Origins in the fourteenth century?
The Benedictine monastery of Norwich was one of the earliest to have an almonry school educating poor boys for free, giving them a bed, clothing and, for food, the leftovers from the monks’ refectory. An unbroken list of masters of the almonry school exists dating from the fourteenth century until 1538 when the monastery was dissolved. The boys were taught to read and write and sing, the latter taking place in the Lady Chapel; also they shared in the duties of servers and acolytes.
The fifteenth century
The almonry school also took fee paying boys towards the end of the century, namely the sons of John Beverley and William Elys, also one named Charleton and another Reppes. The names of many more are given until well into the fifteenth century, mostly boys from the local landed and burgess classes. Those who paid for their board and lodgings in 1408 are described as Master John’s boys for in 1423 John Hancock became master of the almonry school at a stipend of 13 shillings four pence per year plus fees from the 12 "private pupils". The school prospered and the curriculum was increased to include grammar for those boys sufficiently advanced to learn it, and at the same time an usher was employed to take care of the younger boys. There was one master, Thomas Wath, whom the bishop appointed in 1424 to teach song in the school and very probably in other locations in the city.
During the fifteenth century, Prior John Heverland was appointed to the monastery. Master John Goode took charge of the alms boys in 1437, followed a year later by a Master Williams, during whose time the task of sweeping out the cloisters fell to the almonry boys and continued for many years. For some reason, Master Williams was away in 1441 so that the boys were sent to the Episcopal school for a time where they were taught grammar by the high master, Master Constantine, at a cost to the almoner of 46 shillings and eight pence. Master Williams seems to have returned in 1442. In the same year the name of one John Scarlet appears in the records, firstly with a sum of two shillings for "helping to sing in choir" and then for assisting in the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary, referred to as Pueri Beati Virgin Marie, finally being appointed as Master of the Song School in 1445, being referred to as Master John in the almoner's rolls and being paid for teaching the boys.
A period of stability in the life of the song school
The fifteenth century saw a period of stability in the life of the song school, interrupted temporarily in the years following a fire in 1463. Grammar and song were taught to a high standard. Regular payments of 52 shillings per year were made to the schoolmaster who may even have been a member of the prior’s household. These masters appear to have been recruited from the episcopal school as was the case with Charles Herys who became master of the almonry school in 1492, very likely holding both posts in plurality.
Herys died about 1494 and an anonymous master moved into refurbished apartments, with the Priory being paid a reduced rate of 40 shillings per year, with 2 shillings for faggots and 12 shillings for his board; it seems that he was only teaching song at this juncture and that the boys were sent elsewhere for their instruction in school work.
In 1415 there was a visitation which showed that there was little in the way of advanced instruction in either letters or grammar at the Priory but only at the episcopal school; also pupil numbers were falling, but it is uncertain whether the two schools were amalgamated at this time as it was reported that there were only eight boys in the almonry school when there should have been 14. It was also advised that the almoner should have the "school by the oak" repaired owing to its being in a very bad condition. However, in 1532 the almoner was renting a vault in which to hold the grammar school.
The sixteenth century
In 1535, when Henry the Eighth sent his commissioners to gain information for his great survey known as Valor Ecclesiasticus, questions were asked concerning income and expenditure, including that of the monies spent on the almonry boys, their numbers and circumstances, to which the reply was given that there were:
"thirteen boys annually lodging within the monastery, there to be instructed or taught in the grammar school called "Le Almery Scole"…"
In fact, records show that the latter continued without a break until the dissolution of the monastery in 1539. Also in 1535, there was a singing man, Osbert Parsley, who was born in Norwich in 1511. It was unusual for a layman to sing with the monks. Another was William Glover who was a prolific composer.
At this time it is fairly clear that the almonry grammar school had absorbed the episcopal grammar school and was now part of the new cathedral establishment. 1542 saw the first of a succession of masters of the choristers, Thomas Grewe, who had eight choristers living in his house. In Bishop Parkhurst’s Injunctions of 1570, those responsible were reminded that choristers and other scholars must still be sons of poor men.
