Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Cambridge, St John’s College School

Origins in the seventeenth century

St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Photo by J Nathan Matias
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During the seventeenth century a certain Peter Gunning  who was successively master of St John’s College, Bishop of Ely and Bishop of Chichester left in his will the sum of £400 for the establishment of a choir at St John’s. Unfortunately a veil is drawn over the next two centuries only to reveal one short glance at the proceedings when towards the end of the nineteenth century we find the choristers of Trinity College and St John’s sharing a small schoolroom at 70, Bishop’s Street which later moved to All Saints Passage.

The twentieth century

So it is not until 1955 that we can pick up the threads and proceed uninterrupted to the present day. Shortly before Mr Cyril Walters took up his position as headmaster of St John’s College School in 1955 he paid a visit to the school and asked if he might interview the choristers. He found them a pleasant little crowd but it soon became apparent that academically they were considerably below par. He was faced with a choice – either to remove them for some considerable time, or to fit them in with the non-choristers in the school and hope for the best. He chose the latter course and said that he never regretted it.

1955 — relocation to new premises

In the same year an important decision was taken.  The school would move to much larger premises at 73 Grange Road, allowing room for a considerable number of boarders. By the 1960s the school was educating 20 chorister boarders, 20 non-singing boarders and about one hundred day boys. The man who saw this great venture through was Mr Walters  – painting, decorating and structural alterations and the buying of furniture, books and stationery proceeded alongside the interviews of parents and new boys. There was so much coming and going that the doors were left permanently open, such was the sense of security in the quiet town of Cambridge in the 1950s.

About 100 boys had to be fitted in, but of course the majority of applicants were in the eight year old age group so that care had to be taken not to flood the school with these. The upper forms were found to be of a modest standard generally and had achieved no more than the first declension in Latin and "First Steps in French".

An inspector calls

About half term HM Inspector of Schools suddenly appeared on the scene. Mr Walters did his best to explain the situation and the inspector asked if he might make a tour of the classrooms. Mr Walters promised him a strong whisky on his return. After an hour the study door opened and "a double whisky please" said the inspector. They agreed that an official inspection must be put off for some while, and Mr Walters asked for a postponement of four years.

The establishment of the school's values

Quite apart from the physical creation of the school, the spiritual side took time to establish, what might be called the "tone" or values which the boys had to learn to accept. Pilfering and bullying must be ruled out. The headmaster found that a reliable set of prefects did more, and saw more, than even the staff. But on one occasion the headmaster did intervene. A boy had been continually baited by another boy and his father complained. Mr Walters suggested that should it happen again the boy must hit the culprit on the nose. His advice was taken and the trouble never recurred.

There was similar incident with another boy who had also hit the bully on the nose. The headmaster sent for the boy who had been bullied and the boy went in fear and trembling. However, Mr Walters reassured him, telling him to hit much harder next time! It was an uphill task but on one occasion the headmaster was delighted to overhear a senior boy saying to another, "look, we don’t do that sort of thing here".

The building up of a reasonable standard of games was also a slow business. During the first winter soccer was played and a year later rugby was added; a reasonable standard was achieved. In the following summer cricket was begun but this was more slow to progress, no natural talent showing itself. Confidence was needed all round and the winning of a few matches helped. An interesting story illustrates this. A relative of the headmaster chanced to meet a boy from King’s. She told him that she was related to the headmaster of St John’s school and asked him what he thought of the school. He replied that he supposed that they were all right as a school but they were rotten at games. As it happened the two schools were due to play each other at rugby the following week. On the morning of the match the headmaster recounted the conversation to the boys at assembly. Afterwards the captain of rugby approached Mr Walters and asked if he had intended to make the boys angry, Mr Walters replied that he had. "Well sir, you have succeeded". That afternoon St John’s won 14-nil against King’s. There followed a poor season in 1957 but an all-victorious one in 1959 commemorated by a shield in the hall. Occasionally a good player would stay on for an extra term, with permission from parents and public school, a practice not unknown in other schools.

