Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Ely, The King’s (Junior) School

Origins in the fifteenth century

Source: The Stained Glass Museum
Lent by the Dean and Chapter of Ely

In 1461 the Cantor of the Chapel and a group of singing boys are first mentioned in the records.  These boys were not taught lessons in the almonry school and it is not known whether or not they received any education at all, other than music.

The sixteenth century

In 1568 Queen Elizabeth the First issued statutes to the effect that there was to be one master of the choristers and eight singing boys. It was in the hands of the dean or, in his absence, the vice dean and the Chapter, together with the master of the choristers to appoint new boys to the choir. This master was to be of good character and skilled in singing and organ playing and he was to teach suitable boys the organ.

For clothing, it was stipulated that all who sang in the choir, from minor canons down to the humblest chorister, should all wear the same colour, the cloth being distributed annually at Christmas. Stipends were fixed, the master receiving 4, eight shillings and ten pence per year and the choristers each 3 six shillings and eight pence per year. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, these were their names: Robert Hullyard, John Cooke, John Welles, Thomas Ellerter, John Salmon, Thomas Coste, John Silvertop and Richard Smythe, with their master, William Smith the Elder, who was succeeded in 1610 by Georgius Barcrofte with his choristers Thomas Butler, Georgius Marche, Willemus Leaorye, Willemus Stannord, Samuel Serle, Henricus Fawxe, Thomas Yerrow and Thomas Odams. Four years later the following names appeared: Willemus Bradley, Robertus Rust, Willemus Hinde, Leonard Lauderdale, John Bradford, Henry Evans, John Perrie and George Barcrofte.

The seventeenth century

 In 1615, John Amner was appointed master, or Informator Choristarum.  He was born in Ely in 1579 and died there in 1641. He was a prolific composer of church music, an early work being The Sacred Hymns of Three, Four, Five and Six Parts for Voices or Viols. He was later ordained and became a prebendary of Ely Cathedral. He gained a Cambridge B mus a year before his death, and his many compositions include Lift Up Your Heads (five part), a verse anthem O Ye Little Flock and, perhaps best known, Consider All Ye Passers By.

Dean Caesar, who died in 1636, left in his will the sum of 33 shillings and 4 pence to each of the choristers annually. Whether this money was tided over until the Restoration is not known. At this time a new set of choristers was recruited from boys living in the city, mostly sons of tradesmen, artisans and lay clerks, still eight in number and all day boys. The only education provided by the Dean and Chapter was musical, given by the master of the choristers, who was nearly always the organist as well.

The eighteenth century

The interior of Ely Cathedral
Photo by R.I. Pienaar
Some rights reserved

1720 – the King's School first emerges

A few boys qualified for the grammar school which, in 1720, became known as The King’s School for the first time. However, the school was then in a bad way with only a small number of boys and with the education at a low level.

The new master in 1725 was Mr Gunning. In 1749 a Chapter meeting agreed that a gallery was to be built in the cathedral for the lay clerks, choristers and a few King’s Scholars for use while the sermon was preached, and at a later meeting it was granted that desks should be erected for the choristers at ground level and that they should move forward in line with the King’s Scholars, while the lay clerks should take the boys’ places.

The nineteenth century

At the start of the nineteenth century, there were still only eight choristers, each being paid 4 per year plus a few extra gratuities, presumably for weddings and funerals. As each boy’s voice broke and he left, the Dean and Chapter paid him 20 for an apprenticeship.

At a Chapter meeting in 1843 it was decided that any choristers who were at the King’s School should have all their monies paid into a savings bank, not to be drawn out until they had left the choir.

1852 – the Reverend Ernest Ingle appointed headmaster

In 1852 the Reverend Ernest Ingle was appointed headmaster. He seems to have been a bit of a disturber of the peace but this was perhaps just what was wanted. He wrote a very long letter to the Dean and Chapter about the state of the school. His opinion of the school was that it was in the lowest state of decay. The curriculum consisted of only arithmetic and writing, and his attempt to teach a simple English lesson had ended in failure. A little Latin had been taught but boys of 15 and 16 years were unable to go through the five declensions accurately; his only assistant was one of the lay clerks. The Dean and Chapter responded by buying better and more comfortable furniture for the schoolroom, and by spending nearly 4 on a small apparatus for chemical experiments. Also a system of half-yearly prizes was instituted to a limit of 5. But best of all, in 1853 they appointed a most efficient second master.

