Home   News   Article

Subscribe Now

University of Cambridge college rooftop choirs celebrate Ascension Day





Ascension Day was celebrated at a number of University of Cambridge colleges by those with a head for heights.

The St John’s College choir sang from their chapel’s rooftop last Thursday (9 May) as part of a musical tradition dating back to 1902.

The choir members ascended the 163ft chapel tower to sing the Ascension Day carol as the city’s clocks struck noon and onlookers listened from below in the sunshine.

The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

St John’s College director of music Christopher Gray, who leads the choir, said: “I told the choir that we’d hit the jackpot with the weather for our annual Ascension Day trip up the tower, but as we huffed and puffed our way towards the top of the stairs, wearing our heavy red cassocks, I wasn’t so sure!

“The clock struck 12 and we began the Ascension carol, directing our singing towards the people gathered to listen in First Court.

“Spirits were high as we took in the beautiful views from one of the highest points in Cambridge, honouring a tradition that our predecessors have maintained since 1902.”

Director of music Christopher Gray conducts the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, as they perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Director of music Christopher Gray conducts the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, as they perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
People listen to the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, as they perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
People listen to the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, as they perform the Ascension Day carol from the top of the Chapel Tower. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The college’s Ascension Day custom was begun 122 years ago by the college’s then-director of music, Cyril Rootham, following a conversation with a fellow, Sir Joseph Larmor.

Sir Joseph insisted a choir singing from the tower would not be heard from the ground. Rootham saw the perfect time to prove him wrong: Ascension Day, which celebrates the Ascension of Jesus into heaven 40 days after his Resurrection at Easter.

Without telling anyone, the choir climbed the spiral staircase of the tower, which is the tallest historic building in Cambridge and, as the clock finished striking noon, they started to sing an Ascension Day carol.

To Rootham’s delight, he saw Sir Joseph open his window in the court below to see where the music was coming from.

The event proved popular and has been repeated every year since, except during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, over at Jesus College, a similar rooftop service took place.

A Jesus College spokesperson said: “The service was conducted, as per tradition, early in the morning from the tower on the Waterhouse Building – a red brick gothic building named after its architect, Alfred Waterhouse.

“Members of the college choir sang choral matins from the top of the tower while assistant chaplain, Rev Jonny Torrance, performed the blessing of the college and sprinkled holy water onto the congregation below.”

At Christ’s College, around 60 people gathered to listen to the service. The college’s chaplain, Rev Dr Helen Orchard, said: “We take the choir up to the top of the Great Gate – we have a glorious Great Gate here.

“We take about half the choir up – we can’t take all of them because there are a number of restrictions for the weight on the top and also for getting people back down again.

“We have a little service – the singing of a couple of anthems and one reading. And then I make everybody who’s up on the tower and also down on the ground below sing a hymn.”

She added: “We climb up at 8am and the service starts at 8.15am, and everybody stands in First Court with their back to the wisteria, which is where the Master’s Lodge is, and watches and joins in.

“It’s really wonderful. When you’re up there you think that the sound is going nowhere – just into the ether – but everybody says that it is crystal clear from down below.

“It’s just a short little service of 15 minutes and we sing the traditional anthems, Orlando Gibbons O Clap Your Hands and then Coelos ascendit hodie by CV Stanford.

“The choir love going up because the view is so fantastic.”

The practice of singing on the rooftop on Ascension Day has been going on at the college for 15-20 years.

The Jesus College Choir sang from the rooftop of the Waterhouse Building on Ascension Day. Picture: Simon Durrant
The Jesus College Choir sang from the rooftop of the Waterhouse Building on Ascension Day. Picture: Simon Durrant
Selwyn College Ascension Day service. Picture: Sarah MacDonald
Selwyn College Ascension Day service. Picture: Sarah MacDonald

Sarah MacDonald, director of music at Selwyn College and the university organist, told the Cambridge Independent that more than 20 members of the choir took part in a choral morning prayer on the roof of the college’s Porters’ Lodge tower, for the second year in a row.

“It is a surprisingly big space up there,” she said. “The tower is quite spacious.”

About 40 people listened below.

“Students were sticking their heads out their windows, because of course we were surrounded by rooms,” said Sarah.



This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More