Church Music – A Sacred Cause

I HAVE recently been watching on as members of my family have engaged in research into genealogy.  I have reflected on how my father, David, took himself off to church in Kirkby, a colliery town in Nottinghamshire.  He must have been about ten years old – so we are talking about the early 1920s – and he got himself baptised and confirmed and sang as a boy treble.  His voice didn’t break until he was 17 or 18 – such was the low protein in the diet of the poor.  He wanted to be a music teacher, but couldn’t get a grant to go to college, so taught himself what he could.  Truth to tell, his musical sensitivity far surpassed his modest keyboard skill, though he was the organist of Worksop Priory from the mid-1950s for nearly a quarter of century.  It was his ability as a choral conductor that carried him through.  As well as a church choir, with seven or eight adults and more than a dozen local children (drawn from the non-churchgoing part of the public), he ran several other choirs in his time, founding the Worksop Bach Society, which rehearsed on Sunday nights after Evensong, in our sitting room at home.  Slightly ambitiously, we began with the B minor Mass, which was never performed, unlike the Gillies Whittaker edition of the Matthew Passion, which was performed in a lower key, with piano accompaniment.

My father was acutely aware of the importance of church music and sent both his sons – my older brother and me  – to board at Southwell Minster, to sing in the choir there and be educated at the Minster School (first the Junior Department – 8 to 10 year olds – and then the Grammar School).

From Southwell, my brother and I went successively to New College, Oxford, to read music.  He was more accomplished as a keyboard player than I but neither of us became part of the chapel choral foundation.  I delighted in attending Evensong daily during term and, egged on by the organ scholar, Murray Somerville, I studied for and sat the ARCO exam, scraping through the pieces but doing better on the harmony and counterpoint.  In due course I became Director of Music at St Margaret’s, North Oxford, and began to be interested in choral singing.  I did the Choirmaster’s diploma (CHM) and was examined by the redoubtable Martindale Sidwell.   Returning after Oxford to Nottinghamshire, I became organist of St Leonard’s, Wollaton, and then Director of Music at St Mary’s Clifton Village, where a Marcussen organ had recently been installed.   In 1973 I was recruited as Director of the English Sinfonia Chorale and became Chorus Master, later Principal Conductor, of the Nottingham Harmonic Society in 1974.  Some ten years later I was ordained and relinquished both the musical posts.  I was earning half my living from conducting and playing and the other half from a series of jobs in education.   There was something of a crisis for me in 1979, when I applied for – and got on to the short short-list for – Master of the Music at Westminster Cathedral.  I didn’t get the job, of course: I discovered late in the day that the job specification included abilities as an organist, which I simply did not have, and, even later in the day, that, of the four of us – two Anglican and two Catholic – the other Anglican was the prodigiously-talented Stephen Cleobury.  He got the job, and I did not help myself – country cousin as I was – by getting stuck in a traffic jam and being an hour late for the choir rehearsal which began the interview.  It was a moment of truth and, soon after that, my thoughts began to return to ordination, which I had abandoned as a course of action as I began to immerse myself in theology in the late 1960s.  The third generation – my son – did rather better.  He has not become a musician either – he now lives in Sydney – but he sang in New College Choir as a treble and later as an academical clerk, in the meantime going off to school at Winchester College on a music scholarship  .

I shall write some other time about some of the other things going on, but what concerns me here is church music.  It is there in our family history, playing a far from unimportant part, and it surfaces all over the place in the lives of others who have served in church, cathedral, and chapel choirs.  It has played an inestimable role in the work and witness of the Church, interacting with the general public, and, far from fossilising, it has metamorphosed impressively to include, and give musical opportunities, to girls and women.

My son suggested to me that I expend some of my influence and use some of the opportunities I have to further the cause of church music.  Tales reach us of choral foundations in reduced circumstances and even threatened with closure.  Some of the discussion of diminutive weekday congregations scandalously disregards the presence of a dozen or so schoolchildren and half a dozen or so adults who congregate in their own way.    One gains the impression that the pastoral care of choirs and nurture of the children in them is done badly by the clergy.  My own father used to quarrel with the clergy – as organists do – and point out to them that most of the new growth of families and children in the church was the result of his recruitment of them, rather than any pastoral work done by the clergy.

Any reference to family history must include my mother’s side.  She came from Baptist stock, and my grandparents and she spent many Saturdays singing in performances of Messiah, Elijah, The Crucifixion and the rest, in the chapels in neighbouring towns and villages.  It was how non-conformist society flourished and I had further cause to reflect on that, when I conducted the Nottingham Harmonic Chorus in Nottingham Albert Hall, still the meeting place of the Central Methodist Mission.   It was not until we moved to the new Royal Concert Hall that the umbilical cord which united us to the nonconformist tradition was cut.

Throughout my teenage years what drew me in most was the mystery of Catholicism.  I cannot now remember which Viennese Mass it was that the Nottingham Bach Society were singing that evening in St Mary’s in the Lacemarket in Nottingham but I vividly recall the thrill of hearing the Latin of the Creed.  Music might be the bicycle of the liturgy, as the late Thurston Dart used to say, but, even outside the liturgy, music speaks of the transcendent God.  That early memory – maybe 1963 – resonates with the experience of conducting the Monteverdi Vespers in the former chapel at Kelham.  It was so evocative that even the wall in the apse seemed to yield up a crucifix, formed of damp patches in the plaster.

It is chilling to think how many now grow up without the knowledge of the Bible stories, the customs, the hymns, the festivals, the prayers, and the seasons.  This is the Church in retreat at least as much as it is the Secular West advancing.  I think I should devote more of my energy in the years remaining to the cause of the Choral Tradition.

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