Traditional May Morning celebrations go Virtual | University of Oxford
Magdalen College created a virtual May Morning this year
Magdalen College created a virtual May Morning this year

Traditional May Morning celebrations go Virtual

The unique May Morning celebrations in Oxford were given a virtual makeover by Magdalen College this year so that thousands could still enjoy the tradition

Circumstances might have sadly forced the cancellation of the usual May Morning celebrations this year, but that didn’t stop the Choir of Magdalen College making sure the 500-year-old Oxford tradition was honoured.

The Choir welcomed the coming of spring, but the Choristers and Academical Clerks were not singing from the top of the Great Tower, but instead, they were singing from their homes across the country in a video produced for the occasion.

From each individual recreating a working, makeshift recording studio from things readily available in their own house, it then had to be produced in a way that made it sound like the choir were actually all together.

This very special Virtual May Morning performance was shared with thousands at 6am on Friday 1 May on the Choir’s Facebook page

A video called Making a Virtual May Morning also reveals how this online feat was produced.

Choir members had to fashion makeshift working recording studios at home, including using duvets and soft furnishings to help with acousticsChoir members had to fashion makeshift working recording studios at home, including using duvets and soft furnishings to help with acoustics

Choir members had to fashion makeshift working recording studios at home, including using duvets and soft furnishings to help with acoustics

Mark Williams, Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College, worked with the 28 members of the choir and experienced music producers, Andy Doe and Simon Kiln, from the begininng of lockdown to complete new virtual renditions of the Hymnus Eucharisticus and a traditional madrigal for May Morning.

The Reverend Dr Andrew Bowyer, Dean of Divinity at Magdalen, recorded a prayer for inclusion in the event from his home, too.

‘May Morning is a unique Oxford tradition and a highlight of our calendar,’ said Mark, who is also the college’s Organist and a Tutorial Fellow in Music ‘so, when I mentioned the idea of a virtual May Morning to the choir, everyone was delighted to take part.

'Whilst we couldn’t quite recreate the thrilling experience of ascending the tower, and the shiver down the spine of every choir member as the crowd falls silent on the stroke of six o'clock, we tried to put something together that would bring a little bit of that magic into people’s homes during this period of isolation.’

Silver lining

Commenting on the thousands of views that the Virtual May Morning video has received, Mark added 'The silver lining to the strange cloud of having to take May Morning online is that people from all over the world who have never experienced it before have been able to share in this special moment.  

'I have been particularly touched by messages from alumni who have said how much they enjoyed being at their first May Morning since graduating.  

'One moving email simply said "Thank you for my seventieth May Morning”.' 

The Choir of Magdalen College was founded in 1480 and is made up of Choristers who are part of the College Foundation and attend Magdalen College School, and Academical Clerks and Organ Scholars who are undergraduates at Magdalen College.

The precise origins of May Morning are uncertain but the tradition is thought to date back to at least 1509, when the College tower was completed.

Over the centuries the nature of the event has taken several forms, but the event as we know it today evolved in the mid 19th century thanks to the historian John Bloxam (Bursar, Dean and Librarian of Magdalen).

He introduced the singing of the Hymnus Eucharisticus, which was composed in the 17th century by Benjamin Rogers, himself the Informator Choristarum as well as a Fellow of Magdalen.