Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Guildford, Lanesborough School

A twentieth century miracle

Guildford Cathedral
Photo courtesy of
the Dean and Chapter

Guildford is a miracle. It is unique. The date is September 1960, the cathedral is barely finished and there is still a lot to be done to the organ, there is no choir and no choir school, and the consecration of the cathedral is fixed for 17 May 1961.

Into such a situation came Barry Rose, 25 years old, appointed organist and choirmaster. His first task was to form a choir so after much deliberation and discussion it was decided that the boys should all be recruited from The Lanesborough School, Guildford. So Barry went to the school and auditioned a number of 10  and 11 year olds – this age grouping was a slight slip as we shall see later on – and at once got down to work with them. The Chapter had agreed to the use of a minibus to transport the boys to and from school, cathedral and home, driven by Barry.

The difficulties of founding a choir from scratch

This is where the uniqueness comes in. Normally a choirmaster may have three or four probationers learning all the while from their seniors, but here he had 16 probationers with no one to learn from. I believe he played them tapes of the best choirs in the country and soon progress was being made. But he was fighting against time as the consecration was only eight months away. Everyone was stretched to the limit, the boys practising several times a week in the cathedral and the crypt chapel, now the song room. The gentlemen of the choir began to drift in, some by mere chance and others by more orthodox means.

The day soon came when a choice had to be made over which boys should sing at the consecration. Barry picked just four and there was much disappointment in the ranks of those not chosen, in fact quite a few left. Barry found the inexperience of the boys from Lanesborough daunting with only eight months between them and the consecration, to be followed immediately by daily Evensong.

Hampered by poor acoustics

The cathedral acoustics for singing were less than good,  the builders having put in absorbent plaster to mop up the sound.  One chorister remarked "It’s like trying to sing into blotting paper, sir!". Another difficulty was the great distance between the choir stalls which Barry overcame by conducting from the centre, equidistant from both Decani and Cantoris and of course this drew forth criticisms and disapproval from some quarters. Lack of money was another difficulty. Thirty thousand pounds would be needed to build up an adequate choral foundation and this at a time when the cathedral needed £80,000 to complete the building. At the end of 1960 a fund was set up which went public in the following February, being advertised in many provincial newspapers. However, as long as the building needed so great a sum for its completion, that must come first.

The enthronement of the Very Reverend George Reindorp

The Very Reverend George Reindorp was appointed bishop of Guildford in 1960 and his enthronement took place in 1961. The choir was made up of the Lanesborough boys, the Holy Trinity boys and men and some of The Jacobean Singers; the service was televised. This proved to be a good dress rehearsal for the consecration a month later. It became obvious that the choir would need considerable expansion for this, so six boys were chosen from St Andrew’s, Kingsbury and Holy Trinity, Guildford. Similar additions of men were brought in.

1961 – the consecration

 For the consecration service the choir sang  Byrd’s  Sacerdotes Domini, Mundy’s Sing Joyfully and three psalms. Simon Preston, at that time organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, played the organ and Barry Rose was the conductor. Radio and television were present and apparently reached a very wide audience.

First Evensong

The day after the consecration the Guildford choir with five former Holy Trinity boys sang their first Evensong. The music was simple, Anglican chants were used for the Canticles and the anthem was Charles Wood’s God Omnipotent Reigneth. These were tough uphill years for Barry and the choir, but mention must be made of Roger Lowman who broke off his course at Oxford to come to Guildford and sing in the choir. His stabilising influence and sense of obligation to the cause in hand were just what was needed. About this time an assistant organist was appointed, Gordon McKie, former organ scholar of Clare College, Cambridge, who was to take up teaching at Tillingbourne School.

1961 – first choral Evensong broadcast

There was a rewarding step forward too when on 18 October 1961 there was a BBC broadcast of choral Evensong. It was bedevilled beforehand with microphone problems which were largely righted by Barry and others. The choir had arrived.

On 18 January 1962 The Hallé Orchestra gave a concert in the cathedral conducted by Barbirolli at which all the proceeds were given to the Cathedral Music Fund. Despite snow on the ground the concert was packed out and a very good profit was made.

