Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Lincoln, The Minster School

Origins in the thirteenth century

Lincoln Cathedral interior
Photo by Sam Stroube
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From the earliest period of their history the Lincoln choristers were probably taught music and song within the Cathedral Close. Certainly after Bishop Gravesend’s Ordinances of 1265 it was decreed that there should be twelve boys, two of whom were incense bearers, living in one house under a master who appropriated certain revenues for their support. They are known to have received at least some of their education from their own master in the Choristers’ House but as there are records of them attending the grammar school it may have been, as in some other cathedrals, that only the senior boys were educated there.

Instead of the precentor admitting boys to the choir, this responsibility was in the hands of the Dean and Chapter, while their discipline was to be in the hands of their master. If they went for a walk or out to play they were to be under the supervision of an adult. The names of two such masters have survived – John Flur in 1305, and William de Segrave.

The fourteenth century

A strict rule existed that as soon as a boy’s voice broke, he must leave and in the early fourteenth century two such boys were William de Heydour and John de Hempingham. The Dean and Chapter immediately set about replacing them, electing two new boys and a supernumerary. It may have been that the Dean and Chapter, not necessarily being musically inclined, found the responsibility of choosing new boys too difficult, as in 1351 we find the precentor restored to this duty and also to the finding a fit master for the boys who were all currently to be educated at the song school, both in grammar and song. The reason for this may have been the age old difficulty of fitting in their singing duties with the grammar school timetable.

However, there was some bad feeling between the two schools as non–singing boys were being taken at the song school thus depriving the chancellor of some of his fees.

The Burghersh Chantry

Lincoln had three or four Chantry colleges in the fourteenth century of which the most interesting was the Burghersh Chantry, consisting of five chaplains, a clerk and six singing boys, who wore a different livery from the cathedral choristers and at this time never sang with them, even being taught in grammar and song by their own master.

One Richard Ingoldsby was appointed master of the cathedral choristers in 1437 but was not, in practice, their master, but a residentiary canon supervisor. In the same year two boys were presented for admission by the precentor, Anthony of Goldsborough and John Hill but the Chapter decided that it must first be assured of the boys fitness to be choristers and appointed Thomas Malherbe and John Cole to examine them. Happily they were both found fit.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there was much confusion over the choristers' education and in fact over the places of education themselves. On 23 December 1406 two new masters were appointed, one to the city grammar school and the other to the Grammar School of the College of Choristers. There seems to have been much confusion as the Chapter was responsible for the choristers’ grammar school, making it a rival to the ancient song school under the precentor.

However, in 1538 the city grammar school fell into decay and was closed and all the pupils transferred to the school in the Close; moreover the Chantries were abolished in 1549 so that the Burghersh boys found themselves with nothing to do. By the 1570s the city school had revived and by 1584 the city and Close schools were united in the former Greyfriars’ building in the city given by Judge Robert Monson and this arrangement lasted for many years and only came to an end in the end at the end of eighteenth century.

In 1562 the Dean and Chapter appointed Lincoln’s most fa mous figure, William Byrd, as organist and master of the choristers. By about 1609 the Burghersh boys were admitted to the cathedral choir where their descendants remain to this day; here we have the names of four of them, Hunt, Newland, Asgerby and Barker.

The seventeenth century

The Restoration

At the time of the Restoration, the Choristers’ House was under the mastership of steward Blandeville, who died in 1692. In 1675 the master of the choristers was William Holder who taught the boys each morning in the song school at Greyfriars for which he was paid £5 per year. John Cutts succeeded him in 1683, who added to his duties by teaching the boys on various instruments. However, twice he was censured for absenteeism and once he brought his dog into the cathedral when a fierce fight with a verger ensued and Cutts was dismissed. At the annual speech day the boys gave performances on the instruments which he had taught them and shortly after he apologised publicly and to the immense delight of the choristers, he was restored to his former position in 1691. 

The next choir master was William Norris, who may have been one of the children of the Chapel and who, at the death of Blandeville in 1692, was made steward of the Choristers’ House. He was very popular with the boys but sadly died in 1702 in his early thirties.

The eighteenth century

Choir practice in Lincoln Cathedral
Photo by David Rutt
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Also in 1702 the organ was restored and moved from the north side of the choir to the screen. The Burghersh Chanters were now a permanent fixture in the choir and between 1770 and 1775 eleven of them were admitted to the choir and two more in 1776.

The Dean and Chapter now decided that classics were no longer needed by the boys as, since the Reformation, Latin was sung no more. One wonders what had become of the splendid Latin works of Byrd, Purcell etc.

For some reason the choristers seem to have been withdrawn from the Greyfriars’ school towards the end of the eighteenth century and sent to the Bluecoat school of Lincoln’s Christ’s Hospital near the cathedral — the Greyfriars’ school continued well into the following century.

The post of organist and choirmaster appears to have been divided between two men in the mid-eighteenth century, the new organist being Llwyd Reynor and the new choirmaster, John Cowper, who remained for 26 years and who, apparently, devised a plan of making the senior boys teach the juniors until the Dean and Chapter got wind of it and promptly stopped it. They also determined that the best Burghersh Chanters to become choristers should be given £10 per year each towards their board and lodging at the Choristers’ House.

About 100 years later, the choristers and chanters were sent to Mr Mantle’s school in Northgate, where the emphasis was on a good commercial education and they remained their until about 1912 when the choir school was moved to the Burghersh Chantry in James Street. But the cost of moving to larger premises proved more than the school could afford and it closed not long after the first world war.

1960 — new school established

Unbelievably, there was now no choir school at Lincoln, the choral services continuing with boys recruited from local schools until in 1960 a new cathedral school was set up, which was not part of an existing school.

