Campaign For The Traditional Cathedral Choir

Clarion Call

Acting Editor: Peter Giles. Acting Assistant Editor: Grayston Burgess. Technical Editor: Anne Dover
Associate Editor: Ann Savours Shirley

February 2014


We begin 2014 after another year of yet more losses to and weakening of our precious choral tradition. Founded to draw attention to the threats to that tradition, CTCC has been criticised occasionally for including the word ‘campaign’ in its name. We have been told it is too aggressive, that we are scaremongers when really all is well; that we are trying to interfere with a just and exciting evolution; that the word ‘campaign’ is tasteless and ‘un-Christian’. But make no mistake, driven by people who disagree with us and claim to occupy the moral high ground, the determined moves for change going on all round us themselves qualify as a campaign! Such a statement would be hotly disputed by those who are working hard to achieve transformation. Yet the fact remains that almost everywhere one looks, the gloriously unique choral tradition of the Church of England is being brainwashed – or sleepwalking - into becoming something different. The only point at issue seems to be the speed of the process.

Newsletter imageOne of the latest shocks involves the dismantling of the last professional traditional cathedral choir in Wales. Llandaff Cathedral has dismissed its lay-clerks and assistant organist, leaving a ‘rump’ consisting of the Director of Music and – so far – the chorister boys. But unlike most of what is going on elsewhere, the reasons are stated to be purely financial. So far, no mention seems to have been made of any politically doctrinaire agenda. It remains to be seen whether financial moves by various outside bodies, including CTCC – the first organisation to be contacted by members of the choral foundation just before the iconoclastic decision was made public – can in any way help reverse the situation for the future. Meanwhile, the Dean and Chapter have let it be known that they themselves have no intention of starting a choir appeal.

The locations of our gatherings vary for several different reasons. Everyone is so spread out, nationally and internationally. We do our best to arrange events so as to help members to attend. This is not easy, because many cathedral and other foundations seem nervous – even terrified – of CTCC and its unique initiative to support the traditional choir. Thus we can’t always arrange visits to cathedral or other foundations in what appear to be Campaign-neglected areas of the UK, however much we try. Even if somehow we do manage it, we are surprised at how many members living near or reasonably near seem unavailable on the chosen date! We need to salute and support not only foundations that appear to be bearing witness to our wonderful all-male choral tradition, but also those struggling to keep their traditional choir or to get the balance right. We are all only too aware of the increasingly shifting situation in the world of cathedral and greater-church music.

We again include humour emanating from the cathedral choir world. We ask again for true anecdotes. Your editor is working his way through tales from his own choirs. We’ll run out of funnies unless we get some from you, the members!

We have thrilling news….. One of CTCC's stated aims is to encourage all surviving genuine, all-male ecclesiastical choirs at their different levels and situations. After much planning, we are now able to bring you the promised news of an exciting initiative, based in this first instance on a prominent parish church with a fine all-male choir.

Chairman's Announcement:
The launch of the Campaign's boy choristers' trophy

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Members present at our AGM in Canterbury will recall that I hinted at an exciting project for 2014. I can now reveal details. The Campaign is putting up a trophy to be awarded to the Best Chorister in a selected choir of boys (and men). The winning boy will not only win the Trophy Cup but will receive a cash prize. Second and third places will win cash prizes too. There will be commemorative medals for all three. We are launching this scheme first at Spalding Parish Church in Lincolnshire. The Director of Music, Nicholas Pitts, has a choir of about twenty-seven boys and it is thought that about seven boys will undertake the challenge. It is our intention to develop this project to include plenty of other choirs. I see it not only as a positive way to encourage boys to sing, but also a chance to bring positive publicity and support for what we stand for. We hope members living near enough will be able to attend the day's proceedings. The date chosen is Saturday 24th May 2014. I will let you know more details in due course. The whole scheme is being privately financed on behalf of the Campaign.

David Blumlein Chairman


The Campaign visits Christchurch Priory

Our most recent event was again well organised by our Events Organiser, Antony Bussell, and we were made very welcome by all at the Priory – even to the extent of a notice on the main doors announcing CTCC’s presence. We began by meeting for lunch at Splinters, in Church Street, though only after negotiating some unexpected catastrophic road works and closure in the very road in which our restaurant was situated – but thankfully not outside it! It proved to be an attractive, centuries-old, intimate establishment with a warm atmosphere. The necessity of organising our members into two rooms on different floors gave a good opportunity for chatting to people they may not have met properly before. Appropriately, the Chairman presided in the bigger, first-floor chamber and the Vice-Chairman in the smaller, ground-floor room!

