Mandatory singing for all university students: now there's a neat thought.

In the earliest years of the University of St Andrews - founded in 1413, the world's third oldest English-speaking university - all students were obliged to sing in the chapel choir. The songsters were known collectively as the Choristi Sanctiandree, and their musical efforts not only aided worship at the vaulted St Salvator's Chapel but went part and parcel with a holistic medieval education. We might learn a thing or two from our pedagogical forefathers.

"The fate of the choir has gone up and down over the centuries," admits Tom Wilkinson, 29-year-old university organist and director of today's St Salvator's Chapel Choir. "We are one of the oldest university choirs in the world, no question, but there have been periods when not much singing went on at all." The music department at St Andrews went through similar peaks and troughs. Founded in 1947, a peak was the acquisition of composer Gerald Finzi's music library in the 1960s, about which more later. A definite trough was the axing of the music department almost entirely in the late 1980s.

Today there are no full-time music students and no official music degrees - and yet the singing culture at St Andrews thrives. Undergraduates enrol to study modern languages while their voices develop then go on to formal vocal studies at music colleges around the UK. This year an opera translation module launched by the languages department has produced a spanking-new translation of Gluck's Iphigenia in Tauris, which will be performed by the university opera group on June 15, 17 and 18. A spirited young vocal festival, St Andrews Voices, announces the lineup for its fourth annual programme next month; previous headliners have included Roderick Williams and Ian Bostridge, and I have it on good authority that this year's guest list is equally worth travelling for.

"Actually, the lack of a music degree can be a positive thing," says Wilkinson. "Music is kept for fun. It belongs to everyone, not just music students. The choir sings three services a week at St Salvator's and concert life at the university music centre is really bustling." So much so that it has just set up its own record label.

The inaugural release on Sanctiandree, named in honour of the choir's ancient heritage, is a profile of the enthusiastic voices and intriguing repertoire at St Salvator's. A major bonus comes in the shape of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet - unofficial quartet in residence at St Andrews thanks to the university's director of music Michael Downes, formerly director of music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. The quartet's playing is elegant and glowing, a generous bolster to the choir's rougher edges.

The new disc is Salvator Mundi - The Purcell Legacy, and it begins in the poised English baroque of the Chapel Royal: music by Pelham Humfrey, John Blow and Henry Purcell, with rarities by Jeremiah Clarke, William Boyce and the exotically-named Maurice Greene along the way. There's scholarly lineage here if you're inclined to look for it, with teacher/pupil relationships between all the aforementioned composers and a shared boisterous musical response to the prosperous court of Restoration England.

The disc's big novelty factor comes at the end, with a 19th century oddity unearthed from among the dusty volumes of the Finzi collection. William Jackson of Exeter was organist and chorus master at Exeter Cathedral in the closing decades of the 18th century. Wilkinson attributes the stylistic quirks of his music to his geographical isolation: namely, that out west in Devon, Jackson wasn't constantly privy to what the big names in London music were doing so had the creative freedom to tread his own slightly idiosyncratic path. "The style is enigmatic: neither baroque nor classical," Wilkinson muses. "It is recognisably English and 18th century, yet without any obvious Handelian influence. I found myself thinking that it was the kind of music that Purcell might have written, had he lived a century later."

Incidentally, Jackson's own thoughts around issues of audience development and accessibility suggest that our debates on such subjects haven't moved on much in the intervening centuries. "There is intended to be Contrivance enough to engage," Jackson writes, "without perplexing the Attention. I would be easily understood by the Ignorant, but not so perfectly to disregard Art as to be despised by the Skilful." Read any of today's grant applications or funding body manifestos and you'll find traces the same old dilemmas.

The Jackson anthem that closes the St Salvator's disc is the three-part Hear Me, O God. "It leapt off the page at me because it's such good fun to sing," Wilkinson recalls, and the recording does indeed reflect that spirited thrust. There's no shortage of gusto from the 30 Salvator's voices, with a rich bloom and bounce in fuller ensemble passages. Solos are sometimes ropier - but, Wilkinson reminds me, it's early days for the choir's resurgence. Since his arrival at St Andrews, the calibre of the ensemble has risen leaps and bounds. Last month they were singing in Princeton; next month they compete in major competitions in the Netherlands.

No less striking is the ambition of the Sanctiandree label. Its releases are handled by Odradek - an artist-led, not-for-profit initiative that manages graphic design, printing and distribution for the St Andrews start-up. Odradek is the first classical label of its kind and already has a complete Rachmaninov recording from pianist Artur Pizarro under its belt. For its part, Sanctiandree's strategy looks to be plenty and often. It plans to release a recording every six months, at least in initial years. "I suppose we have a few centuries of musical activity to catch up on," Wilkinson jokes.

The choir has already a disc of Scots songs in the can, due for release in the autumn and including every setting of a Scottish tune made by Vaughan Williams (a grand total of three). Next up is a project exploring the Stile Antico repertoire that fascinated Bach and inspired the Credo of the B-minor Mass. Here we get into the territory of Wilkinson's own PhD research, a Bach project currently underway at the University of Glasgow with the estimable John Butt as supervisor.

"I must be the luckiest doctoral music student in the country," he says, and he's right. It isn't every PhD candidate who has a hard-working choir at his disposal, duties of a jobbing organist to sink his teeth into, a fledgling record label to populate and a tantalisingly unplundered music collection of a major 20th century composer to explore. Finzi's archive found its way to St Andrews in 1966 thanks to the composer's friendship with the university's then-music director, Cedric Thorpe Davie. It contains around 700 volumes, mainly English choral music. "It has been catalogued but not yet properly explored," Wilkinson explains, and I can hear the thrill in his voice as he wonders aloud what forgotten beauties might be lurking therein. Watch this space.

Salvator Mundi: The Purcell Legacy is out now on Sanctiandree