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An Oxford Introduction

An evensong every night of the week, a lieder festival with over 100 concerts in two weeks, the Tallis scholars singing in a chapel five minutes away, organ recitals every afternoon, world renowned orchestras… all of this and more is the music scene in the city of Oxford.

One of Oxford's more famous libraries, the Radcliffe Camera, sits at the center of the city.

This post is the first of many in a series about Oxford in preparation for a 2023 Artful Journeys trip to my favorite city in the world (Cambridge will be included later on). I am currently a masters student at Oxford studying music, but I grew up on Cape Cod and thus still experience the wonderful feeling of awe at every turn in this magical city.

Oxford's historic High Street from the University Church steeple.

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and music was an important part of its culture from the beginning. Many of the practices that you can hear and see in the college chapels today are or are based on the traditions started in the fifteenth century. Attending an evensong service can be akin to visiting a museum for the ears (more on this later).

The chapel of New College before compline, the sung evening service.

Oxford is not like your standard American university. It is made up of 38 separate colleges which each have their own little campus complete with a chapel, and college spirit. Students are assigned to a college in addition to the department they study in.

The chapel of Keble College in the snow.

Oxford is known for its amazing scientific and academic achievements, producing alumni like W.H. Auden, David Cameron, T.S. Eliot, Hugh Grant, and Stephen Hawking. It also is home to the world's first museum and Britain's first botanical garden. However, its musical environment is just as distinguished, and produces many of the prominent musicians in the UK today.

The UK has a very special choral tradition. You may know some names like the Tallis Scholars, Voces8, or Tenebrae; each of these has members who started out in the Oxbridge choral system. Not to mention the Oxbridge choirs themselves, King’s College Cambridge, New College Oxford, who produce many of the prominent recordings of choral music available.

The Baroque chapel of Queen's College.

All this to say, the singing that goes on in Oxford (and Cambridge) is not only of a very high level but it leads its singers often to professional careers in music. Many of the choirs not only sing choral evensong multiple times a week but have busy concert, recording and touring schedules.

A view of the chapel of Magdalen College from the cloisters.

However, for the visitor to Oxford, this also means that the music available every day is beautiful and varied, always performed in one of the gorgeous pieces of architecture that are the college chapels.

In my next post, I will get into the historical specifics, but I hope I have given you enough of a sneak peek into the unique musical world that is Oxford to whet your palate until next time.

The name Oxford comes from "oxen-ford" and oxen still roam in the meadows by Christ Church, home to the city's Cathedral.

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