Some members viewing the reredosReplete, we repaired eagerly to the superb Priory church, and, divided into two groups, were given a tour round this highly impressive building. This was followed by an interesting, well-prepared talk by Hugh Morris, the Director of Music, about the challenges involved in running a traditional choir in what is now, despite the wonderful edifice's cathedral-like size and character, a parish church - with all that this implies. Hugh spoke in lively fashion. We could hear his every word, unlike CTCC's usual unfortunate experience of vocal-production-challenged tour guides! He included an excellent film presentation on the work of the music department. The girls' choir seems to co-exist well enough with the traditional choir - so far at least. 'Getting and keeping the balance right' is always on-going, and applies very much to Christchurch Priory. One felt that if anyone could achieve this, it would be Hugh Morris.

Following Hugh's talk we were given a superb demonstration of the splendid organ, after which most members attended the pre-evensong choir rehearsal. Interestingly, this writer was approached later by one of the choir men who turned out to be Bill Sargent, an American singer who had been a Canterbury lay-clerk for a year or three in the 1970s. Like us all, he had changed a little since, including a switch from alto to baritone!

Members enjoyed a lovely tea in the Priory refectory, after which we attended Evensong in the nave. The choir of 14 men and 16 boys made a fine sound. The canticles were Noble in B minor and the anthem was Cantique de Jean Racine, by Faure. The versicles and responses were by Sumsion.

This event was most enjoyable, not least because one felt that CTCC's appearance at Christchurch was in the category of providing support and encouragement where it could prove helpful, given the way things are going nationally in these distracted times. PG

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Our next CTCC event and AGM

This will take place over the weekend of 21st and 22nd June 2014 in Truro Cathedral. Please note that this is to be no ordinary AGM. An extraordinary feast of music awaits us. Following the joys of Canterbury in April and Christchurch Priory in October 2013, the programme on Saturday 21 June 2014 will be as follows:
An early luncheon; a talk by either Christopher Gray (Director of Music) or a member of the Chapter; our AGM; tea. This is followed by a Summer Concert given by the Cathedral Choir at 5.00 pm (for which CTCC has obtained concessionary prices). Sunday morning offers a Choral Mass, and in mid-afternoon, in place of Evensong, the Cathedral Choir will sing a Lutheran Vespers from Bach’s time (including a cantata) with orchestra. We will endeavour to include a tour of the cathedral wherever possible over the weekend. Please note that if accommodation is required, this will need to be booked early, as Cornwall has many other attractions during the summer months. Antony Bussell


The Changing Voice
Dr Alan Thurlow

I much enjoyed reading Donovan Peters' article in the September edition of Clarion Call. For those involved in the practical side of running a boys' choir the changing voice is a constant source of anxiety, and can be as much of a nightmare for the choir trainer as it is for the chorister himself. My own experience bears out the gradually lowering age at which the change comes. When I joined my local church choir (in 1955) my head chorister continued singing treble until he was 15. I admired him very much and he later became a good friend (and 'best man' at our wedding). How I hoped that my voice would last as long as his. However, mine went at fourteen.

My years as Sub-Organist at Durham (1973-1980) saw my first involvement with the preparatory school system, where the children have to leave the choir at age 13 so as to start at their chosen public school before their 14th birthday. The regulations mean that if a chorister has his birthday during the summer term he therefore has to leave the choir just after his thirteenth birthday, often when his voice is in its prime. In those days there was however a 'halfway-house' which helped cathedral choirs to keep at least some choristers for a little longer. Each September the public schools had to keep some beds free for sixth-formers who were staying on an extra term to sit entrance to the Oxbridge colleges. It therefore suited the public schools to delay the entry of some of the younger boys of their new September intake until the New Year, when these beds became free. This, in turn, enabled those younger cathedral choristers to delay leaving their choir until Christmas. Staggering the departures in this way could be very useful to the choirmaster, particularly in years when the choir would otherwise have had a 'big leave'. It also gave more boys the chance to lead the choir, as you could have two Head Choristers in the course of an academic year rather than just one for the whole year. A few Durham choristers didn't last the full course because their voices changed when they were thirteen, but by and large this was still looked upon at that time as the exception rather than the rule.

During twenty-eight years at Chichester I saw that position reverse, so that by the time of my retirement in 2008 I considered it a bonus when a thirteen year-old chorister actually lasted the full term. The likelihood became that most of the top year would have to be 'pensioned off' before the end of their final academic year. Sometimes the chorister himself would be mature and make that decision for himself. I well recall, at Easter in 1986, when that year's excellent vintage of choristers were coming to the end of a very successful eleven-day tour in Germany (which included going through Checkpoint Charlie and singing in the Marienkirche in East Berlin) I was approached by the head chorister who said 'Well sir, I think that's about the end of me, isn't it!'. Most choristers, however, wanted to try to see it out to the bitter end and, so long as I could see that they were being wise and not straining their voice, I went along with that. Sometimes, however, it was left to me to take the initiative.

Deciding that a boy had to retire was never easy; there would always be a period of a several weeks when you knew in your heart that the decision had to be taken, but you still had to find the right time to broach it with the boy himself. Most took it very well; yes, they were emotional, but you could see that by leaving it to the stage when they, too, had known within themselves that it was inevitable, it also came as something of a relief. It was usually the parents who found it much harder to accept!

