At Marlborough I felt much as John Betjeman did in his autobiographical “Summoned by Bells”: “G.F. Bodley’s Greens and Browns…the Chapel was the centre of my life.”
The Music Secretary used to reckon that at 2.25 on a Friday afternoon when she heard me silently returning to her office on heavy footsteps I had had a bad choir practice, but if she heard me whistling on a light tread it had been a good one.
The direction of the Chapel Choir was one of my most important duties and it gave me a unique opportunity to explore a wide repertoire of church music and perform it in the fine College Chapel. Arranged on either side, Decani and Cantoris, and in close proximity to the organ, a double choir of 56 singers lead the Sunday worship: an Introit, an Anthem, a couple of Hymns and a set of Communion Responses. Then there is the termly Evensong, the special services for Remembrance Day and Confirmation as well as numerous carol services.
My first tasks were to bolster the numbers and keep a register, issue absence chits as necessary and try to insist on punctuality. On the basis that singers perform best when they’re hungry I changed the lunch arrangements from a quick, scrambled lunch before or after choir to a designated Choir Lunch served after the practice. We also persuaded the catering department to serve us coffee and biscuits after the Sunday services.
Part of the thinking was to give the Choir better status and nurture friendly relations in the group, which involved teachers alongside pupils. I know of at least one choir relationship which ended up at the altar, and there were romances which waxed and waned and gave us something to gossip about. One Cantoris Bass was stricken with undying love for a certain Decani Soprano on the opposite side. When she sighed, he sighed in sympathy and when she flicked a lock of hair from her eyes with her left hand he unwittingly did the same. Unaware of all this going on I looked across once at the Cantoris Basses to witness them all flicking imaginary locks of hair with their left hands in a synchronised action.
Humour and light-hearted banter were important ingredients in the termly routine of Chapel Choir, despite it’s essentially serious and godly function. Certain pieces had daft nicknames: “O thou the central Orb” was “O thou the central Blob”, and in deference to one of the Sopranos “Hail, Gladdening Light!” became “Hail, Madelaine Knight!”
When visiting preacher Bishop John Bickersteth sat alongside the choir, he picked up one of our crib sheets which outlined the service order:
Hymn Lord of all hopefulness/ Psalm 43/ Responses/Harwood: O how Glorious/The Bishop of Bath and Wells/ Hymn He who would valiant be etc.
“I am delighted to be with you today” he boomed, “and flattered with the build-up on the service sheet here, which reads -O how glorious: The Bishop of Bath and Wells!”
And in the next Hymn there would be wry smiles and eyes flashing down the chapel at the words “Follow the Master.”
Edward Gould was the most chorally switched-on of the Masters I served at Marlborough: part of his education had been as a chorister at St Michael’s College, Tenbury. The Chaplain always gave him free reign to choose music, hymns and readings when it was his turn to preach. He once requested the anthem “Blessed be the God and father” by S.S. Wesley, but knowing it was over 7 minutes in length I warned him that the Chaplain would never allow us to sing any anthem over five minutes in length. “If you tell him I intend to sing in the basses, that might just do the trick” he said, and it did!
After some opposition I finally managed to persuade the powers that be to robe us all in red and a parent put up money for the purchase of a set of smart choir folders. I guess that helped the general sense of professionalism but the special Evensongs, the Tours and various recording projects really gave us some new and real musical goals.
Singing Evensong in great buildings away from home was a great spur in the quest for professional standards: Salisbury, Winchester and Gloucester Cathedrals, Bath Abbey and St George’s Chapel Windsor for example. We were taking a service already performed at college into a prestigious place with a fine acoustic and organ and with a Cantor provided by the authorities.
After one service at Salisbury two senior gentlemen appeared at the vestry door: a former Director of Music at Charterhouse and the current Director of the Royal School of Church Music, Harry Bramma, who hailed me:
“Can you assemble the boys and girls back in the choir stalls, I’d like to speak to them.”
I hoped he was going to be complementary, but what he said was more interesting:
“That was a splendid Evensong and we congratulate you! A choir of men and boys has been providing an unbroken line of choral music here since Medieval times. But I really want to thank all you young ladies in the Soprano and Alto stalls, for without you the tradition of choral singing in our Schools and Colleges might well be dying!”