All this took an interminable time to organise and develop, the choosing of a team of choristers of varying ages, the preliminary voice training, the learning of the Liturgy and of the repertory, till in 1977 the choristers were overjoyed to hear that they were now on the list for BBC choral Evensongs, firstly on the Wednesday in Holy Week and again on Easter Day. In the following year Easter Day Matins was televised by the BBC.

A useful innovation was installed in 1979, that of closed circuit television in the organ loft, enabling the organist to see the conductor in the choir below.

1980 — the Priory is acquired

Lincoln Cathedral at night
Photo by "Merrie G"
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There was an important addition to the school buildings in 1980.  A very fine eighteenth century house, The Priory, became vacant following the death of Sir Frances Hill, a local historian and educational pioneer. The Dean and Chapter had been looking for such a house to provide dormitory accommodation for the 25 per cent increase in staff and pupils, so The Priory was duly bought.

In this year the choir made a recording of Dr Marshall’s anthem Firmly I believe and Truly originally composed for the Old Choristers’ Federation in 1978.  Great fund raising efforts by the choir resulted in a singing trip to Neustadt in West Germany in 1981, which was a great success.

Not many people know that by ancient custom there are only four choristers at Lincoln – the four senior boys who wear black capes over their surplices. The remaining boys are called Burghersh Chanters.

1985 — tours and recordings

In 1985 the boys, like their fellows at York, had an unusual engagement when they went to sing at the renovated central railway station at Lincoln. A further foreign visit took place at this time, the choir travelling to Norway where they sang in both Oslo and Trondheim cathedrals.

Back home the annual Three Choirs' Festival was held in Lincoln and the choir was joined by those of Peterborough and Southwell. Also during the year two recordings were made and there were two BBC choral Evensongs. Dr Marshall, the organist for 20 years, announced his retirement, his place being taken by David Flood whose selection, in part, was made by the choir whom he and other candidates were rehearsed at his audition.

In 1988 there was a further change of organists with David Flood going to Canterbury in succession to Allan Wicks and Colin Walsh coming to Lincoln from St Albans. Whichever of them was in charge of the choir in September of that year had to face a choristers team depleted by the nine boys who had left in July.

September 1989 saw a televised Harvest Festival as well as visits to parish churches in the diocese. Also during the year, a tour to West Germany was made. The choir visited Limburg, giving a concert and two services in Limburg cathedral, Cologne, Wiesbaden and Maria Laach. Also by way of recreation, they visited RAF Mönchengladbach where the choristers were allowed to sit at the controls of a Tornado.

At home there was an interesting television programme recorded showing the life of William Byrd, organist at Lincoln from 1563 to 1572.

The summer of 1991 was extremely busy for in May the choir visited Neuestadt in Germany which is twinned with the City of Lincoln. In the following month the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge came up to Lincoln to give a recital under Dr George Guest, their organist; and shortly after it was the turn of Lincoln to host the Three Choirs' Festival, incorporating the choirs of Peterborough and Southwell. On 24 June the music at Evensong was entirely by Dr Philip Marshall, organist from 1966 to 1986, to mark his seventieth birthday. Afterwards there was a birthday party at Edward King House at which a cheque subscribed by the Old Boys’ association was presented to Dr Marshall.

In February 1992 there were three recordings made of favourite anthems from Byrd to Bruckner, during which the cathedral bell had to be switched off, and Bach’s St John Passion sung in German, followed in April.

1993 — a fresh look at the finances

Sculpture from Lincoln Cathedral
Photo by Thomas Stein
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A serious look at the cathedral’s music finances was given during the Old Chorister’s AGM in 1993. It was shown that Lincoln was one of the few cathedrals of ancient foundation to have no specific endowment to support the music but relied solely on monies from the Chapter budget. All costs, salaries, choristerships and instrumental upkeep had recently risen drastically; therefore, the Lincoln Cathedral Music Appeal had been launched which the Old Choristers’ Association heartily supported aiming to raise £50,000 over seven years, its contributions to a total of £1.7 million needed. In 1994 the running of the school was taken over from the cathedral by a consortium of local businessmen. Also in that year at the old choristers reunion, Dr Philip Marshall was installed as organist emeritus at the start of one Evensong and later in the service his anthem, Firmly I Believe and Truly was sung.

1995 — the girls' choir is established

1995 saw the formation of the girls’ choir which would sing separately from the boys. The first audition was held in April and a second followed in June. As is usual, candidates, as well as the voice trial, were examined in school work. Colin Walsh said that they had got off to a good start practising for an hour each morning.

The Willis organ was fully restored by 1998 and many events took place to celebrate the organ centenary, in all contributing £30,000 to the music appeal. The choir released its first CD in August 1999 which included a A Spanish Agnus Dei by Nicholas Snookes for trebles and alto solo. Also one of the senior girls, Martine Lyons, reached the final round of the Scouller competition with a composition for organ.

Miss Karen Kelly was appointed head of the preparatory school in January 2000 when Clive Rickart became head of the senior school and in overall charge.

Robert Western, the previous headmaster, had something to say concerning the vexed question of fitting in the timetable of choristers and non-choristers, without too much damage to either group. "On the whole", he said, "this is almost always achieved by quiet discussion with a certain amount of give and take on both sides. But there are a few times, such as an away match or school play when disappointment cannot be avoided".

Lastly, on one occasion at supper time the non-choristers stood waiting in the dining room for the choristers to return from Evensong; they had waited longer than usual and the food was getting cold. There was an air of impatience. After a while a boy was heard to whisper “I think it’s the fifteenth evening, sir” (Psalm 78, which has 73 verses).