Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Durham, The Chorister School

Origins in the fifteenth century

Durham Cathedral
Photo courtesy of Dave Webster

There might well be some understandable confusion over the early days of the song school at Durham, for there were indeed two song schools in the fifteenth century: the Langley Song School and the Monastic Song School. Bishop Langley founded his song school early in the fifteenth century and its boys were prepared for the grammar school. It occupied a different site from, and had nothing to do with, the Monastic Song School which was the precursor of our modern Chorister School which had its origins in the almonry school.

The Monastic Song School

The latter school was founded between 1430 and 1432 and had its home, until 1539, on the south side of the Sanctuary wall. John Stele was appointed to teach certain monks and eight secular boys in plainsong, pricksong, that is, any music written down as opposed to being learnt by rote, fauxbourdon and descant. They practised in the Chapter House which disturbed the monks reading in the cloisters, so a special practice room was built at the south end of the Nine Altars Chapel.

The sixteenth century

The almonry school was responsible for the boys’ board and lodging but it is not known how much they shared in the activities of the school, except it was likely that they took part in all-night vigils at the death of a monk. More and more they were breaking away from the almonry to become a song school in their own right. There were a number of cantors, or masters, at the turn of the century, among them Thomas Foderly, John Tildsley, and Robert Langfoth. In 1513 Thomas Ashwell came from Lincoln followed by William Robson in 1527 and the last of the monastic canons, John Brymley in 1536.

The Dissolution

Three years later the monastery surrendered to Henry the Eighth and some two years after that it was reconstituted as a cathedral. John Brymley continued as master of the choristers, now ten in number, and he was permitted to be absent except on Sundays and Holy Days. This indicates that they did not sing daily, perhaps partly explained by the fact that following the Reformation there was not enough music available yet; but in 1544 we have records of a considerable amount of music being bought for the new liturgy, and John Brymley was busy composing.

Two sixteenth century anecdotes

In the middle of the sixteenth century we have the start, but not the finish, of two short anecdotes concerning two choristers, Dobson and Raikbaines, the first a senior and the second very junior.

One morning Raikbaines came to school bearing a pudding and asking Dobson to be his protector in return for half the pudding. Dobson suggested that Raikbaines climb up and look out of a high window to see if the others were coming.  While the latter was thus occupied Dobson seized the whole pudding and made off with it through the church and cloister and into the Minor Canons’ Hall.

The second story is again of Dobson who on the way to school one morning met his fellow choristers and asked them where they were going. When they replied "to school" he assured them that there was no school that day as it was a public holiday; they took some persuading, but finally dispersed. Meanwhile Dobson went on to school and was greeted by John Brymley who asked him where the others were, to which Dobson replied that they had told him that it was a holiday but that he hadn’t believed them. Brymley sent him to fetch them whereupon Dobson told them that even though it was a holiday some important visitors had arrived from London who wanted to hear them sing, adding that the visitors were held up at the shrine of St Cuthbert.

John Brymley died in 1576 and is buried in the Galilee chapel, his successor being William Browne, a chorister whose voice had just broken, although he could have been seventeen years old. He was reputed to be a good musician but "severe". Curiously, between 1588 and 1598, one William Smythe was master of the choristers, William Browne returning in 1599.

The seventeenth century

St Bede's tomb, Durham Cathedral
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
Some rights reserved

William Browne retired 14 years later, when Richard Hucheson took over, he being a very fine organist but a far from upright character who found himself in jail in 1627. On his release there were still episodes in ale houses including a brawl in one of them so that Hucheson lost his post of teaching the choristers to sing, but owing to his gift as a player he was retained as a teacher of organ and virginals to the boys.

In June 1633 Charles the First visited the cathedral on his progress to Scotland.  He criticised some of the outbuildings including the song school so it was demolished and set up in the south transept.

Records of an extensive repertoire

According to the numerous part-books which survive from this time the repertoire must have been considerable and produced at least three choristers whose compositions were performed in the cathedral, Cousin, Wilson and Foster, who while still a treble composed a service in 1638, which was immediately performed and who at the Restoration became master of the choristers. However, in September 1640 suddenly all this was no more as the Scots overran Durham following the defeat of the king’s army, occupying the city for two years when considerable damage was done to the organ in particular and no record remains of the deeds of the choristers or the state of the music.

The Restoration

At the Restoration in 1660 to 1661, 11 new choristers were chosen, although none with any experience. The song school was again moved. This time to the west side of the cloisters, where it stayed until the end of the nineteenth century. Charles the Second had made it fashionable to have instruments as well as the organ in church and at Durham two choristers whose voices had just broken, immediately transferred to the sackbutt and cornet, and one of them, Alexander Shaw, became organist in 1677, but uniquely not master of the choristers, which position was held by one John Nicholls.