The cathedral acoustics being so poor, Barry often organised day trips to different churches with better sound so that the choir could sing, and listen to themselves and learn. Salisbury Cathedral was among the places visited, and in February 1962 the Guildford choir was brought to sing Evensong there.

1963 trip to Switzerland

South aisle looking west
Guildford Cathedral
Photo by Miles Berry
Some rights reserved

Thus so much progress had been made that at the end of the summer term of 1963 the choir found itself on the first singing trip, to Switzerland. They drove through France in two minibuses and two cars and slept in youth hostels. They found hot and sunny weather in Geneva from where they proceeded to a tiny village in the Jura mountains called Montfleur where they were to give a concert that evening. It might have been disastrous as they found the church had no organ. Ingenuity prevailed and the accompaniments were hummed by the choir. Their next stop was the English Church in Geneva where they sang Evensong. Getting to sleep at night was well nigh impossible owing to the extreme heat. However there were a few days’ leisure by and in the lake. After this they journeyed on, calling at both Lucerne and Basle, and then making a fairly eventful journey back to Guildford with various discomforts and bouts of car sickness.

Another first took place at Christmas 1962, the singing of Evensong with carols on the afternoon of Christmas Day. There were grave doubts as to whether there would be any congregation, but as it turned out the cathedral was packed.

The following year saw something of a crisis among the boys who had been recruited in 1960 as 10 and 11 year olds. Now their voices began to break and no fewer than nine boys had left the choir by the end of the school year. Spirits were low all round and the repertoire had to be adjusted as it took a little time to redeem the mistake, but by November 1964 the choir was ready to record Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary for EMI. The following year saw Barry’s marriage to Elisabeth Ware, daughter of the precentor. Robert Hammersley directed the choir and the organ playing was shared by Peter Moorse and Simon Preston.

1963 – nine choristers' voices break

By this time the boys had regained their erstwhile form and at the same time were learning to produce a true treble quality. The cathedral minibus was then driven by Robert Wilson, a bass lay clerk, but later on the parents organised a car pool. This sometimes got disrupted when Evensong had been badly sung and Barry would drag the poor unfortunate choir down to the singing room and go over the music until they got it right.

It was time for recording now and in October 1965 the choir made records in the series A Treasury of English Church Music, Volume 3, with anthems by Purcell, Maurice Greene, Travers, Boyce and Pelham Humphrey. When these were released 18 months later the critics were unanimous in their praise. In March 1966 EMI returned to record Christmas Music from Guildford Cathedral which included Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols and some Peter Warlock. Again the critics were using adjectives such as "superb" and "brilliant". In the summer of 1966 the choir recorded Christmas Carols from Guildford Cathedral which made the album charts and was awarded a gold disc in 1986 and a platinum disc in 1991 by EMI.

1967 – British tour

Barry had decided that the time had come that the choir was ready to tour Britain and sing in some of the older churches. The first tour was in 1967 and planned around a visit to King’s College Cambridge. Coventry was the starting point when they sang Evensong in the cathedral. A concert in Skegness was followed by two days in Lincoln, travelling on to Peterborough for a Byrd Evensong.

Next day they sang in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral before heading to Cambridge and Evensong in King’s College Chapel – Watson in E and Justorum Animae by Byrd, with Stanley Vann’s Behold How Good and Joyful.

There was more travelling in 1968. February saw a weekend in Dover College, and at the end of the summer term a week’s trip to sing Evensong in Durham Cathedral and York Minster, plus a Sunday afternoon concert at Gargrave Parish Church, Gargrave House being the home of Mrs Jessie Coulthurst, who had given the Guildford organ.

The founding of Guild Records

Stained glass doors in Guildford Cathedral
Photo by "Felinebird"
Some rights reserved

Back to recording. There had been some difficulties with EMI and Barry Rose was worried and decided to talk things over with Nick Ware who had done a great deal of recording for the choir. Together they dreamed up the idea of starting their own record company, Guild Records, established in 1967. After a few recordings of the choir, very favourable reviews were received.

At the beginning of December 1968 EMI recorded the choir singing Stainer’s Crucifixion. This record was reissued year after year and awarded a silver disc in 1991.

