Ralph Allwood MBE: “the only musical activity was a choir of eight boys with a waiting list of seven to leave it!”

By Joseph Hornsby

Profile Editor sits down with Ralph Allwood MBE, formerly Precentor and Director of Music at Eton College, Director of the Rodolfus Choir, and Instagram hit. 

I sit down with Ralph Allwood to reflect upon a distinguished career in music. He has risen to the top of the choral music world, having directed the renowned Chapel Choir at Eton College for 27 years. A not insignificant number of the today’s premier opera stars, orchestral conductors and music executives have passed through tutelage. But Ralph Allwood very nearly wasn’t a musician at all.

Ralph Allwood’s career in music can be traced back to a single origin; the timetabling station at Van Mildert College in Freshers’ Week, 1968. The fresh-faced Allwood had matriculated at Durham set to read Mathematics and Physics, narrowly missing out on an offer to Cambridge after receiving admittedly ‘not very good A-Levels’. He was bright, ambitious, but also undecided; between a conventional career in science or pursuing his emerging love of music, from Gershwin, Messiaen, to The Beatles. Faced with the decision of choosing a subsidiary subject, the 18-year-old Allwood took stock and stuck to his instinct:

 “‘Can I do Music please?’, I asked. The timetabling officer replied; ‘No, no, no. It doesn’t timetable’. And so off I went. I had reached halfway down the stairs, before I returned, adamant, and pointed to the files in front of them, to prove that Music would timetable. Had I not, I would never have ended up a musician”. 

Other masters say that the boys should keep up music because it’s good for their maths. I say they should keep up maths because it’s good for their music

It was also at Durham that Allwood that Ralph Allwood landed his first serious job, conducting the Durham University Chamber Choir between 1970-1972. Much of Allwood’s later signature style of conducting was tried and tested on his music student peers. Musical ambition often took priority over his academic work; Allwood would often skip weekday lectures to instead practise the on the organ at Durham Cathedral. In move to Cambridge after graduating from Durham, he combined a Choral Scholarship in the Choir of King’s College under Sir David Wilcocks alongside a Postgraduate Certificate in Education; a licence to teach.

In a stroke of serendipity, upon the recommendation of his Durham Academic Supervisor, Ralph Allwood became Director of Music at Pangbourne College (1973-1978), with no practical experience in education. 

‘When I arrived [at Pangbourne], the only musical activity was a choir of 8 boys with a waiting list of 7 to leave it, because they hated it so much. Within 3 months, I had an orchestra, a band, a small choir, a big choir, and 12 visiting music teachers”. 

After 7 successful years leading the Music Department at Uppingham School (1978-1985), Allwood was appointed as Precentor and Director of Music at Eton College, where he would remain for 27 years. Ralph Allwood had vast musical and financial resources at his disposal. Eton College is home to seven pipe organs and 40 organ students, two purpose-built concert halls, a 15th Century fan-vaulted chapel to rival Oxbridge’s finest, and a formidable tradition of musical excellence. The Chapel Choirs sing music written between the 13thand 21st Centuries, from Hildegard von Bingen to Judith Bingham and everything in between. Many of the boys had grown up as choristers at elite choral foundations; Westminster Abbey and King’s College, Cambridge, and an equal number were expected to take up choral scholarships at Oxbridge Colleges alongside studying for academic degrees. 

For Allwood, above all else, it was the individual boy and his musical ambition which mattered most. I probe Allwood for a favourite memory from his time at Eton. A silence of careful consideration follows. What he chooses is not one of innumerable international Chapel Choir tours to far-flung corners of the globe, nor a reception with the late Queen Elizabeth II. It was, instead, rather moving:

When there was a classicist in the choir, I’d say to them with a broad smile: ‘Do you how yours and my subjects are connected? They’re totally useless!’ 