 In Bishop Cosin’s visitation of 1662 he made extensive enquires concerning both the schooling and the deportment of the choristers asking if they all were properly attired in gowns and clean surplices, also that the music was carefully laid out before the service so that no running about during the service was incurred. In reply Prebendary Isaac Basire stated in 1668,

"…that the service of God is better performed here than in sundry cathedrals … yet I wish some effectual course were taken for the better breeding of the choristers".

This was endorsed more fully by Dean in 1680 to 1681, who complained of boys running to and fro during the services and, with the lay clerks, laughing, lolling about in the stalls and even sleeping.

Dating from this time is Durham’s oldest service list which shows that there was now daily Matins and Evensong, and by the turn of the century the music of Humfrey, Blow, Purcell and Turner was in the repertoire.

Once more the posts of organist and choir master were combined when in 1682 William Greggs was appointed and who stayed for 28 years, albeit he was admonished to be more careful in his teaching of the choristers in 1704.

The eighteenth century

Durham Cathedral from the banks of the river
opposite the Old Fulling Mill Museum
Photo by Jim Barton. Some rights reserved

The year 1711 saw James Heseltine made organist and master of the choristers until 1763, and during his time there was a musical dean, Spencer Cowper, who held concerts at the Deanery in which minor canons, lay clerks and probably some choristers took part.  The music of Handel predominated and Alexander’s Feast, Samson and Acis and Galatea were all given.

1748 — another song school move

About 1748 there is a curious record of yet another song school move, this time to a room over Sir John Dolben’s gate, adjoining Sir John Dolben’s house where Heseltine was living at the time, but as Sir John died in 1756 it seem likely that this arrangement was short lived, even if it really took place.

In April 1748 there was a young chorister, Thomas Ebdon, remembered occasionally today for his Service in C, who was admitted and who progressed to be a lay clerk deputising on the organ during Heseltine’s last illness in 1763, when he was appointed organist and choirmaster. It is uncertain whether or not he was something of a failure for at this time the names of several "assistant instructors of the choristers" appear, all former choristers, Thomas Robinson, John and Ralph Banks, the latter going on to be organist of Rochester Cathedral in 1790.

There are two interesting entries at the turn of the century, first that one George Chrishop signed himself "organist of the cathedral church of Durham" and also that Charles Stanley, a lay clerk, was appointed to teach the choristers reading and writing at £16 per year, sending in a bill for the cost of books and pens for the choristers. Ebdon retired in 1811, five years before his death.

The nineteenth century

In the meantime bad behaviour was rife both inside and outside the cathedral and several boys were even accused of stealing lead. The Dean and Chapter took the sensible view that the boys had not enough to occupy them. They also decreed that funding for an apprenticing system must be given, at the same time expelling at least two choristers, James Hill in 1820 and John Brown in 1823.

Maria Hackett

About this time Maria Hackett visited Durham and following her enquiries to the Dean and Chapter concerning the general welfare of the choristers, she was given a somewhat prim reply stating the number of choristers and the times of services and subjects studied in school.  However, the fact that there was still no provision made for them when they left was added except that those who had behaved well were given an apprenticeship fee. For many years the boys had been supplied with a suit at a total cost of £50. Meanwhile their education was still primitive and in 1846 William Henshaw, organist and master of the choristers, complained that the boys were unpunctual and disorderly so that ideas were put forward for a boarding house to which the dean replied that this would be too expensive and that parents preferred things as they were.

Academic expansion from the mid-nineteenth century

A new precentor was due to be appointed so that certain improvements could be made. He would be asked to take charge of the boys’ religious and moral education and twice a year examine their general learning, also now it would be possible to include classics in the curriculum. The Dean and Chapter and the parents each providing a guinea a quarter. Instrumental instruction could be started at the same fee and would be had from the organist. A period of academic expansion had begun. The apprentice fees were revised and for the first time included boys who might go on to the grammar school or Diocesan training college.

The new precentor was the Reverend JB Dykes, of hymn tune fame, who took office in 1849. Four years later he reported that the state of the school was now very satisfactory although the curriculum still needed some expansion; so geography and history were quickly added. Further improvements were gradually brought in. In 1856 eight probationers were created and the first qualified teachers, Richard and Joseph Lawson were appointed in the mid 1860s. Also some boys were being boarded and lodged at parental expense. About 1872 the curriculum consisted of drawing, mensuration, reading, writing, arithmetic, Euclid, algebra, book keeping, history, geography and Latin.