The seventeenth century
The Statute Book of 1608
In the Statute Book of 1608 it was laid down that there were to be eight lay clerks, one organist and eight choristers; Chapter 15 of these statutes stated that:
"…eight chorister boys, boys of tender age with tuneful voices apt for singing, who shall serve and minister and sing in the choir and learn to play various instruments, if such be supplied at the expense of the church. We will that one man be chosen by the dean out of those who serve in the choir… of upright life and skilled in singing and in playing musical instruments who shall sedulously undertake the teaching of the boys… We will also that this man shall provide for the health of the choristers. We will that they live with him and we entrust to his honour and industry the task of educating and instructing the same in letters and in the scriptures. With him also we will that they abide… all of them or at all events the four who are most fitted for service in the choir. If he be found to be negligent and slothful in teaching, after the third warning he must be disposed of his office. With a view to the faithful discharge of his office he shall also be bound by an oath."
It was customary for two or three lay clerks to take turns in playing the organ and there was very little difference between organist and lay clerk. William Inglott became organist in 1608 and many members of his family were prominent in the musical affairs of the cathedral. In most cases, the organist and schoolmaster were one and the same person, but not always, for in 1638 Richard Gibbs was solely the organist and was paid £31, 13 shillings and four pence per year until the outbreak of the Civil War.
At the Restoration in 1661, the books show that the master, Peter Sandley, was paid only £4 per year, so it is likely that the boys lived in their own homes at this time. In the same year Richard Aylward (of responses fame) became organist and he employed cornets to boost the newly formed treble line. He also employed altos. A year later there is an entry, "to the organist for four surplices for the singing boys", and in 1663, £26, 13 shillings and four pence was allotted to the boys themselves soon after which they were attired in new gowns, also becoming boarders once more with Mr Gibbs. This arrangement only lasted for a few months when Gibbs handed them over to a lay clerk, Anthony Beck, who found them too much for him and handed them back to Gibbs, who struggled with them, but died of the plague in 1666. So Aylward returned and lodged just four boys in his house. An entry for 1670 states, "Eidem pro domo per concessionem," which is tempting to translate as "day boys". This coincides with the appointment of Thomas Pleasants as organist and, in fact, the Pleasants family took an active part in the music of the cathedral.
From this time until 1829 there are regular entries for gowns and lodging for the boys, sometimes referring to eight boys, so possibly there were some times four others who lived elsewhere.
Statute 20 states that the best paid of the music staff was the organist at £20 per year, with an additional £8 for whoever taught the boys in school, usually the organist. These sums indicate that at least some boys lived in. They were given board and lodgings but no pay, but every Easter they were given two and a half yards of cloth for new gowns. This statute goes on to say that the precentor was to direct the choir in the cathedral, to spur on those who were negligent, keep peace in the choir and stop the running about in service time. The boys were probably after "spur money", for example, if a man entered the church wearing spurs, the choristers would rush down to him and demand money. He in turn would command the youngest boy to sing the six notes of the Gamut, or scale. If the boy succeeded, the choristers got their money, but if he failed no fine was due; this custom was the norm in many cathedrals.
To return to Statute 20, the precentor had to make a note of any absence in the choir and report it in the Chapter House. Punishing misbehaviour in the choir was in the hands of the dean. Choir books must be kept in good order. A list of some of them is given:
- 8 books black leather – services.
- 10 books red leather – full anthems.
- 10 books white parchment – verse anthems.
- 8 books white parchment – services for men.
- 9 books white parchment – services.
- 8 books white parchment – full and verse.
- 1 book red leather – verse services.
The eighteenth century
Thomas Garland was made organist in 1749 and he discovered an outstanding boy singer, Zechariah Buck, who later became assistant organist at only 21 years of age. He was the country’s leading trainer of boys’ voices in his day, and when organist made the choir of Norwich famous throughout the land. Among his boys who became eminent in the world of cathedral music was AH Mann, director of music at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge in the nineteenth century. There is little of interest recorded for the nineteenth century, save for the names of three organists – Francis Edward Gladstone in 1877, Frederick Cork Anderson in 1881 and Frank Bates in 1886.
