Music at Newnham by Dr Delphine Mordey

Dr Delphine Mordey, our Director of Music, explains what makes the music tradition at Newnham so special – from a 30-year tradition of College Graces composed by undergraduates, to workshops with eminent composers and conductors

Newnham’s radical legacy has some surprising effects. One of them is our tradition of music. With no College chapel, we have, of course, no chapel choir.  And, in many ways, that puts us in an unusual and a particularly fortunate situation when it comes to music.

Rather than being dominated by the music of the chapel choir, here at Newnham we can work with the unique community of students that we have each year. If we have a brilliant classical singer, a recital can feature them performing new compositions by a fellow student. And if in the same year we’ve got a no-audition orchestra with 16 flutes and one trombone, then someone can compose for that, and another student can have their first experience of conducting. We give everyone in College the space for everyone to make music in the ways that will be meaningful to them. And in doing so, it fosters community, bringing the College together through music.

“Music will mean something different to everybody in a college”

Emerging musicians need to be able to try composing, arranging, conducting, event management – all the different aspects of music making. It’s so important that College provides a space where you can develop that skills and responsibility, within a safe space to explore and try things out. College music should be like supervisions – a place where you can get things wrong. It’s about ‘daring to be different’ – hopefully a lot of the time you get things right, but you need not to be afraid to have a go and try something new.

For some, college music is the only musical activity that they’ll be involved in – maybe they’ve just started playing for the first time and joining a college musical ensemble brings them wellbeing and a social activity. But College music will also respond to more advanced performers who want to make polished works, performing at a really high level with others to tackle a difficult piece alongside friends. We have some phenomenal musicians who will go onto professional careers.

It’s a very privileged position to be in, to see students develop in their confidence and skills during their time here. What matters is the students’ progression – you see them the first time that they try conducting, and then by the time they leave, they’re leading an orchestra, full of assurance. Postgraduates and staff are no less active: PhD student Carol Ibe set up the Cambridge University Gospel Society, which competed for Songs of Praise Gospel Choir of the Year 2019. Dr Úna Monaghan, the harpist, left Newnham last year to take up the prestigious Liam O’Flynn Award.

In fact, if you ask me about the highlights of being a Director of Music at Newnham College, the truth is very different to what people expect. It’s a delight to think of all those wonderful performances by students who have gone on to professional careers. But, over the years, often it’s the students who take part in a no-audition orchestra, and then come up to me and say, ‘without that I wouldn’t have played at all’, that are the most memorable moments.

Composition is male-dominated, and the music world is as well. We have more student composers in College at the moment than we’ve had in a while, and at the same time we have some very esteemed alumnae who are composers. It’s so important to have these female role-models who inspire and encourage the students of today. It’s lovely to see the generations supporting each other as well, and that’s a very special thing about Newnham.

Composers Janet Wheeler (NC 1975) and her daughter Sarah Cattley (NC 2013) have come back to College a number of times and worked with our current students, building up a cross-generational network. Conductor Marin Alsop (Honorary Fellow) coming to college was inspirational. She was just here for half a day, but she is really one of the groundbreakers, and so thoughtful and generous to the students. It was a truly remarkable experience. Monica Buckland (NC 1983), the conductor, has made some wonderful contributions to music at Newnham – her chamber music and conducting workshops that she ran for a number of years were really outstanding.

And, of course, we have wonderful connections with music outside Newnham, like our association with Selwyn College Chapel Choir, led by the first female director of a Cambridge Chapel Choir, Sarah MacDonald. So many of our alumnae will have happy memories of singing at Selwyn, with Sarah or her predecessors.

There’s often a perception that college music societies are solely about classical music, but there’s no reason for that. I’d love to have more singer-songwriters, jazz musicians and different genres represented at Newnham. Our new Royal Literary Fund Fellow is a music biographer specialising in rock and blues, so I see real potential for some more interdisciplinary and intergenerational collaboration. Perhaps this year, when Covid-19 allows, we’ll be holding a rock and blues night?