Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Exeter, The Cathedral School

Origins in the eleventh century

The organ and Choir
Copyright: Exeter Cathedral

According to Bishop Leofric’s "Rule" there were boys singing in the cathedral as early as the eleventh century  but the first more detailed evidence comes about 100 years later. It tells how the recently martyred St Thomas Beckett appeared in a vision to Raymond, master of the choristers, informing him that Bishop Bartholomew of Exeter was gravely ill and would recover only if the choristers sang the whole of the Psalter through without rest. They managed to complete this immense undertaking and the Bishop was restored to health.

The thirteenth century

In 1236 there were 14 choristers, this being the statutory number, who entered the choir between the ages of seven and 12 and stayed until their voices broke. Thus we have a history of singing boys going back over 800 years. They lived in a house close to the Chantry and had their meals each with his canon and were in the care of the precentor who admitted them to the choir and was responsible for their discipline at all times. He also appointed a succentor, or sub-chanter, to teach them singing in the song school and a master or Informator Choristarum who taught them to read Latin. A place in the song school was eagerly sought after and occasionally the number of boys was increased incurring the wrath of Bishop Branscombe who, in 1268, demanded that the statutory fourteen, no more no less, be adhered to; for special services in the cathedral they were paid extra.

In 1276 the position of succentor was granted to a vicar choral, Elias de Cyrencestre, evidently a man of some means who built a new choir house, close by the Deanery, which he paid for himself. It comprised a dwelling for the succentor, a dormitory for the boys and a classroom or song school. After his death future succentors were to live in the same house with the boys and maintain it at their own expense.

At the Christmas Eve Matins a somewhat picturesque ceremony was enacted. A chorister dressed in a plain white alb would appear from behind the altar with a lighted torch in his left hand and turning towards the clergy and choir he would sing Hodie natus celorum rex de virgine nasci dignatus est (the king of heaven consented on this day to be born for us of a virgin). At the words celorum rex he would raise his right hand towards heaven, and at de virgine he would point to the statue of the Virgin beside the altar and at dignatus est he genuflected. After the clergy had responded three boys from Decani and three from Cantoris dressed like the first joined the first boy and all facing west sang the Gloria in excelsis Deo. After this the seven boys processed down through the choir slowly and reverently.

The ceremony of the Boy Bishop

At Exeter the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop did not begin until 28 December; on that day after Prime, the boy bishop’s canon had to give all the choristers a special breakfast in a room known as The Bishop’s Chamber consisting of a pennyworth of bread, two quarts of ale, two or three pennyworth of meat or a pennyworth of butter or cheese which was not to cost more than fourpence or sixpence. After the meal the boy bishop and his fellow choristers processed through the city to St Nicholas’ Priory, probably receiving gifts of money on the way. At midday the boy bishop’s canon had to give him a good dinner to which he might invite six of his fellow choristers for whom he had to pay fourpence a head.  Returning to the cathedral they sang Vespers after which the celebrations were supposed to finish. However, very often some of the adults prolonged the festivities into the following day, providing a second breakfast for the boys on 29 December, but this was strictly illegal.

The fourteenth century

After various outbreaks of the plague, the role of the succentor seemed to have declined as in 1359 one of the "secondaries", or young men training for the priesthood, is described as Magister Puerorum, and the song school building appears to have belonged to the Chapter with the master simply a tenant.

A chorister’s hours were long – anything up to eight hours a day excluding meal times and domestic duties. However, there were frequent festivals which served to relieve the monotony of the daily offices. The greatest of these was the day before the feast of St Peter and St Paul on 28 June. The secular festivities began a few days before the religious ones with bonfires and jousting on the open spaces surrounding the cathedral, these pursuits probably being associated with mid–summer celebrations as well.

In 1436 we have a record of Chancellor Orum’s bequest of £40 to the choristers in return for which they must sing an antiphon at his grave in the north porch every day.