Academic expansion in the mid-nineteenth century

The Choir, Ely Cathedral
Around 1890
Source: Wikipedia

A year later there were 12 choristers and more than half of them attended the King’s School, some of them on the Foundation. Mr Ingle was able to expand the curriculum in time; he introduced geography, poetry, mythology, grounding in Latin and Greek, French, mercantile accounts, chemistry, history and English composition. He was pleased with the progress he had made but told the Dean and Chapter than there was still a great deal to be done. He asked that scholarships and exhibitions to the universities should be founded and also that a master of modern languages should be appointed as at present only French was taught. He said that another crying need was for a proper dry playground and a shed for wet weather.

He also asked for gymnastic apparatus and for new lavatories. He wished that one or more houses should be acquired for a considerable number of boarders as this would add to the prosperity of the school. At present there was no library and this was an urgent necessity. Next he brought up the subject of the second master, his salary and housing. He had no house of his own and was only paid 100 a year; Mr Ingle did not expect to keep him long under those conditions. He also thought that the establishment of a commercial school in connection with the King’s School would benefit the sons of the many middle class parents in the city. Most of the choristers came from this background and could easily be transferred to this less demanding school.

In 1858 a heated dispute came to a head over whether or not Mr Ingle had been teaching "Popish" doctrines. He eventually left and the school fell almost into abeyance. In the same year, Dean Peacock removed the choristers from the King’s School and found an excellent singing master for them. They were now housed in a newly built schoolroom with a good recreation ground situated on the north side of the King’s School. Above the schoolroom was a large practice room. However, after some time when things were not going too well, Dean Godwin replaced the singing master with a certified master who had been in charge of the joint choir schools of St John’s and Trinity Colleges, Cambridge.

In 1864 we have the names of ten choristers; Fred Saberton, Will Pledger, John Eaton, Will Hawkes, Harry Arthur Pearson, Will Swift, John Cropley, John Henry Little, AFR Micklefield and John Raby. Two contrasting entries appear in 1869; the first a bill for laundering the choristers’ surplices for one year, at 40, and the other a grant for library books paid for by the Dean and Chapter at 2.

By 1899 it seems that the number of choristers had been increased to 16, and in October of that year there was a small change in the days and times of services, in that the Monday afternoon choral Evensong, which had apparently been discontinued for some time, was to be resumed, also the choral Evensong on Wednesday afternoon was to be transferred to 7.30pm.

The twentieth century

Ely Cathedral
Photo by "glennhaervey06"
Some rights reserved

In November 1915 it was agreed that additional teaching help at the choir school would be forthcoming as long as the total amount paid did not exceed that paid to the headmaster. It was not until 1919 that the name of Miss W Boulter appears as an assistant teacher.  There was a change of headmaster in March 1923 when Mr SJA Evans took office and then no less than three assistant teachers are mentioned; the Reverend RSN Lee, the Reverend R Gibbon and the Reverend CE Scold.

The choir received an invitation to attend one of the Westminster Abbey special services in 1924 and this was accepted, the expenses amounting to 11 and 13 shillings. June 1931 saw a new assistant master, the Reverend HM Humphreys, whose initial salary was 105 per year, increased to 125 in 1936. In 1934 Canon Evans gave a report on the choir school in which he recommended introducing PT for the choristers, which was agreed. Sergeant Blaker was called in to take this class at 10 per year. Canon Evans was re-elected as patronus of the choir school for the coming year.

In the following year it was agreed that Sir Charles Pears be asked to advise on the design and erection of new choir stalls. Also the purchase of a new piano was allowed at a cost of 20. In October of the same year the Reverend HM Humphreys was promoted to the headmastership, later becoming precentor. Also the county library asked for, and received, permission to use one room in the choir school for their library once a week, for which amenity it paid one shilling a year.

The boys’ playground had fallen into a bad state of repair so in 1938 renovations were allowed, provided the estimate of 35 should not be exceeded. The Reverend Robert Stephen Norris Lee returned as second master in November 1939 at a considerably increased salary of 320 per year. At this time the Dean and Chapter decided that any chorister whose voice had broken should be eligible for a foundation scholarship at the King’s School, subject to a satisfactory record of schoolwork and conduct.