The school is successfully inspected

St John’s College Chapel interior
Photo by Andy Field
Some rights reserved

Four years after the opening of the school a classical scholarship was won to Felsted and Mr Walters had decided that the time had come to ask the ministry for an inspection. So one summer’s morning a Mr Holmes and a Mr Watson arrived and stayed three days having free access to any part of the school they wished. A happy atmosphere prevailed throughout and everything was a great success.

The introduction of fees for choristers

Fees for choristers were now being charged whereas before the move to Grange Road they were given a free education. These fees were to some extent assisted by choristers’ bursaries. However, the number of candidates for voice trials fell sharply and once no suitable boys could be found. So a record trial from within the school was undertaken at the suggestion of Dr Guest, the organist. The only successful boys came from the boarding house in Chesterton Road. Soon after voice trials became well attended and boys no longer had to live locally but could be recruited on a country-wide basis.

The end of Eton suits and Eton collars

About his time the robes of choristers were changed. Until then they had worn Eton suits and Eton collars with long white surplices and no cassocks. Their Eton suits were discarded and flannel suits replaced them. Scarlet cassocks were introduced, and black cloaks to protect them in bad weather were added, with mortarboards on their heads.

Refurbishment of the school chapel

The school chapel at this time doubled as a gym and was very badly furnished as a chapel. Lack of funds had prevented any further development in this direction. It was now felt that in a Christian school every effort should be made to furnish it in a dignified manner. Miss Ellen Brown, a distinguished authority on church furnishings both hard and soft, was brought from London. She very soon came up with some excellent ideas that in time were carried out. The school at this time was in a musically primitive state and much looked down on by the choristers, but through several years and a lot of hard work they were able at one speech day dinner to come down in their pyjamas and sing a Byrd motet as a post-prandial grace. As they grew in ability it became customary in the June break to take them in Dormobiles and cars to various churches and cathedrals to sing, at the invitation of the latter. On one occasion a visit was made to Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley where they sang in the ruins. The acoustics were superb and it prompted one young artist to say he thought he had heard "angels' voices".

"Little angels"?

Stained glass window from
St John’s College Chapel
Photo by Andy Field
Some rights reserved

Speaking of "angels", on one occasion the choristers were coming back from Evensong when they were intercepted by a gang of town boys who called them, among other things, "little angels". The head chorister told Mr Walters and asked what they should do if it happened again. Mr Walters gave his permission for them to break line, tackle the boys and dump them in the river, "show them the little angels can be quite tough too". It did happen again. They only managed to catch one boy propelling him towards the river howling. They did not throw him in but warned him what would happen if it occurred again. It never did.

One summer Mr Walters went to work to restore the garden of 73 Grange Road to its former glory. He used to rise at 5.30am and work till 8.30am. In time a lawn began to emerge which was later to become a tennis court. He cleared the rockery and discovered a sunken rose garden and a small area of wild flowers. Swimming progressed at that time, the early 1960s, from a stretch of the river at Newnham to a brand new swimming pool at the school financed by the college and built on an asphalt playground. To remedy the loss of playing space the tennis court was abandoned for tennis and used as a playground. In the severe winter of 1963 the boys hosed it down on several days until it made a splendid skating rink. Field games were of course impossible but the Cam was frozen over which provided a happy alternative. (Improvised ) tobogganing took place for the boarders on two evenings a week beyond Royston, a long slope provided them with a very fast run and happily there was only one very minor injury!

At the end of the summer term one of the boys who was a talented artist painted the St John crest and motto on an improvised flag with "Vive St John’s" across it. He rose at dead of night and hauled the flag to the top of the King’s flagstaff. Later Mr Walters approached his opposite number at King’s who kindly replied that if this was the worst thing his boys had done that term he should have a happy holiday.

1964 — fire at the school

In 1964 quite a serious fire swept through the school but mercifully it occurred during the June break and the school was empty.  Mr Walters was, at that time, on a short holiday tour with three boys and a Dormobile. Stopping off at Belfast to pick up letters they found a telegram telling them of the fire and asking them to return.

