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Sarah MacDonald reflects on being the first female director of music at an Oxbridge college

Updated: Jan 9, 2019

I was Organ Scholar at Robinson College as an undergraduate from 1992-95, and after a brief subsequent sojourn in my native Canada, I returned to the UK in August 1997. I took up the post of Director of Music (DoM) in Chapel at Selwyn College in January 1999. At that time there were fewer colleges with DoMs (just ten colleges had professional DoMs directing their choirs; the rest of the colleges’ choirs were still run by Organ Scholars). I began my tenure in January, midway through the academical year, so I spent my first two terms in splendid isolation establishing myself in Selwyn. Although ‘Choir and Organ’ magazine had published a news item about my appointment as the first ever woman to hold such a post, it wasn’t until the organ and choral trials in September (both competitions took place before the start of Michaelmas Term at that time) that I really noticed how outnumbered I was. There were no other female DoMs, and at the time all of the other colleges were represented by male Deans and Chaplains as well. I didn’t feel particularly ill at ease, though – I had been lectured and supervised only a few years before by most of the musicians who were now my colleagues, so I knew them well. And they knew me (or at least of me): there were only two or three female organ scholars in Cambridge during my time as an undergraduate, so we were memorable. Also, I think from my colleagues’ point of view, my “otherness” (if I must use such a term) resulted primarily from me being a Canadian, rather than from me being a woman.

Soon after I was appointed, I took over running the inter-collegiate Choral Scholarships scheme, and eventually the Organ Scholarships as well. This meant I had to chair meetings, at which it amused me to call the gatherings to order by saying “Gentlemen” rather than “Ladies and gentlemen” since the first part of that traditional compound phrase was irrelevant. On odd occasions there would be a female Admissions Tutor present, representing one of the colleges, and I remember feeling disconcerted that there was another woman in the room.

At first, I was very much a junior DoM, but my colleagues were all gentlemen (literally) towards me. I believe they were grateful that the schemes were being run efficiently, and they were supportive of Selwyn’s gradual rise in the choral establishment. Selwyn has always been an underendowed college, although there is a significant choral tradition: Organ and Choral Scholarship alumni include Grayston Ives, Sir David Lumsden, Andrew Lawrence-King, Richard Marlow, and Percy Young. Despite these eminent names, chapel music was not a financial priority for the college in the nineties and noughties, so I had a lot of building to do with very little in the way of resources. Indeed, my post is still only part time, even though the choral commitment has always been equivalent to that at Clare, Caius, and Trinity, all of whom have had full time DoMs for several decades.

In the intervening years, much has changed. Every college now has a DoM in charge of their chapel choirs, and there are a couple more women now as well (Louisa Denby at St Edmund’s, Anna Lapwood at Pembroke and Catherine Groom at Fitzwilliam; there is also Lynette Alcantara at Wolfson, but their choir is not a chapel choir, and their musical setup is very different from that at the undergraduate colleges). In Oxford there is only one female DoM, Katharine Pardee at Wadham, so we are still really outnumbered. There are 21 DoMs in Cambridge, and 15 equivalent posts in Oxford. Even if we include Wolfson, just 10% of Oxbridge DoMs are women. That is a discouraging statistic.

I have now been at Selwyn for 20 years (this month marks that anniversary), and I’m the fourth most senior DoM in Cambridge (only Stephen Cleobury, David Rowland, and Geoffrey Webber have been here longer). I have never felt discriminated against by my colleagues or my students, and indeed many of my more junior colleagues come to me for advice now that I am comparatively senior. However I do worry sometimes that elderly school teachers who think that women are only suited to conducting primary school choirs might have discouraged their pupils from applying to Selwyn over the years. I have no evidence of this other than the occasional rumour or a little bit of hearsay. I also suspect that I am pigeon-holed by some older (male) colleagues (both musical and clerical) as someone who can only conduct/train girls’ choirs in cathedrals, simply because I am a woman. I hope that future generations will be spared that kind of nonsense!

Although I wouldn’t call myself a composer, I’m doing a lot more composing these days, which I really enjoy. I’ve had several works published, and I’ve even managed to buy myself a drink or two on the royalties. There are a couple of things that are becoming established in regular repertoire, notably some of my liturgical music for upper voices. In particular, my SSS Preces and Responses, published by Encore Publications, are sung on three different continents, and there’s a set of evening canticles which are sung regularly in the States. I’ve noticed over the past year or two that it’s actually convenient being a female composer. These days so many people are keen to make sure that there are women on music lists and in concert programmes that they are consciously going out and looking for repertoire, which means a lot more of my pieces are being sung. Ironically, I am perfectly capable myself of unwittingly writing an entire term’s music list with only male composers on it! I’m very good about ensuring that there are always lots of living composers (Selwyn choir has a reputation for championing contemporary choral music) but I often forget about gender since my instincts are meritocratic: I will choose the best and most appropriate music for a specific service without regard to who composed it. I’m proud, though, that the Lent Term 2019 music list at Selwyn, partly inspired by this festival raising awareness, features no fewer than seven women composers (Cecilia McDowall, Judith Bingham, Judith Weir, Hannah Kendall, Stephanie Martin, Maxine Thevenot, and me) – all of them are alive, and nearly 50% of them are Canadian!

I am of an age where as a child I was not allowed to sing in the cathedral choirs that my three brothers sang in (even in Canada, which is rather less burdened by tradition than England is). Obviously liturgical choral opportunities for girls do now exist (on both sides of the Atlantic) and I hope that future generations of women will have many more opportunities than I have had. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far, and grateful for the music I have been able to make with generations of musicians at Selwyn and at Ely. If I’ve inspired a couple more young women (or even men!) as liturgical musicians, then I’m honoured.


SARAH MACDONALD is a Canadian organist and conductor currently based in the UK. She holds the positions of Director of Music at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Director of Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir. She was appointed to Selwyn in 1999 and was the first woman to hold such a post in an Oxbridge College. She is a published composer, has toured around the world as a conductor, teacher, and organist, and has made over 30 commercial recordings.

Come and see Sarah conducting our Season Launch Concert in Selwyn Chapel on 27th January at 8.30pm! The concert will open with a talk from Professor Katharine Ellis, 1684 Professor of Music, and Fellow of Selwyn College, and culminate in Lili Boulanger’s truly epic setting of Psalm CXXX scored for large orchestra, choir, organ, mezzo-soprano solo (Chloe Allison), and tenor solo (Mark Hounsell).

TICKETS: £10, £8 concessions, £3 students. Available from Selwyn College Porters' Lodge after 15 January and on the door.

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