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Tempest in a Teacup

December 27, 2010 at 6:55 am UTC

In early November I was walking and talking with the editor of Gramophone magazine and he told me about an upcoming issue naming the world’s top 20 choirs. The jury that Gramophone had assembled had chosen mostly British choirs for the list, and as I had been spending so much time working with British groups he invited me to write a 500 word essay about this phenomenon. Although I was not on the jury, I am big fan of the British choral tradition, and of Gramophone, so I was honored and only too happy to write for the magazine.

When the article appeared in print a headline had been added: “Composer Eric Whitacre on why British choirs are the Best.”  That title was not written by me. I wrote, as asked, about what I admire about British choirs and what places them ‘up there’ with the world’s best.

If you read my entire article, you’ll notice that never once do I say that British choirs are better than other choirs. I write about how well they sing in tune; how brilliant and beautiful and clear the singing is; how knowledgeable they are as singers and artists. I do say that “the Brits MAY be the worlds best sight readers. In my travels I’ve never seen anything like it”, and I will stand by that statement – I’ve personally never seen anything like it. I write about all of the things I love about British choirs but never once do I compare British choirs to any other choirs from different countries. I never would.

At the end of the day, I was asked to write about my love of British choirs, so that is what I did. If I would have been asked to write about my love of American choirs, I would have written a completely different article, about the American choir’s extraordinary stylistic range, their deep understanding of the texts, their natural musicianship, their freedom of sound. And I would have written different articles had I been asked to write about my love of Scandinavian choirs, or Asian choirs, or European choirs, or African choirs, or Australian choirs, or South American choirs. It’s true, I absolutely adore British choirs. But I adore all choirs, and all singing, wherever it may be happening. I feel grateful to live in a world where we can all sing together – no competitions, no lists, just beauty and truth expressed through our shared voices.

  • Joe

    Come to Minnesota and you'll be talking about how much you love Minnesotan choirs!

  • David Irwin

    Well said!

  • Janice Egleston

    I'd say the magazine took your article and shone a spotlight on an eye-catching headline so out of tune and off- key it is "virtually" not worthy of "note". Come to Canada. I'd like to know what our best points might be …

  • Jeff Schmidt

    It is ridiculous, the freedom that editors take. What an insult that added title is. What would it have hurt to run the title by you first?

    And… Bowling Green State University (Ohio) choirs would love a visit too. I understand what you are saying about American choirs.

  • Jake Manahan

    You're absolutely awesome Mr. Whitacre. You're outlook is beautiful. Nothing less.

  • andrea torres

    beautifully said Eric i wouldn't have said it any other way :)

  • Jake Ryan

    Brittish choirs are great, but no Brittish Men's choir out there today could hold a candle to the 2009 Pavaratti Choir of the World champion, the Westminster Chorus (from Westminster, California). Compared to Westminster, other performances seem one-dimensional and un-inspired.

  • Sue Young

    How unfortunate, but sadly true, that what may seem at first abhorrent, may actually be necessary in today's world " First Right of Refusal" by legal document.

    One would not expect this insult-but there it is.

  • Lise

    Eric, thank you for clarifying. Reading the article and the headline, there was no indication that you were asked specifically about British choirs; the way it was presented made it sound like you were comparing British choirs to all other choirs, not just expounding on the features you like about British choirs.

    Of course, being British publication, I'm sure they're justifiably proud of their country's choral tradition, but to omit the fact that you were asked specifically about British choirs seems a bit misleading.

  • Chrissie Vincent

    It is typical that magazine editors like to make a contentious headline simply to grab the reader's attention! Whilst it has to be said that the UK has a long history of great choral tradition, it does not mean that other countries don't have good choirs too. People are very quick to take offence. In praising one country Mr Whitacre obviously didn't mean to malign others!

    The British have every right to be proud of their choirs, but we are very open to admiring the choirs of the US, Italy, France, Germany,Portugal and others.

    I am pleased and proud that Eric Whitacre loves British choirs, because I belong to one, but we are always interested in the choral traditions of other countries.

  • Chinami Igawa

    Hello.Mr,Whitacre. I uploded my song alto2 2nd. So difficult,but very pleasanted!

    Thank you to happy time to me.

    I'm in the Japan. If you can check ‘EARTH VIEW’ please! isn't good… but I'm one's best.

    I love ‘Sleep’ and all your music!

  • Anders

    I'll third Minnesota – check out the St. Olaf choir.

    I'm not surprised about editors.

    On an unrelated note, you should select a chamber choir from the better virtual choir entries and see if you can get them to perform a live event.

  • John G Slawson

    Very well articulated, Eric. People hear what they want to hear and often times it is negative. Your approach is very positive.

  • Martha Sullivan

    Dear Mr. Whitacre,

    The more famous you are, the more seriously people will take what you say. The Gramophone article, while interesting, felt like a slap in the face to a lot of the American choral musicians who read it, more than it would have if you were not a famous composer. Please do take seriously the fact that a misleading headline–and the fact that the article didn't mention that you had been asked about British choirs, not others–caused a reaction you in no way intended. But the reaction is there, and it's more than a tempest in a teacup.

    The blogosphere now seems to be buzzing with a lot of anti-Whitacre rhetoric (not nice), but on the other hand, there are a lot of positive things being said about American choirs. Would you be willing to revisit the posts you've seen and read what is turning, obliquely, into a celebration of American and other non-British choirs?

    Perhaps you would be willing also to write (here or elsewhere, say on ChoralNet or for Chorus America) an article–similar to the Gramophone one–about why you love American choirs.