Into the twentieth century
Bates was followed by Heathcote Dicken Statham in 1928, and one of his choristers, Lionel H Stone, has written:
"I was a chorister and monitor between 1939 and 1941 and was present at Evensong the day the organ caught fire, 9 April 1938. The choristers numbered between 14 and 16 with two or more probationers who sat separately from the choir. In my day there were six lay clerks, three a side, but nowadays the lay clerks have been increased by choral scholars from the university of East Anglia.
The boys in my time were under the direction of the organist and master of the music, Dr Heathcote Statham, and all the boys attended the choir school situated in the west end of the cathedral. Boys usually commenced at the age of eight, following a music and voice trial by Dr Statham. There were two classes in the school, the juniors taught by a Miss Bagg–Scott in a classroom upstairs over the cloisters, and the senior boys downstairs under the direction of Canon Edward Parr.
The school closed in 1951 and from then on the choristers were educated in the King Edward the Sixth grammar school situated in the Close. This was later renamed Norwich School. Our days were pretty full and music took precedence over school education, although having said this I do not know of any chorister who did not accomplish a good job after leaving."
After the move to Norwich School, the timetable of practices and services was arranged as follows:
- Sundays – 10am practice, 11am Matins, 3.30pm Evensong.
- Saturday – 3pm Evensong.
- Weekdays – 8.45am practice, 5pm Evensong, followed by a practice lasting until 6.15pm on Mondays and Fridays (no mention of Matins on weekdays).
- No music at all on Thursdays unless this was a Saint’s Day when the day without music was normally transferred to Monday.
- On a few great festivals there was Holy Communion at 8am followed by breakfast.
- Holidays were from 26 December to 4 January, except that there were the usual two services on the Sunday within this period, and on New Year’s Day.
- At Easter the choir was free from Easter Monday until the following Saturday and, in the summer, the period from August Bank Holiday Monday to the fourth Saturday following, including the three intervening Sundays, was also a holiday.
1981 – tour to the USA
On 28 March 1981 the choir travelled to America for two weeks. They gave concerts at Washington DC, Salisbury in Maryland, Princetown in New Jersey, Norwich in Connecticut, New York, Eerie in Pennsylvania, Akron in Ohio, Bloomfield Hills in Michigan and London in Ontario, Canada. At home, on 29 November, the annual Advent carol service was held in the cathedral, followed by a wine and cheese party in the Prior’s Hall.
1982 saw the choirs of Peterborough, Ely and Norwich in their Three Choirs' Festival, also the latter in the Norwich Triennial Festival, and in the same year the making of a double Vista LP of the music of Herbert Howells to celebrate his ninetieth birthday.
Further overseas tours
The choirs travelled to France during August 1985 where they sang in the Brest Festival of the Three Seas in the Pont L’Abbé, where they were very well received by a most enthusiastic audience. In May of the following year they were joined by the Norwich Philharmonic Chorus in a trip to Germany, singing with the Koblenz Choir and State Orchestra of the Rhine, and giving Britten’s War Requiem in the Rhein Mosel Hall, with James Lockhart as conductor. They sang to a capacity audience and the final applause from the 1,200 listeners lasted for a full five minutes.
In 1988 they turned north to Scandinavia where they gave recitals at Horsens and Helsingor in Denmark, and Vadstena, Stockholm, Karlstadt, Karlskoga, Gothenburg and Ljungskile in Sweden.
Financial news was encouraging. In 1990 the new Choristers’ Bursary Trust was set up under the chairmanship of Lord Edward Fitzroy. The trust fund increased by another quarter of a million pounds over the year. In September the choir began the term with the greatest number of boys for over 20 years, 24 including four probationers.
1991 – to Holland and Germany
August 1991 saw the choir off on their travels once more, this time to Holland and Germany. They gave concerts in Haarlem, Rotterdam, Mijdrecht and Hamburg, and received standing ovations and encores everywhere. The highlight of the tour was possibly a Mass sung jointly with the choir of St Bavo’s Cathedral, Haarlem when the choirs performed Vierne’s Mass in C sharp minor, with its two large organs, producing a remarkable effect; the anthem was Parry’s I Was Glad.