Dr Henry Madden became schoolmaster in 1876 and is particularly remembered for his examination papers some of which survive to this day. He had 20 boys which made the song school impossibly crowded, particularly for practice purposes, so that a new practice room was set up in a basement of the Deanery, while lessons continued in the old song school. However, at the turn of the century a large room in one of the Prebendal houses was made available to the choristers as both a practice room and a schoolroom. While it was being repaired the boys found a stick of dynamite and left it in a pile of coke which found its way into the boiler and caused a tremendous explosion which might have blown up the Deanery. A lot of structural damage was done but no one was hurt.

The twentieth century

Chantry of Bishop Thomas Hatfield (1345-1381)
Photo by Nick Thompson
Some rights reserved

Choristers now began to come from homes outside Durham and were lodged with the schoolmaster, Mr Meaden and with a minor canon. Dr Armes was now organist and he brought a wealth of scholarship to his work on the repertoire until he resigned in 1907.

1902 — all choristers become boarders

In 1902 the practice room was moved to a site adjoining the south transept. At the same time the college was converted into a boarding house and it was decided that all choristers, wherever they lived, should be boarders. By 1906 larger premises were needed and in May of that year the boys moved into numbers 4 and 5 the college now known as The Chorister School. There were 20 boys, the headmaster and an assistant master. Regular holidays were organised, four weeks in the summer, 13 days after Easter and thirteen days after Epiphany (6 January). Dr Armes, the organist, retired in 1907 and was followed, curiously enough by the Reverend Arnold Culley, who combined the post of organist with that of precentor, a situation which lasted for 25 years.

There were 24 boys in 1914 and in this year the Reverend FS Dennett became headmaster. He was succeeded in 1929 by the Reverend HY Ganderton who, in his first speech day report, criticised the enormous age range of the school, 24 boys from eight or nine years old to 16 years old with only a small staff and a limited curriculum.

John Dykes Bower

In 1933 Mr John Dykes Bower was appointed organist and choirmaster coming from New College, Oxford. Following his appointment, Mr Dykes Bower travelled up to Durham to meet various officials and see over the cathedral, guided by the head verger.  As Mr Dykes Bower was about to leave, the verger asked him, "Have you got your hat, sir?" The Durham accent turned "hat" into "hoot" which JDB interpreted as "house" replying, "Yes thank you, I have been all over it and it looks very nice".

Conrad Eden — the longest serving  Durham organist of the twentieth century

John Dykes Bower had left in 1936 to be replaced by Conrad Eden who stayed until 1974, thus becoming the longest serving organist at Durham in the twentieth century. Dykes Bower had earlier written to the dean suggesting that the Chorister School and the Bow School, which was up for sale, should unite with the possibility of more classes and a larger teaching staff. However, this never came about. Following an inspection by the Ministry of Education in 1945 it was found that the school was too small to have such a wide age range, that much time was being spent on cathedral duties and that the age of leaving was too high. However, the tide was about to turn, albeit gradually, with the admission of non-choristers with eight day boys and four boarders joining the school in 1948 making a total of 36 boys.

Further expansion and another move

Durham Cathedral interior
Photo by Nick Thompson
Some rights reserved

Six years later there were 63 boys, creating a problem of overcrowding. But at Easter 1953 the school was able to move into the house which had formerly been St Mary’s College. Two years later there were 100 boys and academic standards had risen. Common Entrance results were good and there were scholarships to public schools. A further inspection by the Ministry of Education in 1957 resulted in recognition as efficient.

The Reverend Canon JM Grove took over the school in September of that year and Canon Ganderton was able to look back and see his dreams of expansion come true, and all in the space of ten years. Mr Grove found 108 boys in the school and the Dean and Chapter wanted to aim at 125. He arrived with many plans for the updating of the school as far as the buildings were concerned; the integration of boarders, choristers and day boys into a whole and the raising of academic standards. Recreational space was considerably extended and a good library was made. An art room with all facilities was built also a fully equipped science laboratory. New kitchens were made and painting and decorating throughout was undertaken.

In 1970 the archdeacon retired and 9, The College was given to the school, in return for rooms at number 5, number 9 being used as a music school with individual practice rooms and new pianos. New changing rooms and bathrooms were installed and one dormitory enlarged. A connecting passage was built between the two houses and furnished as a cloakroom. All this and more was done owing to the generosity of the Dean and Chapter. It cost about £80,000.