Further recording

During the summer of 1969 another record by Guild Records was made by the boys, this time of Alan Ridout’s Sacred Songs for Treble Voices.  It was also given at the Kingsclere Festival, and in the cathedral when the composer attended and was delighted. In July of that year the choir set off on a round trip starting in the Isle of Wight and going to Bruton, Wells, Bristol and Llandaff, singing five services and three concerts.

1970 – trip to Jersey

February 1970 saw the choir fly to Jersey for a long weekend. Twenty boys and 15 men fitted in three concerts at the (then) Wesley Grove Methodist Church, St Helier, and on Sunday afternoon Evensong was sung at St Helier Parish Church. On Monday morning the boys sang at a school assembly and the full choir gave two concerts before catching the 4.30pm plane home.

In the summer of that year there was a tour taking in Chingford, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich and once again, King’s College, Cambridge. Here hampers full of robes, one for King’s, who were singing at Stratford-on-Avon, and one for Guildford got mixed up so that Guildford had to wear the Eton collars and black cassocks of King’s. On the tenth anniversary of the consecration, the choir gave a mammoth concert in the cathedral and sang some of the music in their coming tour of the north west when they visited Bolton, Cartmel Priory, Chester and the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool.

The summer tour of 1973 when announced at first came as a slight shock to the choir. They were all going to Sussex. However, the two chosen venues more than made up for the disappointment of not going further afield. They were Boxgrove Priory and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Arundel. They gave a concert in Boxgrove Priory, and another at Arundel, and a live broadcast of vespers. Returning to Boxgrove they spent a day recording new Christmas carols for Novello, and on 12 October 1973 the choristers and a few men left for London after Evensong to make recordings for Decca. The following month the boys joined with the BBC Singers at St John’s Smith Square to sing Britten’s A Boy Was Born. Shortly after this Barry announced that he had been appointed sub-organist of St Paul’s Cathedral. There was great sadness in Guildford. In April 1974 the appointment of Philip Moore as organist of Guildford was announced.

In 1982 the choir recorded In Pace – The Influence of Plainsong which gained a favourable review in The Gramophone. Also in that year Philip Moore moved on as organist of York Minster his place being taken by Andrew Millington, assistant organist of Gloucester Cathedral. The choir toured northern France in the summer singing in Bayeux and Beauvais cathedrals and also in churches in Rouen and Dieppe. In Bayeux they sang Mass to Vierne’s setting for two organs and choir as well as an Anglican Evensong. At home they gave concerts in the cathedral of Messiah and the first three parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

Lanesborough School joined The Choir Schools’ Association in 1983 and it was gratifying to know that all the chorister scholarships are now sponsored by companies and individuals. However, more sponsors were needed in order that the choirs treble line could be increased. There was another tour to France in 1983. Also, at home in the cathedral, the choir gave a concert of Italian music with orchestra and sang at the enthronement of the new Bishop, The Right Reverend Michael Adie. There were two broadcast choral Evensongs during the year also two televised Songs of Praise.

1985 – the tercentenary of the birth of JS Bach

Arch in Guildford Cathedral
Photo by Michael Jefferies
Some rights reserved

1985 saw the tercentenary of the birth of JS Bach and to mark the occasion the choir gave a concert of some of his cantatas and motets in June. During the year there were two broadcast Evensongs one on 17 May, the anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral. They sang in various venues around the diocese and made a singing trip to Devon and Cornwall, and lastly they joined the choirs of Canterbury and St Albans at the St Albans International Organ Festival.

1986 – Silver Jubilee

1986 and the Silver Jubilee of the cathedral’s consecration and of the choir itself. A great concert was given by the cathedral choir,  former choristers and lay clerks. The three organists belonging to the 25 years, Barry Rose, Philip Moore and Andrew Millington were present. In commemoration of the jubilee the choir made a recording of Evensong for Whitsunday, which included music by Tallis, Jackson, Harris and Philip Moore. In March the choristers sang in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem accompanied by The Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra. Shortly after, in Holy Week, there was a broadcast of choral Evensong when the BBC also made a recording of another Evensong which was broadcast in May. To round off the school year there was a short singing tour to the Isle of Wight.