The post-war period

In 1949, Dr Sidney Campbell took over the organistship from Dr MP Conway, also Arthur Wills arrived as assistant organist and tenor lay clerk; in that year the choir school was closed and the choristers transferred to the junior department of the King’s School. Daily Matins had been discontinued in 1946, which was all to the good as it would have been impossible to fit it in with the timetable of the King’s School. It had been decided that in future all choristers would be boarders so that a gradual phasing out of day boy choristers could begin, with all new entries to the choir automatically becoming boarders. Thus a very much wider catchment area was created, yielding boys of the calibre of James Bowman and Grayston Ives, at the time of writing internationally famous counter–tenor and organist at Magdalen College, Oxford, respectively.

1953 saw a change of organists. Dr Campbell left and Michael Howard took his place. The choir was now making a number of recordings and generally things were looking up. Dr Arthur Wills was promoted to the organistship in 1958.

The King's school becomes co-educational

The interior of Ely Cathedral
Photo by Dana Elliott
Some rights reserved

The King’s School became co-educational in 1970, and in 1973 there were great celebrations to mark the founding of the monastic abbey by Queen Etheldreda in the year 673.  From time to time choral Evensong was broadcast by the BBC and there was a recorded TV film in a series on the King James’ Bible in which Michael Horden was the reader and the choir sang music by Gibbons and Purcell; also there was a Anglia TV programme made showing the day to day life of a chorister which took over six months to complete.

The introduction of Sunday orchestral mass

In the 1980s a popular innovation once a term was the Sunday orchestral mass which included Haydn’s Missa Brevis, Schubert’s Mass in G, and on Easter Day 1985, Mozart’s Missa Brevis in G (k 259). It was hoped to increase these orchestral Sundays in the future.

Choir House, where the choristers now lived with their house parents, held a concert at the end of the summer term in 1986 that included a cantata, Caedmon, with words by a house parent and music by Dr Wills.

First continental tour

In 1981 the choir had made its first continental tour to Germany. This was followed in 1986 by a trip to Normandy singing in Bayeux Cathedral, the church at Tesse and the abbeys of Bec and Bolbec. The authorities at Tesse persuaded them to sing an Anglican Sung Eucharist and to take part in a Roman Catholic mass. The tour was directed by Dr Wills and it was a great success. Afterwards they were given a standing ovation and then presented with the collection! Back at home, the choir was joined by those of Norwich and Peterborough for their Patronal Festival.

In May they travelled to London to sing in St Paul’s Cathedral along with the choirs of Carlisle, Southwark and St Paul’s for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy. The Ely choir sang Dr Wills’ anthem In honour of Saint Etheldreda, their patron saint. Towards the end of the summer term, they made their first recording of Christmas carols entitled Christmas Eve in Ely Cathedral.

1987 – Royal Maundy

In April 1987 the Queen came to Ely to distribute the Royal Maundy. The choir was joined by that of the Chapel Royal in the singing of traditional anthems and one new setting of the twenty-third psalm by Dr Wills. In July there was another royal occasion when the late Diana, Princess of Wales, came to open the Festival of Flowers. Evensong that day consisted of all seventeenth century music with a string band accompaniment. Shortly afterwards the choir made a TV recording of Christmas carols with Jessye Norman when the cathedral was decorated with Christmas trees – a strange sight in midsummer. In addition, the choir made a recording of BBC Evensong that was transmitted in October for the Feast of St Etheldreda. Each term concerts were given in different parts of the diocese; these were much enjoyed by the congregations, also by the choristers who were fed lavishly afterwards.

Overseas relations were promoted when, in 1989, the choir of Our Lady in Antwerp visited Ely in February and sang with the Ely choir at a Sung Eucharist, the boys sharing with the Ely choristers at the annual pancake party. The following June the Ely choir travelled to Antwerp and sang in the cathedral and at the Church of St Boniface.

Dr Wills retires

Jesus and Mary Magdalene
Photo by Andrew Stawarz
Some rights reserved

Dr  Wills retired from the organistship in July 1991 after 32 years in office, but first in March he led his choir on a six day tour of Rome.  His successor was Paul Trepte who came from St Edmundsbury. He had this to say about organising the weekly music lists and in particular the introduction of new works to the choir;

"One has to take into account at any given time what the capacity for learning new music will be. Preferably when launching a new work for the first time, let it not be too difficult gradually progressing to more complicated music at intervals during the term".