As they were on their second day anyway this was not difficult. On returning home they found a scene of chaos. It took many months of organisation and hard work to get things back to normal.

As in all schools and especially in choir schools, the drawing up of a timetable to suit all members of staff is a very skilled operation. Everyone needs more time for his or her subject; in addition extra-mural activities, however willingly undertaken, often bring the total of a schoolmaster’s day to about fifteen hours.

In 1966 it became clear that science must be added to the curriculum, so that the college provided a splendid laboratory for the school. Games were being extended as well. Golf and squash were introduced and camping was enthusiastically taken up by the boys. During one hot summer they were told that if the good weather continued after the June break they would be allowed to bring back tents with them. It did, and the garden became quite a sight. Although the timetable was very full, room was found for the showing of several films each term and speakers were brought in to talk to the boys on many subjects.

Mr Walters retires

St John's Chapel interior
Photo by Andy Field
Some rights reserved

Mr Walters was soon to retire after building up the school from scratch. He looked back on his 16 years in office. During that time there had been a number of changes and developments. Boys had been given more freedom and independence, discipline had changed from being purely negative and had become more positive and reasonable. He believed in trusting his boys although he was sometimes let down. He generally knew when a boy was lying but gave him time to return to him and come clean.

In 1973 the school first opened its doors to girls and this has been a great success.

Overseas tours

1978 — Belgium

At Michaelmas 1978 there had been few changes amongst the choristers so that at the end of term it was possible to give a recital at The Maltings, Snape on the way to a short tour of Belgium where the party managed to fit in a visit to Waterloo.

1979 — Germany, Belgium and Eire

The following year the choir again visited Europe; firstly Eindhoven, then Cologne where they made some radio recordings, and finally Brussels. Back home they suffered pouring wet weather for the annual singing on the tower for Ascension Day. George Guest had gone on sabbatical leave and Peter Hurford had taken over his place. More Argo records were made with the emphasis on Mozart, after the success of the Psalms records. The June break saw the choir in Nuremberg where they sang in one of the larger city churches. Next day they sang in an Anglican Eucharist in another church. The following weekend they were to be found in Dublin singing in both in the Catholic cathedral and Saint Patrick’s Anglican cathedral. More records were released in that year including the St Cecilia Mass by Alesandro Scarlatti and the delightful Stabat Mater of Pergolesi.

1980 — Germany and the Netherlands

Shortly before Christmas in 1980 there was a tour of Germany visiting Kempen, Mepple, Utrecht and Doesberg also taking in Amsterdam and Dordrecht in the Netherlands.

1981 — France and Greece

The following year the choir travelled first to Normandy in June, singing in Rouen, Caen and Montvilliers, and in October they were in Greece, chiefly in Athens.

1982 — Australia

Plans were already in hand for a tour of Australia in 1982, singing in Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney, Hobart, Brisbane, Townsville, Newcastle and Melbourne. As it turned out this tour drew enthusiastic audiences almost all demanding encores.

1983 — Sweden and Spain

1983 saw two foreign tours; in July a visit to Sweden giving concerts in Stockholm, Falun, Gothenburg, Ystad, Brunnberg and Falkenburg, and shortly before Christmas the choir turned south for a short trip to Spain, singing in Barcelona, Tarragona and the Abbey of Montserrat. At home they had been busy with concerts and recitals in such far-flung venues as Holy Trinity, Clapham, the Cambridge Festival, Rhosllanerchrugog, South Wales and Bedford.

1984 — Germany and the Netherlands

St John’s College Chapel
Photo by Michael Aston
Some rights reserved

In 1984 there was short trip to Germany and the Netherlands singing in Kempen, Zwolle and Heeswijk. In 1985 the choir travelled to Newport (Casnewydd) cathedral where they gave a highly successful recital, and on 13 December they were to be heard in the Netherlands and amongst other places they sang in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden, Doesburg and Groningen.