Further overseas tours

In the following year, 1987, the choir ventured further afield than usual  making a concert tour to Belgium and Holland.  There were two broadcasts of choral Evensong during the year and also an appearance in The Chelmsford Cathedral Festival singing with the Chelmsford choir in a festival service.

The following year saw the choir take an important step in its history, that is, a first time trip to Canada during the Easter holidays, singing concerts and services in Ottawa, Toronto, Kingston, Calgary, Lethbridge, Vancouver and Victoria BC. This was an unforgettable experience for all concerned and was a great success.

During the summer term the first Guildford and Portsmouth Cathedrals’ Festival took place at Guildford with two combined services and a concert with orchestra. This was planned to be an annual event alternating the venues. Also in the summer term the choir took part in three choral Evensongs, one live and two recorded. Towards the end of that term there was more recording under the title of Great Cathedral Anthems.

To end that decade the choir had a busy and varied year. First, a recording entitled An Evening at Guildford Cathedral which consisted of hymns and anthems and was recorded by Word UK Ltd. There was a choral Evensong broadcast in May and the second meeting of The Guildford and Portsmouth festival in Portsmouth in June, when the combined choirs gave Haydn’s Nelson Mass with orchestra. The Guildford choir repeated this at The Guildford Town Festival in July. Later in the year there was a tour to Birmingham, Gloucester, Ludlow, Leominster, Malvern and St Michael’s, Tenbury. Finally on Christmas Day the choir was shown on The Noel Edmonds Show singing in an aircraft hanger at Heathrow.

1990 – a new Rushworth organ is installed

Guildford Cathedral in fog
Photo by "Phil D"
Some rights reserved

 At the beginning of 1990 Rushworth installed a mobile organ console especially for accompanying "verse" music and "continuo" work and given by The Friends of the Cathedral. It was in use very soon, on Good Friday when the Cathedral choir sang Bach’s St John Passion. In June the third annual Guildford and Portsmouth Cathedrals' Festival took place at Guildford. A month later there was a concert at The Guildford Festival and a broadcast of BBC Evensong at which the anthem Lord How Manifold Are Thy Works by Mark Blatchly, old chorister, was given. He was recently appointed organist of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. At the end of the summer term there was a choir tour to Scotland with concerts and services in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee, Dunblane, Perth and Aberdeen.

On 17 May 1991 the cathedral and its choir celebrated their thirtieth anniversary. The choir sang in a concert entitled Music for a Twentieth Century Cathedral with music by Finzi, Walton, Britten, Rutter, Tavener and Philip Moore. Later in the year there was a concert in The Civic Hall with London Brass, the usual BBC Evensong, The Guildford and Portsmouth Festival at Portsmouth, and several Christmas concerts to full houses. During the summer holidays the choir travelled to Yorkshire to give several concerts with the Wallace Arnold Brass. Finally The City University honoured Barry Rose with a D mus in December.

It has been said that the reputation of a cathedral choir stands or falls according to its singing of the Psalms. The choir made a volume of psalm singing for Priory early in 1992. Also during the year they took part in the annual Festival of the Sons and Daughters of The Clergy in St Paul’s Cathedral with the choirs of Gloucester, Winchester and the resident choir. The highlight of the service being Howells' St Paul’s Magnificat. In June there was a Cathedral Classics concert, the choir being joined by the London Festival Orchestra which included a performance of Mozart’s Organ Solo Mass. In a fund raising concert for the coming tour of France the choir gave Haydn’s Creation in July and then were off on their tour singing in Rouen, Lisieux, Saint Saens, Caen, and Beauvais, so successful that plans were being made for a return to these places in 1993. That September got off to a flying start with a live broadcast of choral Evensong very early in the term. Unfortunately there was a five minute break in transmission. However another broadcast in the following January was offered in compensation.