In my experience there were two ways in which the change could occur. Either, as Donovan Peters expressed so well, the voice moved gradually towards 'a pure head-register with an immature young man's fundamental register under it' (in which case they usually kept a complete range of usable notes), or the voice stayed more or less the same but with the upper notes gradually disappearing one by one and without any obvious sign of the emerging falsetto. In the first way, and unless the tone became too 'hooty', it was usually possible for a boy to sing on and to continue enjoying the experience. Some managed it so well that the change was hardly appreciable to the listener. The most apparent difference was the loss of power in the lower registers of their treble compass (the ‘chalumeau register’ as I used to refer to it). The rich and powerful low notes which they could previously sing gradually became weaker, and more difficult to produce, as they moved down towards the emerging 'break' between what was becoming their falsetto voice and the lower, natural, tenor notes that were developing. The younger voices in the choir had plenty of power in that range, so in the overall ensemble you were not really conscious of the loss of power in the older voices. However, it did of course restrict the kind of solos that these older boys could still sing.

To digress for a moment about the first way: one rehearsal idea which I gleaned from the great George Guest, and used regularly during boys' only rehearsals at Chichester, was to get the choristers to sing a psalm unaccompanied and in four part harmony - the younger boys singing the top line, some of the middle age-range singing the alto, two of three of the oldest singing tenor, and myself singing bass. Apart from being a good discipline it was also great fun, and visitors were often amazed to hear it when I let them 'sit in' on a practice. What this achieved, of course, was to make the younger, less experienced, choristers work hard at standing on their own two feet on the top line, while at the same time giving useful experience in music reading and part-singing to the older boys (who by then were well familiar with the words and the treble line of the chants, but were actively rehearsing the psalm by refreshing their memory of the words and in particular of the pointing).

In that context I remember an occasion one evening when the choir was in Montpelier, where we had been invited to sing a concert at which it was particularly requested that we include Allegri's Miserere. The high notes of the abbellimenti were beautifully sung by our soloist head chorister, whose voice was changing (in that first way) but who could still manage them with natural and effortless ease (I used to refer to that as sailing on the high Cs). Later that evening, when the adults were sitting in the common room of the hostel where we were all staying, we were greatly surprised to hear the choristers singing upstairs in their dormitory, and performing Bruckner's Locus iste (which had also been sung at the concert that evening). They were singing all four voice parts. Investigation revealed that the bass line was in fact being sung by the head chorister, the same voice that, just a few hours earlier, had sung the high notes of the Allegri!

Reverting to the second way of the changing voice, I used to describe this (particularly to concerned parents) as 'the ladder'. The rungs represented the notes of the voice range. For years the chorister had been used to climbing up the ladder with confidence, but one day he discovers that the top rung is missing. Gradually the top rungs start to disappear one by one; this means that he now begins to tread cautiously as he approaches each of the remaining high rungs, in case this time they are not there, and this in turn starts to affect his confidence in his voice. Generally speaking choristers were happy to stay on when their top note was, say, still up to treble G. They could happily mime the odd 'a' flat and above, and it was interesting to see how they could still, by pure dint of confidence and leadership, bring their side in reliably on a high-note lead whilst not actually singing the note themselves!

However, in considering the implications of voices changing at a younger age, what doesn't seem to be commented on so much is what has been happening at the younger end of a cathedral treble's career. When I started at Durham the age of entry to the choir was still officially 9 years, although boys could start at eight. By the time I came to Chichester the entry, in common with other prep schools, was at eight years, but it was not long before a seven-year-old entry was also started. Over the years it seems to me that the whole system has shifted by a year. At the bottom end of the choir, seven-year-olds are now doing the work once expected of an eight-year-old, and eight-year-olds cope well with what you formerly expected from a nine-year-old. In that context, it seemed to me that the younger age of the changing voice poses less of a threat to the future of the tradition than some are inclined to predict. By the end of my time I could confidently feel that the twelve-year-olds were just as capable of coping with the notes and the repertoire as the thirteen year-olds used to be, so that when a thirteen-year-old fell by the way as his last academic year progressed, it was not as critical as it might hitherto have seemed.

Newsletter imageWhere the difference has come, but over a rather longer period of time, is in the physical size and frame of the boys at the top end of the choir, and the consequent difference in the vocal resonance and breadth of tone that is produced. That's what we are hearing when we compare the great Ernest Lough with many of our excellent young soloists today. It's not that one is necessarily better than the other; it's just that they are different. As a choir-trainer, you work with the voices and personalities that you have got; you can't hanker over what might have been had you lived sixty or more years ago.