“I had a boy with cystic fibrosis”, Allwood recounts, his easy smile now exchanged for a reminiscent earnestness. “He came to me, and declared; ‘Sir, I’d like to conduct the Bach Magnificat’. It’s a piece with a ridiculous tenor aria, and I told him that he could have chosen other Bach which was equally fulfilling and much less difficult, but he insisted. A short time later, I happened to be on a plane to Princeton, and I pointed out to the man next to me that we were reading similar books. We got talking, and he happened to be a documentary maker. I thought…hang on, I’ve got an idea! I told him about this boy with cystic fibrosis and his Bach Magnificat- by the end of the flight, he’d offered to make a film. The concert was a huge success, and the television series happened to receive millions of views on Channel 4”.

Ralph Allwood left Eton College in 2011, though hardly retired in the conventional sense. As we speak at 9 a.m. on a rather wet Monday in mid-January, his characteristic verve remains unmistakable; ‘I’ve just come in from a run!’ says the now 73-year-old Allwood. 

Though he has spent much of his career teaching pupils of immense privilege at the country’s elite public schools, Ralph Allwood is fiercely committed equality in music education. It is perhaps surprising that Allwood was himself state-educated (even now, not the norm for choral musicians), and he attributes his life in music to the dutiful care of the Music Department of Tiffin Grammar School. 

“The Director of Music [at Tiffin] booked out St Paul’s Cathedral and an orchestra, with amazing ambition, and we sang Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. I realised that I loved music”. 

Allwood has swapped Eton for Inner-City state schools, working with some of the most deprived pupils in London. He founded Inner Voices in 2011 as a joint venture with former student Ed Watkins, and insists that he takes the same approach to teaching his London state-school singers, often with no choral experience, as he did with his Eton choristers. 

“If you’re a teacher, you’re a teacher. We’re all the same, Etonians were just very subtle at being badly behaved! 12 years later, Inner Voices is still going strong- we’re going on tour to Italy in two weeks’ time. The singers read [music], and we don’t give them silly little songs, which is a bug bear of mine. We did a Bach motet at school, and they absolutely loved it. We’ll remember it for the rest of our lives”. 

In a climate of reduced funding for the arts in the state schools, Ralph Allwood has maintained a prominent position in advocating the vital importance of music education, and closing the gap between the state and independent sectors. His Rodolfus Choral Courses, founded 40 years ago whilst Allwood was “missing choir over the summer” at Uppingham, provide for hundreds of young choral singers the opportunity to perform in the country’s great cathedrals and chapels, and count Edward Gardner OBE, Iestyn Davies MBE, and Roderick Williams OBE amongst their illustrious alumni. 

“When there was a classicist in the choir, I’d say to them with a broad smile: ‘Do you how yours and my subjects are connected? They’re totally useless! Other masters say that the boys should keep up music because it’s good for their maths. I say they should keep up maths because it’s good for their music.”

We sang Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. I realised that I loved music.

Ralph Allwood is a radical preacher whom classical music desperately needs. Even via Zoom, his enthusiasm for music and its musicians is infectious; the spark lit in that seminal moment St Paul’s Cathedral, singing Newman’s text set to music by Elgar, has not dulled. He is still contends that he “has never met anyone who can’t sing”. 

Allwood shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. He now is Director of the Chapel Choir of the Old Royal Naval College set within the heart of Christopher Wren’s Greenwich masterpiece, directs the critically-acclaimed Rodolfus Choir in concert, broadcast and on tour, and heads the Pimlico Music Foundation. In his ‘spare time’, Allwood has managed to amass an Instagram viewership of 3 million. It seems that Ralph Allwood is determined to convert to music his largest audience yet. 

Image: via Bedford School

One thought on “Ralph Allwood MBE: “the only musical activity was a choir of eight boys with a waiting list of seven to leave it!”

  • I was on a week-long choral course during the summer of about 1991, when I was doing my A-Levels. I think it was. Ralph’s teaching has always stayed with me. He’s an incredible conductor, and he’s also so much fun. I’ll always be grateful that I had that opportunity.

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