The Lent term of 1986 saw the usual Ash Wednesday Evensong with its customary Allegri Miserere broadcast on Radio 3. During the term the choir had been visited by the choristers of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and towards the end of term the choir made its first EMI recording singing the four and five part masses of Byrd.

1986 — Switzerland

The first part of the summer term gave everyone a breather and the only fixture was the May concert when the choir sang the four choral pieces of the Songs of Zion by Robin Orr, the previous organist of St John’s. Shortly before the long vacation the choir set off for Switzerland to sing Evensong in the Fraumunster in Zürich when the congregation numbered about 800. Then there was a concert in the town hall which was uncomfortably hot. However, the boys found ample time for swimming in Lake Zürich.

Back home and early in July there was a live broadcast of Evensong on Radio 3, and shortly afterwards they took part in a film entirely in Welsh for which they had been carefully coached. The annual Evensong with King’s soon followed, that year in King’s Chapel, and then the Cambridge Festival Concert in St John’s chapel. This was repeated in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and at the end of term they recorded a carol for Chandos.

1986 — tour to the USA

Several weeks of well-earned vacation followed but towards the end of August the choir travelled to the USA singing in Yantic (Connecticut), Lynchburg, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Kansas City, Buffalo, Worcester and New York. Everywhere they received tremendous hospitality and in Chicago the choristers were taken to the top of the highest building in the world, the Sears Tower, to Niagara Falls and on a boat trip round Manhattan Island.

1987 — UK concerts plus a trip to Canada

In February 1987 the choirs of St John’s and King’s joined forces accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra to give a concert to mark the opening of The Corn Exchange. King’s choir gave a performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass and St John’s the Fauré Requiem. In London, the choir visited Westminster Cathedral to sing Evensong followed by a performance of Langlais’s Messe Solenelle by the combined choirs of Westminster Cathedral and St John’s. Very shortly after the St John’s choir gave a concert in Derby Cathedral. In addition to the usual recordings and broadcasts a mini tour of Canada was made shortly before Christmas whilst plans for a trip to Norway and Sweden during the June break were being made.

In the following year there was an exceptionally good concert for the Cambridge Festival, whilst the joint Evensong with King’s took place as usual. A recording of Mozart’s Requiem was made by Chandos records and later in the year it was repeated along with Mozart’s Solemn Vespers at The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. On the following day the choir travelled to Rugby to give a concert in the school chapel.

The four hundredth anniversary of the translation of the Bible into Welsh

Gargoyle — St John’s Chapel Tower
Photo by "jonanamary"
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At the time of the four hundredth anniversary of the translation of The Bible into Welsh by Bishop William Morgan, a member of St John’s College, the choir learnt as much Welsh as was required, giving three concerts in Saint Mary’s Church, Abertawe (Swansea), the Great Hall of the University College, Aberystwyth and Bangor Cathedral when the audiences were very large.

1988 — Scandinavian tour

The recently planned tour of Norway and Sweden took place during the summer months when the temperatures over there reached 91 degrees and never fell below 81 degrees. Great stamina therefore was needed but a considerable amount of time was given for sailing and swimming. Also a couple of hours were spent at the Gothenburg funfair where books of free tickets were handed out.

1989 — once more to Canada

Canada was the venue during the following winter, when concerts were given in Port Hope, Ottawa, Toronto, Barrie, Kitchener, Kingston and Montreal; the choir enjoyed the most lavish hospitality wherever they went. Niagara Falls was visited under the grip of ice and snow. Back home concerts were given in two school venues, those of Bedford School and Oundle Organ Festival where the choir received a standing ovation at the end.

