something at the time I thought I did very lightly, but I didn’t, because I’ve been hidebound by it, and my conscience has over the years weighed incredibly heavily in terms of my absence from classical music.

My recurring nightmare is of turning up to choir practice having not been there for years, to find my cassock – which I can see will now be slightly tight around the middle – hanging rather glumly in the corner, and everyone having to find music for me – though all being nice enough not to ask where the hell I’ve been. This is what comes back to haunt me.

At my first school the choir was run by the headmaster’s wife – an enormously influential character, a sort of mother to all the boys. These were unbroken boys’ voices obviously, so the bass part was sung up an octave, but she would play around with things so it wasn’t too bad. But it was very high quality. I remember going to hear the Vienna Boys’ Choir singing at Hexham Abbey and being really very disappointed, and thinking, ‘They might be famous but they’re not a patch on us!’

Then she and the headmaster split up – we came back from Christmas, and she’d gone. My mother scouted around to find something to keep my interest going so I became a chorister at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. I’m devoted to Choral Evensong. I find the liturgy so beautiful, but it’s not just the sound of a Precentor singing ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord’ at that lovely, shadowy time of the day (with the sound of distant traffic, where an inner-city cathedral becomes a wonderful sanctum within a busy town or city), it’s also the settings of the Canticles, and a really well-sung Psalm – it’s just such a part of me, I adore it.

Richard Marlow, who was Director of Music at Trinity College, remains such a hero of mine. The descants he wrote for carols and hymns are some of the most exquisite – so ornate, but clever. What a brilliant man. It was lovely to spend really good, intense time under his instruction. I remember thinking, ‘Golly, I’ll never sing in a choir like this again!’

When I first left Trinity I used to dep at St Paul’s Knightsbridge, where my old friend James Morgan was the choirmaster. But then I stopped. I used to do a comedy club on Saturday nights, and although the St Paul’s Eucharist is at 11 o’clock, we’d have to be in at 10. And quite often you’d be the only bass on your side, and you’d be singing a full Palestrina Mass that you perhaps didn’t know as well as you might have hoped…and you might rather wish that you hadn’t been up until half-past-three or four in the morning. The two lives weren’t enormously compatible, so very sadly I let that go. I suspect that’s when the dreams started.

For years, ever since I started in acting, I’d say, ‘But I sing as well’, and they’d said, ‘Yeah, yeah…just read from the top of page three’. But what I really meant is that all my life I’ve been singing, and I’m trained. I don’t think anybody ever really believed it – it would be like someone coming in and saying, ‘Oh, and I can ride horses too’…‘Yes, yes, yes, we can all ride horses.’ It’s just one of those things that everybody has on their CV. Clean driving licence. Can sing. Then I was doing an interview on Steve Wright’s show on BBC Radio 2 four years ago, and someone said, ‘Tell us something surprising about yourself’, and I said, ‘Well I’m a trained classical baritone’ – and he said, ‘Nonsense!’ and I said, ‘Genuinely, genuinely!’ So I got to sing in a few things, and eventually – it’s only taken 25 years – somebody said, ‘Oh, I see what you mean, oh you sing properly’, so I’ve been given a leg up.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue of the world's leading classical music magazine – subscribe today

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