Each academic year, when my trebles were on peak form (often around Lent and Easter), people would frequently say how pleased they thought I must be with the choir. I used to reply that, yes, of course I was pleased, but that it was also going to be a very difficult time, as each day in the following term would gradually become taken up with the management of the declining voices. The autumn term, I told them, was always far more challenging and exciting. In September people would commiserate with me (particularly in a year when there had been 'big leave' of trebles in the July) that the choir was not yet up to the standard of its predecessor. However, for me - with usually little threat of voices changing that early in the academic year - every day was a journey upwards. You had the reward of listening and observing as day by day the young singers grew in confidence, and also had the thrill of being able to detect the gradual emergence and potential of a new generation of soloists.

I've often pondered about the alternative ways in which the voice breaks, and why it is that some change in one way and some in the other. It would have been interesting to have been able to follow the process through and to monitor, at the end of the change, which of these voices had finally settled as bass, tenor or countertenor. However, the boys were rarely local: once they had finished in the choir and moved on to public school and from there to university, we rarely saw them again, so it was hard to keep track of them. Here's a thought, though I'm certainly not going to make any wild or exaggerated claims for this observation. Boys with fair or lighter-coloured hair tended to follow the first route (of gradual transition), while boys with darker hair tended to be the ones who ‘fell off the ladder’. Coincidence or what?


Legacies and Donations

We really do need people to remember our work in their wills, and in other forms of donating to our funds. It is therefore gratifying to report that, recently, CTCC has received a fulsome letter from a member, a regular attendee at our events, enclosing a wonderful gift of £5,000 in memory of his mother. It is offered to help CTCC’s cause in promoting boys’ voices: ‘One of the most angelic sounds in the world, which can never be imitated’. The lady spent her life enjoying the purity of the sound of boys, and wished to assist CTCC in this way.
In addition, CTCC has been fortunate to have had a further donation of £1000 from the Greene Charity, for which we are most grateful and appreciative.


Reflections on a Moveable Choral Feast
by Lindsay George Eaglesham

It was only after I had arrived at Heathrow on November 22, greatly anticipating my choral 'pilgrimage' (as I liked to call it) when I discovered from reading a London paper that November 22 happens to be the birthday of Benjamin Britten. Even more auspicious, I thought, is the fact that it is also St. Cecilia's Day—the patron saint of musicians. Not that any auspiciousness of the date should attach to my little life, like the wonderful omen it obviously was for the great composer.
Even so, I was thrilled at the thought that perhaps there was a personal Jungian-type meaningfulness here; that this long-awaited trip to see and hear some of the finest traditional Church of England choirs would be a success—that Murphy's Law would have no application to my fortnight of choral events, as it is too often wont to have when we travel.
You see, it was not just a matter of dropping in cold on evensongs and the like. I had planned everything to a close schedule. Special Advent services and regular evensongs were my prime target, for which precise dates and times and train schedules were important. And the regular evensongs were carefully researched online as well, in order that my 12-day trip calendar might be completely filled with as many full-choir (men and boys, both) services as possible.

Newsletter imageAfter overnighting in London with a relative, I was off to Cambridge; first for a Friday evensong at King's. Very excited, after checking in to my B&B, it was a short bus ride to the centre of town, then choosing to walk a fair distance to the Chapel, viewing the dreaming spires (note to Matthew Arnold: just as 'dreaming' as Oxford). Walking the route, passing by the markets, the enormous ranks of students' bicycles, along cobbled narrows, suddenly there was the looming King's College Chapel.

And not much of a line-up for the service that night. Good! I'll get a stall seat close to the choir, but not too close, must be a few wavelengths away of course. But then, scanning the meagre congregation, it occurred to me how this English treasure of traditional all-male choral evensongs is so under-appreciated. There ought to be line-ups around the block at every service (Ahhh! Except when I'm attending).

Certainly, large numbers show up for the special choral services and concert events. But why is this gorgeous evensong not a pilgrim's experience? Such a high art form is there to be breathed in, available to everyone, without charge. There are always the aficionados like me, of course; but one would imagine there should be crowds at every singing of this (almost) daily delight, happening in a heavenly space where hypnotic musical strains ring off the ancient vaults, the stained glass and the giant columns of the breath-taking buildings that are homes to these great choirs. The singing enthrals, while the airy, shimmering candlelit beauty of the interior space enhances one's 'transport of delight.' It is an otherworldly dance of sound and light worthy of the pilgrim experience. Taking in the great evensongs ought to be the English version of the journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Newsletter imageNext day, Saturday, was the focal event of my trip, the Advent Service at St. John's College; an occasion I have long wished to attend in person, ever since, in the 1960s, as a young music student, I obtained a vinyl recording of the choir under George Guest. Titled A Meditation on Christ's Nativity, it was a musical epiphany, and seemed to me the apogee of Christian celebration in the brilliance of the singing, the thematic selection of the music, as well as the exceptional quality of the readings, done with perfect diction and cadence.
So now, as a newly minted member of the St. John's Choir Association, I was finally able to get a ticket for the live event. Actually, I got two tickets, one for the Saturday and the Sunday service, both. I felt that if I am to travel 3500 miles for this, I needed to sit through the two performances, at least.

