Cathedral Voice


May 13, 2023

A Speech by Barry Rose: Why Cathedral Music Matters

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If I may, here’s a quick history lesson to set the scene.

It’s November 1960 – that’s 63 years ago – I’m closely involved with what was then the newly founded Friends of Cathedral Music – not as a supporter – not as a fundraiser, but as the possible beneficiary of their efforts to raise money to start the new choir at the new Guildford Cathedral.

I’m sure you know all about your founder, the Reverend Ronald Sibthorp – or do you? Ronald was then working at Lichfield Cathedral, and he came down to Guildford with members of the Council, where they drafted and mailed out lots of letters to lots of newspapers – all bearing the name of Herbert Howells, who was then president of the Friends. Without their help, the general public would never have been given the chance to contribute towards the music at the new Cathedral, and help to get us started. So much for knowing about the organisation!

And as for not knowing much about the place in which I’ve been asked to speak, that’s easy. Let’s put it like this – I’ve come home. For the first 22 years of my life, this was my Diocesan Cathedral – though not the light and bright version you see today.

Back in the 1950’s it was dark, gloomy and somewhat depressing – a slightly forbidding place to this 16-year-old who came to play the organ.

Coming here was very different from the corrugated iron mission hall in Chingford, that was called St. Anne’s Church, where I played the harmonium (or as my vicar, Bob Birchnall used to call, it – the pandemonium). Yes, we had a small choir, and yes, we actually came here to the Cathedral to sing Saturday Evensong on more than one occasion. Stanley Vann was organist here at that time – remember that time – I’ll come back to it later.

Nearly 30 years on, in 1981, I returned to Chelmsford when Provost Dick Herrick asked me to help with the appointment of a new organist.

That organist was Graham Elliott, who was to stay here for nearly 20 years. Graham and I used to meet quite a lot during his time here when I came to the Cathedral as the producer for the live BBC broadcasts of Choral Evensong – and his choir was always one of the very best that we had on that programme.

More recently – when Graham left, in 1999, I came back again, this time to run the choir for a few months before a new organist was appointed.

And now, tonight, another 23 years on, the wanderer returns – this time to pay tribute to you – the Cathedral Music Trust, your President, your Ambassadors, your Trustees, your staff and of course, all of you here this evening who help and support the work of the Trust.

‘To enrich the present, and secure the future of cathedral music – by campaigning on behalf of cathedral music and musicians, supporting choirs in need through our grants programmes, and encouraging the pursuit of excellence in sacred choral and organ music’.

That’s what’s written on your website, and that’s exactly what the Friends of Cathedral Music set out to do all those years ago, though over that time, things have changed more than a little in many Cathedrals and Collegiate Chapels –  my wife and I know that from first-hand experience, having been the parents of a boy chorister at St. John’s College, Cambridge in the early 1980s, and also of one the very first pioneering girl choristers at Salisbury Cathedral in 1991..

In this present post-Covid period, it’s even more vital for you to lend your support to the great work that Cathedral and Collegiate musicians have done and are still doing to rebuild their choirs and keep the tradition of daily sung Services alive.

But as we all know, the present is shaped by the past, and I wonder how many you here this evening can remember as far back as 1956 when the Friends of the Cathedral Music was founded, and, more importantly – WHY it was founded.

If you go into Google, you’ll read that one of the reasons was the cancellation of a Saturday Evensong at a certain Cathedral – so that the Lay Clerks could go and watch a football match. Actually, these days, I think that at least 50% of our Cathedral choirs no longer sing Evensong on a Saturday, I’m sorry to say – maybe they’re all at football matches as well….

But I think there was a much deeper reason that worried Ronald Sibthorp. In the 1950’s, cathedral music was in the doldrums. Would you believe me if I said that standards were really low? The Collegiate choirs were fine, and I was singing bass in one of the best choirs in the land – at Hampstead Parish Church – but, the standard of daily singing in the majority of our Cathedrals was – to put it rather bluntly – bloody awful.

It had also been awful back in Victorian times, until two great reformers Samuel Sebastian Wesley and John Stainer dragged the standard of cathedral music up to something worthy of the buildings in which their choirs were singing.

Fast forward again to the 1950’s. Those were still the days when the organist took tea at home; put on his cassock, grabbed his umbrella and wandered across to the Cathedral a few minutes before Evensong, just in time to get up to the organ loft a few minutes before the Service began. The choir was left to get on with it. There was no conductor, and no pre-Service rehearsal.

There are lots of stories about those days, and I must tell you just one this evening – with apologies in advance for the very non-liturgical language in this sacred building – I just hope I don’t get struck down by a well-aimed thunderbolt.

The place had better remain nameless, though, between you and me, it’s a huge building, in Yorkshire. It’s Evensong, and the anthem today is what we call a Verse-anthem, beginning with an alto solo. The organ plays the introduction, and when the soloist should start, there’s dead silence. The men on each side look at each other, each gesturing that it was the turn of the other side to sing the solo. The organ plays the introduction again – still dead silence. In the organ loft, the curtains behind the console are noisily pulled back, the organist leans over and says in a loud voice – ‘will someone effing well start’.