It was a prophetic remark, for not only did it reflect our reliance on girls in the Chapel Choir but a few years later Salisbury Cathedral became the first of many cathedrals to introduce girl choristers in the 1990’s, and nationally they now outnumber the boys.
Our first tour was a low-key affair in North Norfolk, but we sang in some fine buildings, including Norwich Cathedral. At a tiny church in the grounds of Houghton Hall we had fewer people in the audience than in the choir, as one annoying Alto pointed out to me while a small group were performing a set of madrigals. Suddenly there was a strange rumbling sound and the windows of the church went dark and steamed up on one side. I looked out through the one clear window and saw that a herd of frisky cattle had responded to the strains of “Now is the month of Maying” and were pressing their wet muzzles against the church walls and windows. “There you are” I said “fifty or more in the audience now!”
Our tour to South Germany was on a different level: we stayed in a school virtually on the shores of Lake Constance and sang in some outstanding locations, including the unique Reichenau Church (situated on an island on the lake) and the Hall of Mirrors in the New Castle at Meersburg where the Special Choir gave an excellent concert. The weather was extremely warm as I remember and there were a few fainting violets in the concerts: apart from that everything went swimmingly until we watched one member of the choir disappearing 3 kilometres down the lake at speed on a wind-assisted dinghy. It was on this Tour that organist and special choir conductor Adrian Leang met Kirsten, his future wife, and we were back in Southern Germany again a few years later based in a school in Heidenheim, Baden-Wurttemberg, where her father was a head teacher.
More wonderful churches here, none so special as the Baroque church in Steinhausen, whose wood carvings, paintings and artefacts were matched by the natural history references in Hadley’s “My Beloved Spake.” The German audiences seemed not only very appreciative but well informed too: I remember one gentleman asking what particular edition of a Bruckner motet we were singing from, for he knew it well from his choir.
A Tour in Southwest France encompassed concerts in the cathedrals of Auch, Albi and Lombez and the Basilica of St. Sernin, in Toulouse. The organ loft at Albi was at such a height that our trumpeter, who suffered from severe vertigo, refused at first to play up there, until someone had the bright idea of strapping him to the gallery railings!
The organisation of this tour was somewhat relaxed: no one seems to have worked out that our youth hostel style accommodation didn’t provide a clear and secure division between male and female quarters, a source of delight for the pupils and huge concern for the adults. We had some excellent voices at the time and as so often happens with these tours the musical standard markedly improved with each new event.
We sang Mass in the generous acoustics of the Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulouse, with its huge nave and Romanesque pillars, against one of which a French poodle urinated in the middle of the Sanctus, fortunately only seen by me, otherwise musical chaos would have ensued.
On one coach journey our laid-back tour leader suggested we stopped for a detour at a smallish village. We piled out in the heat of the midday sun and assembled in a dilapidated old market square he had told us had a wonderful reverberant acoustic, and we burst into spontaneous song in the deserted space with a couple of spirituals. A pair of hens were wobbling about on the cobbles and an old lady in a black shawl appeared at a doorway. Then a scruffy tabby cat emerged from an alleyway, a mother with several small children and various village elders, and so it went on. When the clapping had died down we climbed back into the coach cherishing the memory of a special half hour.
It was a homogenous group, everyone getting on so well, including late night get-togethers amongst the sunflowers, but the youngsters overdid it the night before the final concert and I was not amused. Instead of a free morning I kept them inside for a compulsory extra two-hour rehearsal of a piece we had brought but hadn’t as yet learnt – “Matra Pictures”- tricky unaccompanied songs about Hungarian peasant life by Zoltan Kodaly. Such was the confidence and ability of this group they not only learnt it in that time but we recorded it for posterity, and they were forgiven.
It became a tradition at the end of these foreign tours for us to keep the magic going as long as we could and finish with a song at baggage reclaim back in the U.K. It was usually “Rock-a-ma-soul in de bosom of Abraham” and it was always nice to see the expressions on the faces of fellow travellers change from shock and surprise to amusement and pleasure. And then it was home, with quite a few stories and special moments to relate.
Robin Nelson May 2020: to be continued…