1990 — trips to the USA and Brazil

It was the turn of the New World once more in August 1990 when concerts were given in New York, Minneapolis, Denver, Philadelphia and other centres culminating at Washington. Nearer home, during the Michaelmas term in August St John’s choir was one of the three guest choirs to be invited to take part with them and with the choirs of Liverpool and Salisbury cathedrals in the Festival of the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy at St Paul’s. Unfortunately George Guest was unable to attend through illness and his place was taken by Andrew Nethsingha, at the time of writing organist of Truro Cathedral, who was also responsible for the music in the chapel for the second half of the Easter term. December 1990 saw the choir break new ground in the form of a short tour to Brazil where audiences showed great interest and enthusiasm. Concerts were given at Recife, Brasilia, Saõ Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

1991 — Dr Guest retires

Dr George Guest retired in 1991 after 40 years in office and Christopher Robinson was appointed in his stead.  To mark the occasion on 14 July 90 choristers and former choristers as well as 140 other guests enjoyed a champagne tea on the playing fields opposite the school in perfect weather. There were gifts to Dr Guest and his wife and afterwards the assembled company gathered in the chapel for Evensong, choristers and former choristers joining in Parry’s I Was Glad – a truly moving occasion. One of the first innovations that Christopher Robinson made was the introduction of orchestral accompaniments to some Sunday morning Eucharists in 1992. These were well received and it was hoped that there would be more in the future.

Further overseas tours

NOTICE: Visitors admitted to view the
Tower or other parts of the college
chapel are earnestly requested
to abstain from writing thereupon.
Photo by "jonanamary"
Some rights reserved

There were three short trips abroad, two to France and one to Dublin followed by a more full scale tour to Holland in December. After an early start they went by coach to Ramsgate and took the ferry to Dunkirk where their coach drove them to Dordrecht where they stayed the night. After a free morning and a ham and cheese lunch they had a long practice in Dordrecht Minster and afterwards some shopping in the town. Returning to the minster they were given a Chinese meal in the vestry followed by the concert which in the opinion of one or two choristers was only moderately successful. Directly after, the coach took them to Valkenswaard for an overnight stop in a youth hostel. Next day they set off for Weert and St Martins church for a practice. In this town they were billeted out with hosts who gave them supper before the concert, which went very well. The following morning the coach took them to The Hague where they were given ham and cheese rolls before practice, and sang a concert at four o'clock. Supper was taken in a restaurant and they slept at the comfortable conference centre. Before leaving for Eindhoven the following morning they sang for a few guests who were staying at the centre. At Eindhoven they had lunch at the Catharina hospital, the venue of that night’s concert which was proceeded by a practice. The hall only held about 350 people. After cheese and ham for next morning’s breakfast the coach took them to their final destination, Aardenburg. Lunch followed, with introductions to their hosts, the usual practice and then their last concert. Next morning the coach took them to Dunkirk, the ferry and home.

A visit from the prime minister

On one occasion a party of agriculture ministers had been meeting in Cambridge and decided to attend Evensong at St John’s; the choir were informed minutes before the service. The Canticles were to be Stanford in G which must have put an added strain on the solo boy. After the service the choristers were invited to meet the ministers in the Combination Room. It was very crowded and noisy and John Major, then prime minister, said that he would like to see the boys. They each had an individual interview with him and came away quite excited.

Other commitments in that year were a concert in Weatherby and one in the Cambridge Festival. In addition the boys took part in a performance of Elijah in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham. In a more unusual medium (for them) they took part in a film for BBC 2 about John Tavener. Their organist told them that he was about seven feet tall and looked like God.

Just before the end of the Easter term 1993, the choristers were taken on a day trip to London. They visited the Lord Chancellor’s private apartments, saw the procession to the House of Lords, the House of Commons and 10 Downing Street, climbed up and down Big Ben, cruised down the Thames to Canary Wharf, rode on the Docklands light railway and then came back to Cambridge for a barbecue.

1995 — two major overseas tours

St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Photo by Andrew Stawarz
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After the regular chapel services, 1995 was an important year for two major tours, the first to South Africa in August and September and the second to Canada and the USA during December. In addition they paid a short visit to Saarbrucken taking part in the British Music Festival there in June. Concerts during the year included one at Stowe School and one at The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, and also the making of a CD. They were visited by two distinguished ladies, Ursula Howells and Lady Walton, daughter of Herbert Howells and widow of Sir William Walton respectively, who were intrigued at the custom of the raising of a hand in practice when a mistake has been made (customary in many practice-rooms – very occasionally a small hand is raised inadvertently during service).