The sixteenth century

Exeter Cathedral at sunset
Photo by Lesley Smith
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In 1532 a curious custom for the choristers was started whereby they must process out of the west doors to the charnel chapel to sing an antiphon, then returning to the doors to recite the De Profundis. About this time there was a chorister, Robert Chave (or Chaff), who was born in Somerset of good parentage and who was brought to Exeter by his aunt and placed in the song school. Some years later he was transferred to the high school where he did well. Later he became a lawyer in the ecclesiastical courts and went on to be registrar of the Dean and Chapter’s courts. Finally he was made Mayor of Exeter in 1568 and 1576.

The choristers, receiving free housing, schooling and food, acquired small payments from various sources and by 1540 this probably amounted to about £1 and six shillings a year each. It is more than likely that this money was saved for them until their voices broke and they left. These endowments were not free gifts, for the donors stipulated that certain duties were to be performed by the choristers in return for their money. Thus, for instance, Bishop Brewer required four boys to attend the Mass of the Virgin in the Lady Chapel each day and Bishop Branscombe’s pension obliged them all to sing the Salutation to the Virgin daily after Compline. On the anniversary of Sir William Ferrere’s death, every year they had to sing the whole Psalter, and Bishop Lacey required them to pray for his soul every day at the statue of the Virgin. Finally on their way home, to the house of their canon, in the evening on three days a week they must stop in the west porch and sing the psalm De Profundis towards the tomb of Laurence Dobel.

Between 1527 and 1558 records exist giving details of the names and backgrounds of some of the boys. Nearly all were Devon born, four from Exeter and others from Bradninch, Okehampton, Alphington, Broadclyst, Honiton, Lapford and Tavistock. The social status of parents varied from gentleman to merchant, yeoman, husbandman, brewer, miller, weaver and widow.

In 1545 a vicar choral, John Bartelet, was put in charge of the boys and ordered to supply their necessities; thus the relationship of the succentor to the choristers was finally broken. Two years later the custom of returning the boys to the houses of canons for their meals was ended, so they were sent for all their meals to the Vicars’ College in Kalenderhay. With the arrival of the 1549 Prayer Book their work became altogether simpler; the daily Mass of the Virgin was abolished as were many of the prayers and antiphon in which they had taken part.

The seventeenth century

Exeter Cathedral interior
Photo by Guy Meagher
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There was still no cathedral school in Exeter but the Chapter was responsible for the "high school" which the choristers attended to learn Latin. During the seventeenth century this became the city’s Free Grammar School.

The Civil War and the Restoration

At  the time of the Civil War the usual pattern emerged – the desecration of the cathedral, the disbanding of the Chapter and the dismissal of the choir. At the Restoration in 1660 a new team of boys was formed which had its song school in the cloisters. The succentor was again supervising their living quarters as well as teaching, clothing and feeding them. One of the succentors was Tobias Langdon who had been a chorister himself and who spent his life working for the good of the boys and fighting for the control of admitting and dismissing them. He was paid for feeding them and for their firing at Christmas and his wife was paid for their clothing and medications.

In the eighteenth century the Chapter was kept busy with the precentor, concerning who was responsible for admitting, training and disciplining the boys also for reprimanding choristers, lay clerks and even organists for bad behaviour.

The founding of the cathedral school, 1857

In 1857 Exeter Cathedral School was founded in the buildings of the Diocesan Training College, where there was a gymnasium and shooting gallery. The headmaster was the well loved Edward Foweraker who stayed for 30 years. The school was adjacent to today’s Hall House, catering for the choristers and a number of day boys.