Rising academic standards

Academic standards did indeed rise, for between 1957 and 1978, 129 scholarships were won.  At the same time the less able boys were not neglected and during those 20 years only 11 boys failed their Common Entrance. Canon Grove was supported by a well qualified and able staff and there were few changes. His ambition to unite the three groups which formed the school— choristers, non–choristers and day boys— was helped by a number of activities. A Scout troop was formed also a debating society; the school play became an institution and music, other than church music, was introduced leading to the formation of an orchestra. Among other innovations the school was divided into "houses" and rugby was started.

Under the headmastership of Mr RG Lawrence, who was appointed in 1978, more expansion and reorganisation took place. Boys were now admitted at seven years instead of eight years.

1981— the non-choristers’ choir formed

In 1981 a non-choristers’ choir was formed and every Lent a major work was performed in the cathedral, among these were Fauré’s Requiem; Stainer’s Crucifixion and Haydn’s Nelson Mass, the underparts being taken by volunteers.

Many more boys were learning a musical instrument, in the case of choristers, two, so that an assistant director of music had to be appointed in 1983. More classrooms were built and an increase in staff was made. The science laboratory was moved and refurbished and a sports hall was built, which provided covered space in wet weather. In the same year the organist, Richard Lloyd, left to become deputy headmaster at Salisbury Cathedral School, his place being taken by James Lancelot.

The Northern Cathedrals' Festival in 1986 took the choir away to York, and back in Durham there was a liturgical performance of Fauré’s Requiem in November also a full length concert in the cathedral devoted to Mozart and Britten.

1987 saw the celebrations to mark the thirteen hundredth anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert. Also in March the choir travelled to Scotland and sang a combined Evensong with St Mary’s choir at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, also giving a concert at Loretto School. In their home diocese they gave four concerts in the larger parish churches.

1988 was an exceptionally busy year. In June the choir sang Haydn’s Missa Sancti Nicholai with the London Festival Orchestra and in July there was a Radio 3 broadcast of Evensong and later in the month the Northern Cathedrals' Festival at Durham. That was not all, in September they set off on a four day tour to Holland— the first ever. They sang Evensong and a concert at Maastricht and High Mass in Haarlem. The reception given them was outstandingly warm and appreciative. During the ensuing Advent they made recordings of music and readings for the BBC and to round off the year they gave two concerts in the diocese.

In November 1989 a great deal of time was spent in preparing and recording a Highway Christmas Special for transmission on Christmas Eve with Jessye Norman, Thomas Allen and of course Harry Secombe. Also on Christmas Eve another recording was transmitted on Radio 3, The Heart of Love. All this, of course, in addition to the regular daily services.

In 1991 the organist, James Lancelot reported on the choir’s busy and eventful year. In March the annual joint service with St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh took place. Three months later the Durham choir took part in a Cathedral Classic concert in the cathedral with the London Festival Orchestra. In July it was the turn of Durham to act as host to the Northern Cathedrals' Festival and among the music performed was Vaughan WilliamsMass in G minor and Richard Lloyd’s Durham Service. The headmaster reported that there were now 90 boys learning instruments in the school with the result that many non-choristers were winning music scholarships to their public schools.

In 1992 Daniel Hyde, the head chorister, played the organ at a charity concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, in aid of the Marfan Trust, raising over £1,000. Daniel suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome, which affects eyes, bones and heart and which means no games or strenuous exercise. At the concert in London he played Bach, Vierne and Gigout.

1993— nine hundredth anniversary celebrations

St Cuthbert's tomb. Cuthbert was monk and bishop at
Lindisfarne (Holy Island), and is a popular northern saint.
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
Some rights reserved

The celebrations in connection with the nine hundredth anniversary of the present cathedral on 19 August 1993 included a choral Evensong recorded earlier in the summer; the canticles were by Conrad Eden,  organist at Durham from 1936 to 1974, and the anthem was by Francis Grier. There were three singing trips in widespread directions, one to St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, another to Ripon for the Northern Cathedrals’ Festival and yet another to Durham Railway Station for the naming of a Class 91 locomotive, "Durham Cathedral". Also there were two Songs of Praise broadcasts and the release of a CD by Priory Records and an Evening Eucharist with Stan Tracy and his Orchestra. In 1994 Raymond Lawrence retired as headmaster after 16 years, he was the first lay headmaster since 1614. His place was taken by Stephen Drew from King’s College, Cambridge.

1994— tour to the USA

In the same year after a strenuous Holy Week and Easter, the choir with adult helpers, a total party of 38, set off on Easter Monday to fly from Glasgow to Logan, USA, from where they took an internal flight to Washington DC where they were met by a coach which was to transport them throughout the trip. First stop was St Paul’s Church where their host families were waiting to take them off for some rest. Before any singing was embarked on a day was spent in acclimatisation and sightseeing, including the White House and Washington National Cathedral. That evening there was a concert in St Paul’s Church, where they were given a warm reception.

The next coach journey was south to Durham, North Carolina, for Monteverdi’s Vespers and an evening concert. The next day there were various activities after which they were driven to Richmond, Virginia for another concert at All Saints Episcopal Church. Early on the Saturday a long drive took them north to Garden City, Long Island where, after some relaxation, a rehearsal was followed by supper and a concert.

On Sunday morning they sang Langlais’s Messa Solenelle in the Catholic church of St Ignatius Loyola in New York. Sightseeing occupied the afternoon before singing Evensong in Grace Church. Next day they left New York and turned south for Chesterton, Maryland where Evensong was sung in a tiny church which possessed a Harrison organ and where the congregation was so large that it overflowed outside the church. Later in the evening there was a concert in Washington College Centre. Turning north again to New England the choir gave a concert in Ashmont and next day a lunch time recital in St Paul’s Cathedral, Boston. Then it was off to Logan International Airport and home.

1995— Brian Crosby retires

The central tower of Durham Cathedral
Photo by Nick Thompson
Some rights reserved

The year 1995 saw the retirement of Brian Crosby, having completed 38 years teaching at the school and for the latter years as boarding housemaster to choristers and non–choristers. His place was taken by Martin Castle.

In May 1996 the choir gave a liturgical performance in the cathedral of Beethoven’s Mass in C, accompanied by the Northern Sinfonia. A month later they were off to Copenhagen as one of three English choirs who were invited to take part in two concerts in Copenhagen’s year as City of Culture. One concert was in Copenhagen Cathedral and one in the church of Our Lady at Elsinore. Back home on All Soul’s Day, the choir gave a moving performance of Fauré’s Requiem.

Continuing into 1997 many more exciting and memorable events took place. In January the French company Arte filmed part of Evensong early in the month and later in January the choir recorded a CD of carols for Priory. Then on 22 February they travelled to Edinburgh joining with the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral for Evensong and singing Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia. It was then the turn of the Durham choir to take part, with the Chichester choir, in the Festival of the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy in London, with the choir of St Paul’s. Back on home ground the school held its summer concert in the cathedral performing Mozart’s Vespers and Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. There were two releases of CDs one called Durham Commissions and another of Christmas carols. A 20 minute ride brought them to Newcastle where, with the Newcastle choir they sang Evensong. During the rest of the summer term there was a visit to Harrison and Harrison’s new organ works in Durham, an afternoon at the Historic Quay and aboard HMS Trincomalee, also to St Hilda’s church, Hartlepool.

On 26 November the choristers sang Britten’s Ceremony of Carols as part of the London Festival Orchestra’s concert and just before Christmas some of the choristers were seen on television singing for the prime minister’s visit when he opened the SPCK bookshop in the old octagonal mediaeval kitchen. James Lancelot, organist and old chorister of St Paul’s Cathedral, reported on the year 1998 saying that although the choir’s daily worship in the cathedral came first and foremost there had been room for some outside engagements as well.

In February they travelled down to London to record music by Duke Ellington and in April they went north to Stavanger and Trondheim in Norway, St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh and Newcastle Cathedral. They sang a service and a concert in the diocese also a concert in the cathedral with the BBC Scottish Ensemble at the end of the year. Plans for 1999 included a visit to Edinburgh and one to Uppingham, also a visit from the choir of Winchester Cathedral for joint singing.

May I quote the headmaster, the Reverend John Grove, who said:

"What were the boys like in days gone by? And the answer must surely be that they were the same as they are today. There may have been changes in fashions but the boy is eternally the same. His characteristics do not change. There is an infinite variety in boyhood but some things remain constant. There are, and always have been good boys and bad boys and the latter sometimes more attractive than the former; boys who sing and look like angels in the choir stalls, but to whom once they are out of the cathedral, fighting and ragging are the breath of life; boys who only work under pressure and boys to whom it comes naturally, boys who are fussy about what they eat and are careless about their property, boys who note the eccentricities of their elders, particularly the Dean and Chapter, and imitate them mercilessly; boys who are self–centred and boys who are generous; boys with a great sense of fun and an immense capacity for loyalty; boys who have a great sense of pride in the cathedral and feel deeply about it; boys whose behaviour can be exasperating and yet in themselves are essentially loveable. These are the generations who have made the school what it is, and throughout the ages have not changed".