It is impossible in a short space to record adequately the achievements, the moments of exhaustion, the return to vigour and the general excitements of the Australian tour of August 1996. A poor start with five hours’ wait on the runway at Heathrow and a final take-off at 5:30 am was not the best preparation for an 18 day tour of the Antipodes. Sufficient to say that the choir sang to packed out audiences and received standing ovations in Brisbane, Lismore, Canberra, Sydney (three concerts), Melbourne and Adelaide. In Melbourne they recorded a television programme in the cathedral and in Sydney town hall the concert was broadcast live. Wonderful hospitality was received from their hosts and Musica Viva who had promoted the tour had done a superlative job.

Back home, during the Michaelmas term Schubert’s Mass is A flat was given at a solemn Eucharist joined by Gonville and Caius College choir and the University Chamber Orchestra. The work was recorded by the BBC on 18 December, this time with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and broadcast on Easter Day 1997. Looking further ahead an Evensong with orchestra was also recorded, and broadcast the following August.

The Advent Carol Service was given twice in order to accommodate all those who wished to attend it.

In March 1997 the choir made a CD of the music of Mendelssohn for Nimbus before leaving for a tour of Belgium. The route this time was by way of the seven hour crossing from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. There they were met by their host, Mr Piet Lindenburg and escorted to their coach which took them to their hotel two hours' drive away. Next day after a short practice they boarded the coach and travelled to Amsterdam where they practised and gave their first concert in the Westerkirk. Their next stop was Groningen where both practice and concert went well. As the next day was Sunday they had a free day occupying themselves with board games, television, swimming and window shopping. On the Monday it was the Grotekerk in Maasluis for an extremely successful concert, Tuesday then saw them in Hardwijk where for an encore they gave Allegri’s Miserere. Next day it was the journey home by coach and ferry.

1998 tours of South Africa and Japan

St John's Chapel Cambridge
Photo by "Yakinodi"
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1998 was a very busy and varied year including the making of two CDs, one of the complete choral works of Durufflé and the other of Advent and Christmas music. But the outstanding events of that year were the two major tours abroad, to South Africa and Japan. August saw them in South Africa where they were based at St John’s College, Johannesburg. They sang the Missa Luba with the Kwathema Youth Choir which was followed by a joint recording of this work for the local Classic FM station. The choir also travelled to the Lesedi Cultural Village where the boys and men joined in traditional dances also taking part in a concert to raise money for local musicians. The whole tour was a great success and could not have gone ahead without the sponsorship of the Choir Association and others.

The second tour took them to Japan in December. It was the time of the Festival UK in Tokyo presenting many aspects of British life and culture, so what could be more typical than performances of English cathedral music? The choir sang at the British embassy Christmas party, also at the Tsukuba Nova Hall, Kanto Gakuin, Triphony hall, St Margaret’s College, Kyoto Concert Hall, Izumi Hall, and two concerts in the Suntory Hall. There was also a concert at Tokyo Opera City in the presence of the Crown Prince and Princess to whom the choir were presented afterwards.

1998 — a year of scholarships

The headmaster Mr Kevin Jones has reason to be proud of his boys and girls for in 1998 they won no less than 27 scholarships to their secondary schools. As well as the nine music scholarships there were awards for art, sport and academic excellence. Among the music scholarships there was one to Eton for Edward Jones a 13 year old chorister who also entered for, and won a national competition for writing choral music – a four-part anthem entitled Litany. One of the advantages that the Oxbridge choirs have concerning the number of foreign tours that they are able to make is that their singing tours are much shorter than those of the cathedrals, enabling them to prepare the music to be sung abroad whilst the daily Evensongs are temporarily suspended.