I am happy to say, the legacy of great choral directors like George Guest, David Hill, and Christopher Robinson continues. The quality of the choir was first class, and every element of the production as precise as ever, and impressively rehearsed. I use the term 'production' advisedly because, as someone mostly familiar with the often annoyingly amateurish and overly-casual north American form of Anglican service, it is uplifting to experience form and protocol that is the ne plus ultra of Christian worship. Nowhere that I know of in the world are there churches that match the excellence with which all the fine points of a service are conducted in England's finest traditional cathedrals, collegiate chapels, and royal peculiars. Everything is done with utmost decorum, timing, and professionalism: from the processions to the readings, to the standing and sitting of the choir, to the admirable discipline and self-control of the young trebles. Services and concerts at these great venues are meticulous, wondrous productions.

The Sunday Advent service, like Saturday, was scheduled for the early evening, so there was time for another attendance at King's. It was a lovely choral Eucharist, with the comforting and familiar BCP liturgy. There was a solemn, sizeable congregation, the day was bright and sunny, and the soft morning rays streamed angled fingers of multi-coloured light through the chapel's famous 16th century windows — creating a vision quite different from the lustrous candlelight at St. John's in the evening, though just as supernaturally beautiful. I was seated in the aisle row, just east of the choir, and it was fun to see all the choirboys processing past me with great dignity to receive the Eucharist at the altar, hands folded in front. (I could not recall all the boys attending the altar for communion when I was last at King's during the time of David Willcocks.) The entire service was a delight.

That was my first choral weekend in England, setting a standard that was happily equalled by all the subsequent services I attended. From Cambridge it was to London on the Monday, attending a very fine vespers sung by the men and boys at Westminster Cathedral. On Tuesday I caught the train to Oxford, another B&B, and three nights of blissful evensongs at the great chapels: New College, Magdalen, and Christ Church. The tradition of brilliance prevails at all three; the sound at New College, especially, seems still to be enjoying an ascendance under the sensitive direction of Edward Higginbottom. And what heavenly spaces! The autumn evenings were dark, the only interior illumination ethereal candlelight, making the effect in Magdalen and New College interiors particularly awe-inspiring, with the dim light only half-revealing the intimate space, quivering up the lofty, massively sculptured eastern walls, while the choristers stood out, refulgent in the reflection of their immaculate surplices.

Newsletter imageThe Oxford wonders ended all too quickly. My final Friday I was back in London, this time for an evensong at Westminster Abbey. It had been many years since my last attendance at service there, and I rediscovered that, with all its immensity, the Abbey can always feel as intimate as a chapel when one is seated in the stalls close to the choristers. And that is what I meant at the outset with the sense of my trip enjoying the good fortune of St. Cecilia — at every single service and choral event I attended I had a premium seat. Amazing. Even on that final weekend in London, when I simply showed up for the two great Advent services (no tickets were needed) — the procession service at St. Paul's on Saturday, and at the Abbey on Sunday — I managed a fine quire seat for both. What's more, I was barely on time at St. Paul's, because I had to rush from a 3 pm evensong at the Abbey (again!) to get there by 6 o'clock.

St. Paul's was glorious with candlelight, as immense as the inside of some magical mountain. The nave was jam-packed, the choir slowly processing west to east; the music at first plaintive, then suddenly joyous with the congregational singing of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. The entire service was a feast of anthems. How lucky I felt to be there in the flesh. Among others, there was Charles Wood's Hail Gladdening Light; a stirring Rachmaninov piece (sung in Russian no less!); and a riveting modern work by Will Todd, Christ is the Morning Star.

The Abbey's special Advent service on my last Sunday was another high point. The many hundreds of us in attendance all held small votive candles whose light lasted, surprisingly, just as long as the service itself. And again, how lucky to find myself ahead of most of the throng in the nave, and among the first group to follow the choir into the quire where I enjoyed a stall seat only a few feet away from the choristers. Especially moving was the amazing Magnificat the choir performed, set to a modern composition by Giles Swayne. It took my breath away. The treble line seemed incredibly difficult with the boys separating into multi-part singing, including a very high-voiced extended ostinato.

Finally, but in no ways least, on the last night of my epic trip, Monday night, it was the Advent Service at the Temple Church. A relatively small space with appealing intimacy and very fine acoustics, it has long been one of my favourite places in London. Tucked away from the hullabaloo of the city, off the Strand, entrance to the church (part of the Temple Courts) is through a kind of ancient, magic door, easily missed on the sidewalk, then down a cobbled alleyway, as in a C. S. Lewis tale. When, as a young student in the 1960s, I lived in England for a year, the Temple Church became my most regular Sunday morning ritual. Famous among traditional church music lovers for its 11:15 a.m. choral matins, in those days the choir was still directed by the eminent George Thalben-Ball. Here was also the historic, musical home of luminaries like Walford Davies and the famous treble, Ernest Lough.

