Up on the roof: Choir sings from top of 163ft chapel tower at Cambridge college

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, ascends the 163ft Chapel Tower and sings the Ascension Day carol

Every year on Ascension Day the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, ascends the 163ft Chapel Tower and sings the Ascension Day carol. This custom dates from 1902. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

A Cambridge choir sang from the rooftop of St John’s College Chapel tower to mark Ascension Day, continuing a tradition that dates back over 100 years.

Ascension Day celebrates the Christian belief in the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, 40 days after his resurrection at Easter.

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower at St John's College, a custom dating back to 1902. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Each year, members of the choir at St John’s climb the 163ft spiral staircase to the top of the Chapel tower to sing the Ascension Day carol.

The tradition began in 1902 after a conversation between composer Cyril Rootham and a fellow at the college, Sir Joseph Larmor, who insisted a choir singing from the top of the tower would not be heard on the ground.

Mr Rootham proved Sir Joseph wrong after arranging for a choir to climb to the rooftop and sing without telling anyone.

DireAndrew Nethsingha conducts the Choir of St John's College as they sing the Ascension Day carol from the top of the tower

Director of Music Andrew Nethsingha conducts the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, as they sing the Ascension Day carol from the top of the chapel tower at St John's College, a custom dating back to 1902. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Thursday, May 26’s rooftop performance was the first since the pandemic. It also saw girls sing with the choir on the roof for the first time.

One of the probationers, Amelia, 10, said: “It was amazing. It was really exciting getting to sing with the rest of the boys up at the top of the tower.”

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower at St John's College, a custom dating back to 1902. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

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The choir, which was founded in the 1670s, admitted girls for the first time last month.

Choristers take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower at St John's College

Choristers take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower at St John's College, a custom dating back to 1902. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Three joined rehearsals as probationers on April 26, a move described by director Andrew Nethsingha as a “big moment for the history of the choir”.

He said the girls will become choristers and sing in services when they are ready.

Mr Nethsingha added the choir is “currently the only Oxbridge choir to have both male and female singers amongst the children and also amongst the students”.

It was quite breezy for the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge.

It was quite breezy for the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge. - Credit: PA

Choristers are between eight and 13 years old, with adult choral scholars aged 18 and older – most of them undergraduate students and some postgraduates.

“This decision is another step in the evolution of the choir, which is constantly developing,” Mr Nethsingha said.

“We were overwhelmed by the positive reaction when we announced the news last year and had support from our audiences, alumni and the wider industry, which was fantastic.

“There was a small amount of criticism but the positive reaction by far outweighed this.”

Up on the roof, choristers from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge

Up on the roof, choristers from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The total number of choristers in the choir varies between 20 and 25, Mr Nethsingha said, with three girls joining this term, increasing to five girls next term.

He said the number of girl choristers will “gradually increase” and “in about three years’ time I anticipate the boy/girl proportions being roughly equal”.

Mr Nethsingha added all choristers start as probationers and it will be a “little while” until the girls are singing in services.

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower.

The Choir of St John's College singing the Ascension Day carol. This custom dates from 1902 and was begun by the then Director of Music, Cyril Rootham, following a conversation with Sir Joseph Larmor. Sir Jospeh was insistent that a choir singing from the tower would not be heard from the ground. Rootham was keen to prove him wrong. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

There are around 16 adult choral scholars.

“In future, the alto part will be sung by both male and female choral scholars,” he added.

“Our first woman alto joins this term.

“There are usually four or five altos in the choir.

“Choral singing is a very specialised art form and our choir has played a formative role in the careers of many globally recognised musicians.

Choristers from the St John's College Choir take in the view of Cambridge before performing the Ascension Day carol

Choristers from the St John's College Choir take in the view of Cambridge before performing the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower, a custom dating back to 1902. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

“We felt that extending the membership to talented female singers would create an exceptional new musical opportunity for women and girls.

“I am really proud of what we are doing and I think it is a very positive change to have introduced.

“I’m excited to offer the unique experience of being in the choir to girls, boys, men and women.”

Choristers rehearse before school five mornings per week.

Additionally, they sing six services in the chapel each week – five in the early evening and one on Sunday mornings.

Choristers from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol.

Choristers from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Choristers from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol

Choristers from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol from the roof. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, on the roof of the chapel tower at St John's College.

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, on the roof of the chapel tower at St John's College. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, prepare to perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower.

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, prepare to perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel tower. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Choristers from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol

Choristers from the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, take in the view before performing the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower at St John's College, a custom dating back to 1902. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, prepare to perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the tower

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, prepare to perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the tower, a custom dating back to 1902. - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire