Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Edinburgh, St Mary’s Music School

Chapel Royal choir founded early in the sixteenth century

Edinburgh Saint Mary's interior
St Mary’s Edinburgh
Photo by permission
of the Provost

It may be interesting to note the history of chapel music in Scotland before the founding of St Mary’s cathedral choir in Edinburgh in 1880.  Briefly, King James the Fourth of Scotland founded his Scottish Chapel Royal choir early in the sixteenth century, consisting of 16 canons, nine prebendaries and six boys. It continued intermittently for about 100 years until James the Sixth of Scotland (James the First of England) restored the chapel at Holyrood House and choral services were resumed there.

Foundation of the diocese of Edinburgh

Charles the First showed tremendous interest in the project, founding the diocese of Edinburgh. At this time there were 16 men in the choir with six boys and an organist – what of the balance of voices? The choir was reputed to be first class at sight reading. Edward Kellie was in charge of the music and he informed the king that the boys had a daily practice and the men met twice weekly for rehearsal. They were all seated antiphonally and the boys wore what was described as "sad–coloured coats" and the men black gowns.

The foundation of St Mary's, 1879

The episcopal wing of the church was disestablished in 1688 and the whole tradition was lost until 1879 with the foundation of St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. A year later the choir school was founded by the cathedral authorities at Old Coates House, a day school giving a free education to 40 choristers. Also attached to the cathedral were three paid lay clerks and also some honorary men singers for Sundays. The boys were divided into two halves, 20 boys in each and each half singing on alternate days.

The twentieth century

1961 – Dennis Townhill appointed organist

Dennis Townhill was appointed organist in 1961 and one of his first actions was to persuade the authorities to increase the number of paid lay clerks to six. There were now 36 choristers and, for Sunday services, an additional eight honorary lay clerks.

Evensong was sung every day, with trebles only on Saturdays, and the boys also sang Matins alone on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sunday choral services consisted of 11am Matins followed by the Scottish Liturgy at 12 noon once a month. Evensong was sung at 3.30pm, and at 6.30pm there was a nave Evensong sung by half the choristers with voluntary men.

The establishment of a specialist music school, 1973

The cathedral authorities began to be worried about the school both from the financial side and also concerning the education of the boys. So, beginning in 1971, the provost and the cathedral organist spent two years carefully discussing the school's future with many leading musicians and educationalists in Scotland. It was finally decided to expand the school into a specialist music school on the lines of the Menuhin School, Lord Menuhin himself becoming patron. The school numbers would be between 40 and 50, with 20 of these places being held by choristers. The school was to be administered by a board of trustees and a board of management entirely detached from the cathedral, apart from supplying choristers for the cathedral choir.

The admission of girls as choristers, 1976

St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh
Photo by David Marshall
Some rights reserved

Girls were admitted as choristers in 1976, singing the top line with the boys. Entry to the school and choir was by audition, and for instrumentalists a very high standard was set.  Probationers for the choir were tested at the age of eight or nine years, who would have to leave the school at about 13 unless they were fortunate enough to win an instrumentalist’s place in the senior school where the leaving age was 18. In school all normal subjects were catered for with the addition of theory of music, composition and aural training.

The choristers were funded by scholarship funds held by the cathedral, but these were found to be inadequate so an appeal went out for £250,000. In order to keep up numbers, some choristers from local schools were recruited. Surprisingly perhaps, this arrangement worked quite well as choir duties for the most part were after school hours.

The repertoire was large, dating from pre-Reformation times to the present day, and including foreign composers such as Palestrina, Victoria, Lassus, Schutz, with classical masses by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, accompanied by the school orchestra. Both the Brahms and Fauré requiems have been performed, also Messiah, the Bach Passions and Christmas Oratorio.

Participation in the Edinburgh International Festival

The choir has been privileged to take part in the Edinburgh International Festival, and works such as the Tallis 40 Part Motet, Monteverdi Vespers, Bach’s B minor Mass and Britten’s Noye’s Fludde have all been included. There have been frequent broadcasts both on radio and television as well as recording sessions.

Overseas tours

The choir has travelled abroad many times, to Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Sweden and France, the latter including the singing of High Mass in Nôtre Dame Cathedral, Paris. 1976 and 1981 saw them travel to eastern America along with the string ensemble of St Mary’s Music School, and in 1984 there was a tour of western America. All aspects of the work of the music school and the life of the choir were filmed by ITV. Also throughout the summer of 1985 there was a series of concerts involving the border cathedrals choirs, Newcastle, Carlisle and Edinburgh, performing Bach’s Cantata Wachet auf on 24 November, and his Christmas Oratorio, parts one, two and three, on 8 December, and Handel’s Messiah on 15 December.

St Mary’s Edinburgh
Photo by permission
of the Provost

1986 was an extra busy year. On 1 March the choristers took part in the first performance of John McLeod’s Stabat Mater in the Usher Hall. More concerts followed between then and the middle of June, including Victoria’s St Matthew Passion and that by Bach, sung in German on Good Friday. On 20 April, the choir sang Evensong in St Peter’s Episcopal Church, Peebles. Six days later they were off to Carlisle for the Border Cathedrals' Festival. On 25 June there was a recital of music by Kenneth Leighton, with his choral music conducted by the composer and his organ music played by Dr Dennis Townhill. On 2 July, there was a recital of music by Francis Jackson, the choral works again being conducted by Dennis Townhill, while Dr Jackson played the organ pieces. A rather special choral Evensong took place on 22 August which included the first performance of Leighton’s anthem What love of this is thine, with the composer conducting. The work had been commissioned by the cathedral as a tribute to the 25 years that Townhill had officiated as organist and master of the choristers.

A performance of the Fauré Requiem was given on 9 November, and in mid-December the choir gave a choral concert in the Royal Scottish Academy Art Gallery. A few days later there was a performance of Messiah sung by the cathedral choir and the Scottish Cantata Singers to the accompaniment of the orchestra of St Mary’s Music School. Christmas Eve found the choristers singing on BBC TV’s news.

In 1987, the choir made recordings of church music to the accompaniment of St Mary’s orchestra; there were works by Purcell, Bairstow, Leighton and Dennis Townhill, with Francis Jackson’s Benedicte and Te Deum.

On 24 August 1988 the death occurred of Kenneth Leighton who, since 1956, had lived in Edinburgh, being professor of music at the university, and who had worked closely with St Mary’s and the cathedral. Once again, the choir joined with the Durham choir for a service in the cathedral, also taking part in the Border Cathedrals' Festival that year in Newcastle. More recordings by Priory were released, including canticles and anthems accompanied by St Mary’s orchestra and featuring the music of Purcell, Sir Edward Bairstow, Francis Jackson, Dennis Townhill and Kenneth Leighton.

On 23 October Prince Edward attended Evensong and opened the cathedral workshop for training apprentice stonemasons, and on 30 November, St Andrew’s Day, there was a broadcast of choral Evensong by the BBC. A carol concert for the Friends of the Royal Scottish Academy took place on 13 December, and to end the year the choristers featured in Radio 4’s Women’s Hour on 22 December.

1989 was another busy year. In April, the choir sang in the Usher Hall on the occasion of the unveiling of a bronze bust of John Hislop, former chorister and internationally famous tenor early in the twentieth century. In July, the choristers and their organist, took part in the BBC TV programme High Spirits.  In addition to these events and the daily Evensongs in the cathedral, there were the joint services with Durham cathedral choir and the Border Cathedrals' Festival in Carlisle. During the Edinburgh International Festival, four choristers took part in the Moscow State Opera production of Boris Godunov, singing the Lord’s Prayer in Russian. Other extra liturgical events during the year included the Bach St John Passion, the Fauré Requiem with the London Festival Orchestra, repeated at Melrose, and a rewarding concert of Favourite Church Music which raised £1,000 for the Chorister Scholarship Fund in October.

1990 saw the usual annual events taking place, also non-liturgical performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the ever popular Fauré Requiem, also Handel’s Messiah. There were two concerts with the London Festival Orchestra, Haydn’s St Nicholas Mass and Bach’s B minor Mass that was given in honour of Dr Dennis Townhill’s sixty-fifth birthday. A recording of Songs of Praise was made when the choristers travelled to Lichfield, along with others of the Northern Division of the Choir Schools Association, in the presence of HRH The Duchess of Kent. Back home the choir took part in a concert in aid of the Macmillan Cancer Fund given in the cathedral. The month of December saw the usual round of carol concerts, namely for the Friends of the Royal Scottish Academy, the staff and pupils of Balerno High School and the City Carol Service in the Usher Hall.

1991 – Dr Dennis Townhill retires

St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh
Photo by Andy H McDowell
Some rights reserved

In March 1991, when it was announced that Dr Dennis Townhill, organist for nearly 30 years, would be retiring at the end of July, great celebrations were planned for June. First a magnificent organ recital by Dr Townhill and then the choir had learnt a work, specially commissioned for the occasion, by Dr Francis Jackson. Many gifts were presented to Dr and Mrs Townhill, and the cathedral authorities appointed him Organist Emeritus. Finally, he was awarded the OBE in the New Year’s Honours list. Timothy Byram-Wigfield followed him as organist in August, coming from the assistantship of Winchester Cathedral.

National Music Day dawned on 28 June 1992, when a 24 hour "musicthon" was organised by the choir, which included the old choristers singing some "golden oldies" with bagpipe music, and the organist, Timothy Byram-Wigfield, playing Bach’s Toccato and Fugue in D minor – blindfold. That year the Border Cathedrals' Festival was held at Carlisle in October, and in the following year it was held in Edinburgh and extended to a whole weekend of music making, including a premiere of a work, commissioned by St Mary’s Cathedral, by Francis Grier, Salve Regina, which was destined for another performance in the Edinburgh Festival. At last, owing to a generous bequest, all the choristers were enabled to be educated at St Mary’s music school.

The choir’s musical year 1993 to 1994 was packed with activity. First a trip to France singing in Paris and Chartres, an appearance with the King’s Consort at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, and a CD of Christmas carols. There were celebrations to mark the sixtieth birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, consisting of concerts in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. The choir also made a recording of Volume 1 of Evening Canticles for Priory. Finally, appeals were launched for the restoration of the cathedral organ, also of the song school and its precious nineteenth century murals, and, last but not least, to provide much needed bursaries for choristers and choral scholars at Edinburgh University.

1995 – the music school moves into the former theological college at Coates Hill

All this activity and more spilled over in 1995 when the music school moved into the former theological college at Coates Hill, recently renovated. One of the highlights of that year was the live television broadcast from the cathedral on Easter Day, accompanied by the newly restored organ.

During the summer of 1996, the choir undertook a tour of some cathedrals and abbeys, visiting Liverpool, Bath, Westminster, St Alban’s and Lincoln, and in the following year they were singing in Holland. In complete contrast, they performed in the Glenlivet Fireworks Concert in Princess Street during the festival. More recordings were afoot in that year, first a CD of Great Cathedral Anthems Volume 8 by Priory, followed later by all the choral music of Bliss.

1998 – tour to the USA

Saint Mary's Cathedral interior
Photo by AJ Alfieri-Crispin
Some rights reserved

1998 saw more travelling, the choir spending a week in Rhode Island and singing in a liturgical festival; very soon after they were off to Switzerland in May to take part in the Basle European Youth Choral Festival with 11 other choirs from all over the continent. The Choral Scholarship Fund had grown steadily for both the choristers and the lay clerks, and the renovated song school was very nearly ready to open its doors to show the cleaned and restored Phoebe Traqueir murals and the refurbished organ, all of which were officially opened by the Princess Royal in 1998.

The following year proved to be a busy one for the choir. They sang their usual Evensong with Durham cathedral choir, gave several concerts featuring music of Duruflé, took part in the Border Cathedrals' Festival, a performance of Messiah with the then BT Scottish Ensemble and, when the Anglican Consultative Council met in Edinburgh, the choir sang choral Eucharist. In the contemporary field, they premiered a work by Howard Skempton. Lastly, Timothy Byram-Wigfield, their master of music, retired, his place being taken by Matthew Owens.

The year 2000 saw the taking part in Edinburgh’s official Hogmanay celebrations. The choir made recordings of music for Advent and Christmas to be released later in that year.

St Mary’s is the only cathedral in Scotland to possess a choir school, the first to admit girls to the top line, and to sustain a tradition of daily choral services. The school and all it stands for add immeasurably to the already well known excellence of Scottish education.