Today, the choir's brilliance is still unquestioned, though the sound has changed. The word 'unique' came to mind when I sat in the collegiate-style pews close to the choir, enraptured at what I was hearing. What an energy to the sound! In a way, the treble voices reminded me of what has been called the 'full-throated' Continental tone. Some musicologists believe it was George Malcolm, music director at the Catholic Westminster Cathedral in the 1950s and 60s, who was an early exponent of training boy sopranos in the style. However one describes this vocal approach, the Temple boys are clearly prodigious talents whose singing — perhaps more than any other treble section I know — has stayed deep in my memory, piercing the heart.

Also, it is hard to forget the quality of the Temple men. Besides the Monday night full-choir Advent Service, I also took in the Sunday matins when only the men were singing. “Wow!” was the simple exclamation that came to mind. Qualification of sound is so hard to judge when it comes to the professional men singers in the great choirs; but, for me, the Temple men's voices stand out: the balance, the hair-raising resonance, the brilliance of the countertenors, the tonality of the entire ensemble represents the very highest rank of choral interpretation.

The memories of my choral vacation are engraved in me: the musical memories, of course, the spine-tingling reverberations of sound in those ancient stone chambers; but also the quiet meditations I enjoyed, sometimes sitting alone in the quires, reflecting on all that had transpired in those lovely spaces, imagining all the talented choristers who had walked the very stones, and whose voices had echoed there over the centuries. More than that, my memories embrace a wider range of fond sensations: that distinctive, warm odour of polished choir stalls, ancient wood panelling, screens, and misericords, which for me has always been redolent of church since I was a boy; the rustle of freshly starched surplices as the choristers process, sit down and rise in their stalls. Reflecting on my trip will also prompt a smile when recollecting small but charming incidents, like catching one of the younger boys casting a quizzical look at the choirmaster during a particularly difficult passage.

My visits to these magical places will always remind me how that great music, great choral music, beautifully sung, can be a kind of healing; assuaging loss and heartache, helping mitigate all the unavoidable slings and arrows of this slippery life.

L G Eaglesham is a freelance writer and former Anglican choirboy living in Ontario, Canada.


Cyril and the Red Dean

Here’s another anecdote concerning the sadly late Cyril Wade, tenor lay-clerk extraordinaire of Canterbury. He was appointed in, I think, 1960: the last year or so of the famous (or infamous) ‘Red’ Dean – Dr Hewlett Johnson. Apparently on one of his several visits to Russia or China (how they infuriated British governments!)

Johnson was taken for the Archbishop of Canterbury! We’re concerned here not with his politics, but with the confusion that had begun to affect him in his old age – while still in office. He was always in black, with gaiters, often wore a beatific expression under his bald pate fringed by (for then) longish white hair. He much enjoyed the limelight. So did Cyril. With his ginger hair and an actor’s flamboyance, he cut an unforgettable figure. He assumed centre stage at every opportunity and was a masterly mimic.

He used to enjoy telling the following tale. During his first term, before he was able to move to Canterbury, the Dean and Chapter gave him permission to leave immediately after the anthem on weekday evensongs. Thus he was able to catch the fast train back to Chatham to look after his ill and aged mother. Cyril didn’t leave the service discreetly. He seldom did anything discreetly. His departure was characteristically high-profile. Instead of turning east and slipping out through the Chichele gate, he emerged prominently from his Decani stall and turned west. This enabled him to pass the Dean and Canons in their canopied stalls and leave through Canterbury’s superb quire or pulpitum screen on to the steps in full view of the nave. He did this during every weekday evensong for almost the whole autumn term.

It was one Saturday just before Christmas. Evensong was earlier and he didn’t need to leave before the end. He was walking alone down the north quire aisle and met the Dean coming up, also alone, fresh from chatting by the screen gate to congregation members leaving after the service. Understandably on encountering Cyril, the Dean faltered and stopped, wearing his most benign, beatific smile. When recounting this incident, Cyril always mimicked the Red Dean to perfection – from rich, slightly quavering voice to fleshy, rubicund, spread lips: “Good afternoon, smiled the Dean vaguely and vacantly. “I do hope you enjoyed the service. And where do you come from?” “I come from Chatham, Mr Dean,” answered Cyril brightly from within his ginger hair. Recognition must surely come, even if somewhat delayed. But it didn’t. “Oh that’s most interesting,” beamed the Dean. “We have a man in the choir from Chatham.”