1993 – the first two Bishop Reindorp choristers installed

In June 1993 the first two Bishop Reindorp choristers were installed, the result of a fund inaugurated by the bishop to defray the cost of two choristers in perpetuity. During the year the choir took part in The Guildford Third International Festival. Also, the annual festival with Portsmouth Cathedral which was held in the newly enlarged nave at Portsmouth with music by Britten, Schütz, Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams. In September as part of the nine hundredth anniversary of Winchester Cathedral the choirs of Winchester, Portsmouth, Southwark and Guildford joined together in a vast and thrilling concert. The Guildford choir returned as promised to France during the summer holidays and was warmly welcomed as usual.

1994 – tour of Denmark

1994 saw a different venue for its foreign tour, this time to Denmark singing to enthusiastic audiences in Aalborg, Thisted, Silkeborg, Vejle, Copenhagen, Odense and Haderslev. In contrast, four senior choristers provided the backing for a Val Doonican Christmas album, and at the close of the year there was a Christmas Spectacular with the choir, Carlo Curley and Angela Rippon on Radio 2.

During the Lent term of the following year the Guildford International Festival kept the choir extra busy. The choristers with the boys of Southwark Cathedral provided the treble line in Berlioz’s great Te Deum. The Purcell tercentenary was celebrated in a concert which included a Purcell ode and the first modern performance of Blow’s Great Choir of Heaven in which the cathedral choir was joined by The University Players directed by Professor Sebastian Forbes.

The summer term saw the annual Guildford and Portsmouth Festival at Portsmouth in June. That year’s concert was sung with orchestral accompaniment and then there were two services with a Te Deum by Purcell, the Durufflé Requiem, and music by Bach and Vaughan Williams. In July at the invitation of Barry Rose, then organist of St Albans, the choir took part in a concert at the St Albans International Organ Festival, joined by the mixed voices choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a course including the St Albans choir. The programme included music by Alan Ridout and Vaughan Williams.

1996 – a marathon of recitals and a tour to the USA

Stained Glass from the
Music Development Campaign web page of
Guildford Cathedral
Photo courtesy of the Dean and Chapter

Early in 1996 something a little different took place.  Andrew Millington undertook and achieved, the most remarkable marathon, that of visiting all of the 186 churches in the diocese and giving a short organ recital in each taking three months to complete and tackling the worst of the winter weather. The money raised went towards the sponsorship of the choir's big tour of the USA in the coming April. Over the two weeks, concerts were given in five states, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. The enthusiasm of the audiences was superb and the hospitality was overwhelming. In their free time the choir were able to see the Stone Mountain at Atlanta, the Incline Railway at Chatanooga and the Dixie Stampede Wild West Show at Myrtle Beach. At home, in 1997 there was more sponsorship this time for a young chorister Edward Whiffen. Among those responsible were the Old Choristers’ Association and the sale of Simon Carpenter’s book The Beat is Irrelevant which outlines the forming of the choir in 1960 and onwards. There were concerts and recitals as far afield as Berlin, The Guards’ Chapel in London and Holland with two records thrown in for good measure!

1998 – the choristers debut at the Proms

1998 saw the choristers make their debut at the Proms when they took part in Britten’s Voices for Today with the BBC Singers. Also in that year it was time to say goodbye to Simon Deller, headmaster of Lanesborough School for so many years, also regular lay clerk in the choir. As head chorister Steven Coomer said "To have the headmaster in the back rows does wonders for a chorister’s concentration". His place was taken by Keith Crombie whose subject is mathematics and who had taught in a number of junior schools.

"When a history of English church music in the second half of the twentieth century is written, there can be little doubt that the Rose era at Guildford will be seen as a real turning point for those cathedrals which have either a day choir or do not enjoy the support of a choir school. Barry, through hard work and considerable determination, proved that it could be done. Where he has led in achieving the high standards which have become part of the expectation of Guildford cathedral choir, others have followed. He has also inspired generations of day choristers’ parents throughout the country to make the tremendous commitment which is asked of them and their families. When I reflect on 25 years spent in four choir schools, Peterborough, Grimsby, Exeter and Salisbury, there can be no doubt that the greatest demands are made upon parents and families when the choristers are day pupils".

~ Christopher Helyer, former headmaster of Salisbury Cathedral School ~