The twentieth century

During the second world war Exeter was subject to heavy air raids and early in 1942 a bomb destroyed the school buildings killing the headmaster’s daughter. Fortunately it was holiday time for the boys otherwise there might have been a more momentous tragedy. For the rest of the war the school was evacuated to Honiton where it stayed until 1945 when it moved back to Exeter to its present headquarters in the Chantry

The 1970s

By the 1970s the school was expanding and in 1979, 15, The Close, was acquired, accommodating 13 more boarders, a flat for the headmaster, three classrooms, an art school and hobbies room. Moreover there was a swimming pool in the grounds all in all making room for a total of 161 boys, including the choristers.

1980 saw a new headmaster, Mr HC Potts. There was also new accommodation at Kalender Hall which was used as a school music centre and let out to local organisations for concerts and lectures from time to time.

1982 – tour to Germany

Exeter Cathedral interior
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
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At the end of the summer term 1982 the choir set off for a singing tour of Germany visiting Marl, Altenberg, Münster and Cologne. It was very well received by the audiences and much enjoyed by the choir. Other assignations during the year included two broadcast Evensongs, and Evensong in Buckfast Abbey, a concert in Plymouth and concerts in the cathedral with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. There were now 20 choristers and four probationers and grants from the Bursary Fund were increased to £450.

1983 – the Royal Maundy

On Maundy Thursday 1983 it was Exeter’s turn to host the Royal Maundy service in the presence of HM the Queen and joined by the choir of HM Chapel Royal.  1985 was memorable for one thing only – the Dean and Chapter’s disastrous decision to withdraw all choral scholarships.

By 1986 the Exeter Bursary Fund had increased to £1,200 for the year making it possible for more of the poorer families to accept a choristership for their sons. During the Exeter Festival in June the choir gave a fine concert followed in July by a 10 day tour of Normandy giving concerts and singing services in various venues including Caen Abbey and Bayeux Cathedral. At home a choral Evensong was recorded on the Abbey label; also a recording of the Vierne Mass was made.

In the meantime the Bursary Appeal was going very well and soon the target was reached, helped by fund raising activities such as giving recitals all over the diocese. The choristers were much encouraged that on 12 November HRH The Prince of Wales, as patron of the fund, came to Exeter and attended Evensong; afterwards he chatted informally with them.

The highlight of 1988 was the choir’s interesting and successful tour of Switzerland and Italy. The following year there was only one slightly different incident to report; the grave of Samuel Sebastian Wesley, organist at Exeter in 1835, had recently been restored and here the choir gathered and old choristers with a vocal quartet sang Wesley’s Lead me Lord.

1991 saw the arrival of a new headmaster of the cathedral school, Mr Robert Hay, formerly a chorister at Hereford. Also a new event was introduced, a choristers’ day out, provided by the Old Choristers' Association. It started with a skittles match, Decani v Cantoris after which a splendid lunch was served. It was hoped that this would become an annual event.

The establishment of the girls' choir

Stained glass window in commemorating the Blitz
Photo by Mags L Halliday
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While the choir was away singing at Rennes Cathedral in November 1992,  a group of singers called Counterpoint sang the services in the cathedral. Possibly this idea may have led to a decision in the following year that a girls’ choir should be formed partly to ease the burden on the boys. Voice trials were held and a team of girls selected and trained who sang their first service on 17 November 1994. They all became pupils of the cathedral school.

On Tuesday in Holy Week 1996, the now usual annual entertainment of the choristers by the old choristers took place, a skittles match and a lunch and tea. Last but not least was the appointment of the new headmaster of the cathedral school, Mr Clive Dickenson. At the annual reunion of old choristers in 1997, Evensong was as usual sung by them and the current choir. The head chorister, Roger Drabble, read the lessons and soon after left Exeter to become head chorister at Wells.

The 1998 reunion was memorable for a presentation to Lucian Nethsinga who was celebrating his twenty–fifth year as organist and choirmaster; the lay clerks paid tribute to him in a parody of Psalm 147 beginning "O praise God for the organist and master of the choristers for it is a good thing to sing praises unto our Boss". From September 1999 Andrew Millington, from Guildford Cathedral became organist at Exeter.