A seasonal e-mail to the editor

I hope readers are taking full advantage of an almost exclusively ‘boy chorister’ Christmas period. For example, I am enjoying watching the series about Westminster Abbey (repeat). Sky Arts is helping this year, as well; ranging from the concert by the Kings Singers (one of whom is the former famous boy singer Paul Phoenix) and also a repeat of a concert from the Royal Albert Hall hosted by Aled Jones, which included several solos by the superb Laurence Kilsby. Have a great Christmas!


Other seasonal matters

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Of course, Christmas always brings lots of chorister photographs on cards and in the newspapers. The boys – and increasingly girls – are seen singing carols, lined up in picturesque fashion, or jumping about inappropriately in cassocks and usually surplices in the snow. We have received a few such illustrations. One photograph from the Daily Telegraph of 23rd December takes a half page to depict chorister boys and choirgirls in full colour, clad in full choir apparel plus Father Christmas hats, laughing and larking in the choir stalls. The caption reads: ‘They may be known for their angelic voices, but the Wells Cathedral choristers look more like Santa’s cheeky little elves as they get ready for the big day in Christmas hats. Bailey Roberts finds himself in the dark second from left, while Henry Dukes doffs his cap giving Alexea Cudworth, beside him, a good laugh. The 1,100-year old Somerset choir was recently named the best choir with children in the world.’ Absolutely no comment.


An unfortunate sight and sound

Many readers will have seen the recent frequent singing appearances on television of the latest high-profile boy soloist. Clearly, this pleasant lad has a good voice and is trained to sing well, but it didn’t come over during the programmes I saw, except in some fleeting footage showing him with his cathedral choir in a boys’ rehearsal. Like the other choristers, he looked strong, masculine, and confident. He sang, mouth and lips properly positioned, with a slight embouchure and a reasonably dropped jaw, to produce good and forthright tone. But all too rapidly, we were back to the boy in the studio, on ‘X-Factor’, et al; or his rendering of the National Anthem at the Royal Variety Performance, in all of which he had been transformed, presumably by populist-obsessed producers, into a most un-boy-like vocalist. He stood alone in ruff, cassock and – incorrectly in a totally secular situation – a surplice. When he began to sing, his mouth was spread like a letter box into an artificial, insipid smile, presumably as directed. His tone was thus rendered wispy, breathy and ‘sweet’. His diction was weak. He had become a rather feeble, slightly lisping, androgynous child singer, as opposed to the experienced professional-sounding boy soloist I’m sure he really is. I felt we were witnessing a kind of minor tragedy, though not I think one caused primarily by the mostly lightweight, facile material he had been given to sing. I have to admit to not hearing his CDs, but what the television producers had done to his usual, trained-in technique lost not only the opportunity of demonstrating to the musical and unmusical public the thrilling sound a good boy singer can make, but also reinforced today’s increasingly ignorant view that the chorister boy ‘just has to be a bit of a sissy’. Thanks a bunch, those responsible! Meanwhile, reflect on the professional and tough looking Canterbury choristers inside our cover and on the CTCC 2013 Christmas card. Get the point?


A Hopeful Sign?

Recently, there was a most encouraging talk on BBC Radio 4. Entitled About the Boys, it could have had a subtitle: ‘A celebration of the boy’s voice’. The broadcast contained some heartening indication that the tide is beginning to turn – that it’s beginning to be ‘politically permissible’ to admit to the genuine differences between the natural voices of boys and girls. The many varied, excellent, recorded examples contrasted hugely with the latest high-profile boy soloist referred to earlier. The programme included the inevitable woman boys’ voice expert in a field that really is not theirs. But she spoke some good sense. From what Donovan Peters wrote in the last Clarion Call, what Alan Thurlow writes in this issue, and what so many others have practised, argued and published about the 'not really breaking' voice, it sounds as if she might have read up widely – not to mention eavesdropping on traditional choirmasters giving good traditional boys' voice teaching! There were useful contributions from various knowledgeable folk, including one by Professor David Howard of York University who up till now has claimed there isn't any difference between boys’ and girls’ voices. A conversion?


Reports from the Front

Canterbury Cathedral girls’ choir sings its first service on the 25th January. Readers may have seen all the recent media frenzy. The probably has the best article: ‘Schoolgirls end Canterbury tradition of male-only singing’, complete with a photograph of the girls singing dressed exactly the same as the boys, instead of having their own ‘apparel’ like most of the girls' choirs. It remains to be seen whether or not Canterbury goes down the wearyingly familiar path of most foundations. Here are the stages in chronological order: (1) a ‘totally separate girls’ choir’ formed to sing when the boys are not there (2) the boys being dropped from some services and the girls’ choir taking their places to sing with the lay-clerks (3) the boys of the cathedral choir now dubbed the ‘boys’ choir’ (4) boys and girls being regarded and promoted as alternative top lines of the ‘cathedral choir’; and (5) in a few cases so far, boys’ and girls’ sections merged into one, and so on….

There are now 765 girls and 1008 boys singing in our cathedrals, so we are informed.