In his first term, he said, he introduced about 40 new works. He fairly often repeated a work, either old or new, within, say, a couple of weeks in order to consolidate what had been achieved in rehearsal time. At St Edmundsbury he had inherited a choir into which girls had been introduced. At the time of his leaving St Edmundsbury, the top line was all boys. Also in 1991 the head chorister, Francis Pembrose, was presented with the Charles Bush Memorial Award after his voice had broken not long after he had been appointed head chorister; his successor was George Bartle.

1992 – the Order of St Etheldreda launched

During 1992 the cathedral launched the Order of St Etheldreda whose patron was HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. Founder members of the order were installed at a special service in the cathedral in December. The order had been founded partly to ensure that funds were available to maintain the choir with 150,000 needed for just 1992–1993. An endowment fund known as the Music Guild was set up aiming to raise a capital sum of 1 million over five years, thus preserving the status quo and also allowing for development and improvement. In the same year, the choristers moved out of the old choir house in St Mary’s Street and into a lovely medieval house next to the cathedral.

The choir continued with their outside activities with radio broadcasts, recordings and concerts directed by Paul Trepte, and at Christmas 1992 the midnight Eucharist was screened live on ITV. In addition, two CDs were released during the year. Some choral music by Sir Arthur Sullivan was recorded under the Herald label, including the Song of Trust, the soloist being George Bartle, head chorister.

The first Anglican cathedral choir to visit East Berlin

The choir made history by being the first Anglican cathedral choir to cross into East Berlin after the demolition of the Berlin Wall, when they made a short and successful tour to Germany. Plans were under way for a tour visiting Antwerp where they received an invitation to take part in the Cantichorus Festival, then continuing to Denmark to five concerts in Roskilde and Ribe, possibly continuing to Poland visiting Warsaw, Tarnow Cathedral, St Adelbertus Church in Dunajee, and St Mary’s Church, Podgorze.

In 1995, at the Patronal Festival, the choir gave the first performance of a work especially composed for them, Hymn to St Etheldreda, by Sebastian Forbes.

1996 saw the seventieth birthday of the former organist, Dr Arthur Wills, which fell during the choir tour to Canada in September and October. On their return, to mark the occasion the choir gave a weekend of his music in November, followed by the making of a CD of the same. In that year there was also a mini tour of Holland and Belgium where there were concerts and a service. About this time, Ely’s head chorister, Edward Taylor, accompanied the choir on the organ at Evensong. As far as is known, the only other instance of this was when Richard Lloyd, aged 13, played for Evensong at Lichfield at short notice in 1947. In the same year Sebastian Forbes’s new work received its second performance at the Patronal Festival along with Harwood’s Canticles in A Flat (Harwood was a former organist at Ely), and the whole service was recorded. The end of the year saw the sad death in December of former house parent, Christopher Humphries, at only 52 years old.

1997 to 1998 – the choir expands

Ely Cathedral interior
Photo by Jingye Luo
Some rights reserved

For some time there had been 17 choristers so it was a pleasant surprise to hear in 1997 that the number was to be increased to 22. Seventeen would continue to be funded by the Dean and Chapter, and the remaining 5 by the King’s School. Paul Trepte gave some good reasons for the increase. It would help in case of illness or the departure of senior choristers whose voices had broken. Probationers would be able to have a more thorough and prolonged training. The size of the building warranted it. It would not affect the balance. There would be more boys for the senior school who in their turn would furnish the back rows on King’ School scholarships.

By 1998, these scholarships had been won by Paul Hargest, Andrew Ford, Charlie Jenkins, William Harvey and, also, Christopher Burn.

1998 saw the choir visiting the Channel Islands in July and singing in Jersey, Guernsey, Aldernay and Sark. Fund raising and plans were under way for a Millennium tour of the USA, and at home Sean Farrell, assistant organist, left for a similar post at Rochester were he has since made an excellent job of training the girls’ choir; his substitute at Ely was Scott Farrell. In very hot weather, the choir travelled to Malta at the end of the summer term where concerts and services were sung in Valletta and on Gozo.

1999 was the scene of many concerts; on 12 December Sir Simon Rattle conducted the BBC’s Millennium concert that was broadcast live on Radio 3. Those taking part were the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the cathedral choir. Sir Simon was particularly impressed with the boys’ phrasing. Also in December they appeared with Dame Kiri te Kanawa and the Philharmonic Chorus in a TV broadcast from the Flora Hall of the Royal Opera House.

In olden times the tower of the cathedral acted as a beacon to guide travellers across the Fens. Today, perhaps, the music will draw pilgrims from far and wide to find comfort and inspiration within the walls.