These were the days before choirs were conducted, and we owe what was to be a seismic change in musical standards to just two people, at two Cathedrals – both of them over here in the East of England – Peterborough and Ely. One of those two people was Stanley Vann, the new organist at Peterborough, having moved on from here in 1953.

Also in 1953, Ely had appointed Michael Howard as organist, and between them, Michael and Stanley changed the sound of Cathedral music to what you and I enjoy and take for granted today. And they did it by standing in front of their choirs and directing them at Evensong, with an assistant playing the organ – in Stanley’s case Philip Lank, and at Ely it was Arthur Wills, who later took over from Michael Howard.

For some reason, people seem to think that it was us at the new Guildford Cathedral who began that trend later on in 1961, but I was simply following the example that I’d already seen and heard at Peterborough and Ely – and if I hadn’t stood in front of the new choir, they wouldn’t have started to sing!

And the rest you know, walk into any cathedral for Evensong on any day of the week, (apart from some cathedrals on Saturdays – they’re at football….), and there will be someone directing the choir – and you owe it all to the vision and example of your own Stanley Vann from here in Chelmsford.

Now I can’t leave this evening without again paying tribute the work that you, the Cathedral Music Trust are doing towards the future of music in our cathedrals and other choral foundations. Like it or not, the sound of a choir is governed by its top line – the boys, whose tradition of daily singing goes back many hundreds of years, and the girls, not quite so far – just 32 years ago in Salisbury – although they weren’t actually the first girls to sing in an English Cathedral choir – that honour belongs to Bury St. Edmunds.

On the 15th November last year – your ambassador Alexander Armstrong was at Southwark Cathedral, and he said this:

“It’s time to shout from the rooftops about choristership; it’s time to go right out into all our communities and find the promising singers of tomorrow from everywhere and anywhere and let them in on what for too long has been kept a secret. Choral training in our cathedrals is a key that unlocks a thousand doors. I’ve dwelt elsewhere on the benefits of being a chorister, so I won’t rehearse them now. But we must make them known – and open – to everyone.”

Three months ago, I also gave a similar address – in Newport – not in South Wales, but the Newport in Rhode Island, USA, and I listed some of the many non-musical skills that two of our children had acquired during their time as choristers – independence, self-reliance, self-discipline, care for others, punctuality, an appreciation of beautiful language and how to speak it – the list goes on and on. Being a chorister is not just about singing lovely music – it’s a complete training for life.

I hope that here in Chelmsford you’re also ‘shouting from the rooftops’ about the achievements of your past choristers. During my short time here in late 1999 to early 2000, I remember 3 teenage boys with changing voices who were just beginning to find their feet in the back row of the choir – there was Tim, James, and another Tim. Over 20 years on, Tim Mead is now a world-class operatic counter-tenor – only last night he was in Canada, singing the solos in Handel’s Coronation anthems in the huge Symphony Hall in Montreal. James is James Kennerley. Not just a gifted organist, but also trainer and conductor of the boy choristers at the USA’s only Roman Catholic Choir School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And the second Tim is Tim Wayne Wright. Tim is also a counter tenor, currently living and working in Australia, though for 9 years he was touring the globe as a member of the world-famous King’s Singers.

Just 3 local lads from Chelmsford, who became choristers at THIS Cathedral – and but for the training they received here, they might never have found any purpose or fulfilment – musical, or otherwise.

And finally, a personal tribute from me to every chorister and Lay-Clerk who sang in the three Cathedral choirs that I was privileged to run – Guildford, St. Paul’s and St. Albans. Strangely enough, they do still talk to me, so we must have done something right. And it’s a great pleasure to see Stewart Aylward here this evening. Stewart was one of the very first Guildford choristers 63 years ago – and THAT suddenly makes me feel very old.

And also former Guildford Bass Lay Clerk Simon Deller from 1970. Simon also became Headmaster of Landsborough School, Guildford, from where our choristers were drawn. I’ve written all about those times, and St. Paul’s and St. Albans in my recently published memoirs  – with the appropriate title of SITTING ON A PIN… – Don’t forget to buy a copy!

The last time I spoke at a church music Dinner, I finished with a short story about my host for that evening. He’d been a chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and we both recall one particular Evensong, forever etched on our memories. It was a Monday, and in those days, Evensong in St. Paul’s on Mondays was sung by the boys alone. It was Ok, but it wasn’t our best, and after the Service I raced down to the boys’ vestry to tell them what I thought of it. Pointing to this particular boy, I said ‘and you made a mistake in the psalm’. Cool as a cucumber he replied – ‘no sir, I made two’. ‘What’s the other one?’ I growled. ‘Coming here’, he said. That’s not a mistake I’ve made this evening. Coming back here has been a great pleasure and privilege.