It would be interesting to know where The Guardian got this figure from. Wherever this roving reporter goes, the girls outnumber the boys. A small ray of hope – a very small one – is a comment from Richard Seal. As Organist and Master of the Choristers at Salisbury, he began the girls’ choir movement that has swept the country. He tells us that “…the sound they (the girls) make is different – always will be”. More predictably perhaps he goes on to say that “Girls have found their rightful place now. There is no stopping them”. He also shares with us the boys' reaction when the girls were introduced at Salisbury: “One had to woo them a bit. They were very proud of what they did – they have this huge history, centuries, behind them. They didn't want that to go.” We'll have our own thoughts about that.

This is from a Durham boy chorister about the introduction of the girls: “Suddenly the boys found themselves in what previously was a nearly girls-free environment. The boys found themselves outnumbered by the girls by a massive amount.”

And from James Lancelot: “But behind all the glorious music and the teamwork lurks constant concern about the difficulties of recruitment to both the front and back rows – Durham is not alone in facing such concerns, but it is becoming acute here and it may be that only a significant increase in the level of scholarship support will solve the problem where choristers are concerned.”

Here is a thought-provoking quotation from Stephen Darlington published in a recent concert programme: “Sadly, the place of music in the church is by no means as secure elsewhere as it is here (Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford) and it needs to be fought for. I believe we have a duty to ensure that there is increasing public awareness that cathedral music of the highest standard is a 'National Treasure' just like other great works of art, such as paintings and buildings.”

And finally, just in case CTCC is again accused wrongly of being a one-issue organisation, we report sadly:
A recent Communion service at York Minster was set to the music of the musical Les Miserables. The Reverend Sue Wallace, preacher at the service, said, “It was one of those ideas that seemed silly at first' [only at first? – Editor] but we soon realised that the themes in Les Mis fit in with what we celebrate at a normal Communion service. People may think that it's odd to use a musical in church, but the church has always used the artistic tools of culture to help explain the Gospel.”

Postscript: Many readers will have seen the new Canterbury girls’ choir on BBC TV news on 23rd January. Apparently the boys and girls ‘will sing together on occasions’ and the girls will 'do more' in the cathedral. No surprise there then. ‘Mission Creep’ seems to have begun already. We were at least told that the – older – girls’ choir sounds different to the boys. But Dr David Flood, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Canterbury, is reassuring, writing in the CCOCA Newsletter:
Today marks the first Evensong to be sung by the Cathedral Girls’ Choir. This choir of 16 girls has been recruited from the local secondary schools as a voluntary choir, rehearsing once a week during term time and singing Evensong twice a term on the Cathedral choir’s exeat days. The Cathedral choir itself continues to do exactly what it always has done and the new choir is a supplementary group. The girls’ choir is directed by the Assistant Organist, David Newsholme. Being in Canterbury, it has created a lot of media interest but they will soon be able to relax into a regular sequence. They will only sing on these occasions during the school term. There is no expectation on them during the holidays.
The phrase that comes to mind is, “The best laid plans of mice and men…” So stay with it, Canterbury.


A smile to finish

Bill Griffin was an earnest and very effective baritone at Canterbury from the mid-1960s to (I think) the mid-1980s – a lovely character who was surprisingly self-conscious for a singer and a bit vague at times, too. He was going thin on top, and in the winter months came daily to the cathedral sporting his checked flat cap. In those days there was no pre-evensong rehearsal for the lay-clerks during the week. One time, just before the service, we were walking round from the lay-clerks’ vestry to St Stephen’s Chapel where the choir had to assemble with the Dean and Chapter. The men, including Allan Wicks, began to notice that instead of the ‘square’ or mortar board we all carried into the service, Bill was absent-mindedly carrying his cap tucked as if it was his ‘square’. Nothing was said. We visualised the glorious sight of the procession proceeding down the north quire aisle, through the pulpitum screen and emerging with dignity into the huge quire. As usual, waiting for it would be a plethora of awed pilgrims from the far corners of the earth – all of them expecting seemly solemnity, only to be graced by the sight of Bill in flowing Canterbury-style surplice and purple cassock, reverently carrying his checked cap. Secretly enjoying this prospect, we lined up, Decani and Cantoris, boys in front of the men, as usual. Some of the boys had by now noticed Bill’s check ‘titfer’ and were already smirking. It faded as Dean White-Thomson said the solemn prayer. “Amen”, said everyone, then, smirking renewed secretly, turned south. Brilliant – the stage was set! But no – a small chorister exclaimed loudly, “Oh Mr Griffin, why are you carrying that cap?” Bill flushed crimson and hastily flung his cap towards the wall. It frisbeed into blind arcading that, though theoretically stone and sightless, had nevertheless seen much over the centuries, though never a flying check cap. The procession moved somewhat dejectedly into the north quire aisle. What a let-down! In the midst of life we are in disappointment. Those pilgrims never knew what they had missed.

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