1992 – a second tour to the USA
Shortly after Easter 1992 the choir travelled to America again. They sang at 18 concerts and services spanning Ohio and Massachusetts in the north and Georgia in the south. At a concert in St Paul’s, Akron, the Harvey Canticles were acknowledged with shouts of "Bravo!". When at Macon in Georgia, the programme came to an end by the light of many candles. Among the choir’s most enthusiastic audiences were those of Norfolk, Virginia. The last concert was held at Harvard University where a rather special atmosphere prevailed.
Back in this country in July, the fifth Norwich Festival of Contemporary Music was held. The composers represented included Francis Grier, Jonathan Harvey, Avro Pärt and Philip Wilby. There were visiting choirs from Lithuania and Finland, also the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. In addition, there was a carol by James Guthrie, chorister from 1988 to 92, entitled Nova Nova Ave Fit Ex Eva.
1993 – once again to Holland and Germany
During August 1993 the choir again went to Holland and Germany, starting with a concert in Haarlem before an audience of 1000. They went on to Gutersloh where they sang Mass, followed by concerts in Osnabruk and Soest. They continued south to Ahlen in Westphalia and to Wuppertal where they met the famous boys’ choir. Then, having sung in Koblenz, they went on to Cologne where they sang Mass in that vast cathedral.
At home, there were several concerts in their Cathedral Classics tour, including Schubert’s Mass in G with the London Festival Orchestra, and on two Sundays there were live broadcasts by the BBC, the morning Eucharist and in the evening Songs of Praise. All in one week there were 17 rehearsals, including four camera rehearsals, two live broadcasts and ten other services. The choir also took part in the Noel Edmonds Christmas Show and an episode of the TV situation comedy You Rang, M’Lord.
1994 saw a change of organist when Michael Nicholas retired and David Cooper, formally of Blackburn, took over in September. On 5 November there was a combined choirs Evensong with the choirs of Ely and Peterborough, followed by a firework display in the precentor’s garden. Shortly before Christmas, the Norwich choir gave a carol concert in the new Castle Mall shopping precinct.
The girls' choir sings its inaugural service
For some little time a voluntary girls’ choir trained by Neil Taylor, the assistant organist, had been preparing to make their debut, which they did on 29 October 1995 when they sang their inaugural service. The choir consisted of 33 girls between the ages of ten and 18 years, and was drawn from various schools in the city and roundabout. Practices were fixed twice-weekly, on Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings. A little different from some other cathedral girls’ choirs, their repertoire included secular as well as sacred music, and their duties, as well as singing at some services, took them to various churches in the diocese for recitals, some to raise money for charity.
In the same year the head boy chorister, Dominic de Cogan, won the Choir Schools Association Choristers’ Composition Competition with his anthem Hear My Prayer.
1996 – the cathedral celebrates it's nine hundredth anniversary
1996 was the nine hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the cathedral by Bishop Herbert de Losinga, and many celebrations took place. The men and boys went to Paris in July singing in several venues, including Nôtre Dame. It was the turn of Norwich to host the Maundy Service and in Holy Week the choristers appeared on BBC TV for Children in Need, and a documentary on Anglia TV was made about the day to day life of a chorister.
The girls' choir tours Germany
In 1998, Neil Taylor was appointed to the organistship of Sheffield Cathedral before which he took his girls’ choir to sing in Germany in August, where they were based in Koblenz, singing in some neighbouring towns including the Roman Catholic Benedictine Abbey of Maria Laach. Once more the choirs of Ely and Peterborough joined with both the Norwich choirs for their Three Choirs' Festival, which was part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festivals. Finally, a triumph for the girls’ choir, who released a CD on Priory entitled Glory Be To God On High. Also, both choirs took part in a BBC documentary entitled Cathedral, showing life in and around Norwich Cathedral. During the Norwich Festival of that year, the Three Choirs' Service took place on home ground; both Norwich choirs taking part, joined by those of Ely and Peterborough.
1999 – tour to California
In October 1999, the boys and men travelled to California where they gave concerts and sang services and where the concerts were given a standing ovation.
Those 900 years have witnessed some things that are less than good, such as Anthony Beck and his four obstreperous choristers, to much that is outstanding such as James Guthrie’s carol Nova Nova Ave Fit Ex Eva, and Dominic de Cogan’s anthem Hear My Prayer.