    It could be the first in a series … next up: the Baltics …

    Such an article would go a long way towards mollifying your American audience, and perhaps do even more good in the long run than an actual apology.

    Thanks for reading.

    • Courtney Lea K

      Being one of those American choristers, I'm not at all offended by Eric's comment on British singers being better sight readers (in his opinion) and such. I, for one, will admit that I'm not a good sight reader lol and that I have lots of room for improvement.

      And even if Eric were to actually go out and say, 'I like British singers more than Americans' – I wouldn't take it as a slap in the face. I would more or less take it as a challenge to better myself as a singer. And I feel others should think the same if that were to happen, but that's obviously not the case here.

      It would be like if I were to say that I love Chinese food. Does that mean I don't like Italian food as much as I do Chinese? No. Or any other ethnic foods? No. You like different things for different reasons. Same with Eric and choirs. He likes British choirs for a set of reasons, but he also likes American AND other choirs for other reasons.

      (I know my food analogy wasn't all that decent but it was worth a shot lol.)

      All in all, people need to put their prides aside and realize that Eric likes what he likes. We could all argue who's the best choir by country, but in the end, they're all just opinions. Not facts. :0)

    • Rob Henderson

      It bears pointing out that while Eric provided the bulk of the commentary for the article (through misinterpretation of words), the Top 20 was voted on by an international committee. Obviously, Eric is not the only one who feels that British choirs have mastered the choral art more so than any other. Please note that the Top 20 are not ALL British choirs, just the choirs the judges felt deserved to be there, which happened to be a majority of British choirs.

  • Robert Greenhan

    I can quite understand your wanting to clarify things, Eric. I don't know about editors of magazines and newspapers elsewhere but I feel that in the UK they do indeed take liberties such as in this case all too often. An apology is clearly due to you, and to the readership. I side with Jeff on this.

  • Robert Cortez

    Eric, I guess this means you're a real "celebrity" being misquoted and taken out-of-context and all. Congratulations!


  • Claudia

    I'm sure many other nations are offended by the title—of which you were misquoted! Thanks for speaking up.

  • Rob

    Well spoken, Mr. Whitacre! Also, I know you've been in a Texas Music Educators Association Convention, but how I wish you'd come back here and have our All-State Choir perform more of your choral music! :)

  • Jon Fisher

    I think you are entitled to whatever you think, Eric. Forget the editors and other people who insert words for you! You are given your own right to opinion. While I think it is wise of you to insert a "disclaimer" that you didn't write that sub-headline… who cares? You are Eric Whitacre! One of the best known choir composers in the world! You embrace music universally and you create it for everyone, too. I would agree that British Choirs have amazing sight reading skills… but every choir world wide will have their strengths AND weaknesses. No choir is perfect (even though we would like to THINK there are some).

    To sum that whole speech up, people can say what they want to say about what YOU wrote, but it's the fact that YOU wrote it and no one else can claim that.

    As always, I am inspired, gratified and honored to hear and know your music.

    -Jon F.

  • Patton Rice

    Sounds like some folks need to take a chill pill. This kind of OVERREACTION is exactly why gifted, knowledgeable, professionals like Eric stop writing articles and sharing their insights from which the rest of us can learn. I am an American musician, singer, conductor and teacher and take no offense at Mr. Whitacre's kudos to, or admiration of British choirs.

    Eric, I'm sorry you've had to put up with this annoyance over the holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year:-)


  • Murray Somerville

    As a Brit living (and conducting) in the US — well said, Mr Whitacre! Your response was generous and open-hearted; and your original article simply said what you found to be true (as you were asked to.) That headline certainly is responsible for a lot of unnecessary trouble! (A pox on the editors!)

  • Francois Botha

    Although I'd take this list with a pinch of salt, there is some merit in it.

    Top 100 choirs in the world according to Interkultur:

    5 South African choirs in the top 25. I think that proves something?

    • Josh

      With respect for that organization sponsoring the list of "Top 1000 Choirs in the World", it should be noted that the list ONLY considers amateur choirs that have competed in their organization's competitions. It does not include professional choirs from any country and therefore it's ranking is, as you said, to be taken with a pinch of salt.

    • Ira

      Well well well. I guess this list is out of the league. My choirs are there as well, but I certainly don’t see us any close to the established professional choirs, let alone the ones in Gramophone list.

  • Owen Sharpe

    A pox on editors and slippery subheadings indeed. Writing about anything or anyone one often is required to say "all the good that can be said of them(him etc). Many readers are careful interpreting almost everything, and words like "best" are clear flags for caution.

  • Madison

    There is no point in arguining which choir is the best, we all have our own opinions , time will show who is wrong.

  • John Keighley

    It saddens me that there will always be those who somehow find solace in the denigration of the efforts of others. Eric Whitacre has created an opportunity for diverse individuals to become intimately involved in an event that brings a sense of personal satisfaction while at the same time it touches millions, allowing their the spirits to soar in unison. It is a profound gift, and deserves our gratitude. John K

  • Ellen Bakker

    Eric, I love how you talk about your love for choirs. I share that love and try to contribute to it as much as I can.

  • Ira

    Eric, I don’t like your music. But I certainly don’t like either that people get so easily pissed off by your presumably subjective article. You are definitely entitled to your own opinion. And I would agree with you, here and there. Yes, American choirs could have been there in the list. But just because they are not, it doesn’t mean they are less of their European counterparts. If they so want to be in a list of best choirs, why don’t you make your own list? Nowadays you have list for everything, top 10 opera singers, top 10 singing fails, why not Top 10 Choirs (according to Americans)? Easy!