Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Oxford, Christ Church Cathedral School

Few remaining early written records

Christ Church Cathedral interior
Photo by Juan Salmoral
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There was an outbreak of ringworm at the school in 1890, following, which the health authorities ordered that all burnable material should be incinerated. Amongst all this there disappeared the earliest records of the choristers and the school. However, we do know that in 1546 Henry the Eighth in his Statutes, provided for eight choristers and the college was established in 1556. The choristers' names were often those of the lay clerks whose sons they may have been. Their master was one of the chaplains and lived in college but was not responsible for the boys, who were day boys, out of school hours. The schoolroom was behind and beneath the hall and close by was the schoolyard.

There exists no information for the seventeenth century, which is a pity as Oxford was right at the centre of the Civil War and a station for Royalist troops. A small record from the eighteenth century has survived in that in 1720 some of the choristers were burning old Christmas decorations when they accidentally set fire to the schoolroom causing much damage.

The nineteenth century

Round about 1850 an arrangement was made that the choristers should eat their dinner each day at 2pm in the Chapter House. There was usually a good joint but on some days there was only a pudding. Beer was not allowed but a communal cup of water was handed round. There was no adult in charge.

There were certain rights exercised by the boys at this time; on Shrove Tuesday they could demand a pancake, and they were allowed to play in the quad and run on the grass, also to explore every alley and staircase in the college. They seem to have had considerably more freedom than their colleagues at New College, probably because at this time they were still day boys whilst at New College the choristers were boarders. The Christ Church boys spent quite a lot of their free time exploring Oxford and sometimes hiring a boat for sixpence a day and going to Iffley or Kennington. Sometimes they walked to Abingdon and bought six penniworth of biscuits between them, which they considered a feast. In order to encourage sport, the authorities hired a field for cricket and football when all necessary equipment was provided and sometimes a hamper of provisions.

The headmaster from 1853 to 58 was the Reverend John Baker, and during his time the number of choristers was increased, first to 14 and then to 16. He was followed by the Reverend W Price who stayed for many years and brought the school work to a very high standard; he was assisted by the Reverend T Evans. In 1870, owing to a shortage of space in the college, the schoolroom under the hall was needed for students, so a classroom in the corner of the Meadows had to be hurriedly built to accommodate the boys and their masters.

School began at 8.30am when the door was firmly shut and any boy who was late had to wait outside and, after prayers, be let in to receive one stroke of the cane. Lessons ended at 9.45am when the choristers went to practice and Matins under Dr Corfe, the organist. Then there was more school and lunch and a return to school at 3pm, except on Wednesdays and Saturdays when games were held. Evensong was at 5pm, after which 16 tired and hungry boys made for their homes.

The beginnings of the boarding school

In 1874, the Reverend SE Nichols became headmaster and in 1878 a Mrs Thorpe, the school’s first and much loved matron was put into 1 Brewer Street with several boarders to look after. This was the beginning of the boarding school.  Mr Nichols was made superintendent of their choir house and was asked to draw up a scheme of management for the dean’s approval. The month of August provided the choristers with about 10 days' holiday as the cathedral was closed then for its annual spring clean.

After the death of Dr Corfe in 1882, the new organist was Dr Harfold-Lloyd who stayed for ten years writing a certain amount of church music including his service in E flat, although his compositions no longer remain in the general repertoire. His successor was Dr Basil Harwood, some of whose compositions do remain in the repertoire.

The transition to a boarding school is completed

In school there was a change of headmaster when the Reverend H Rogers succeeded Mr Nichols. This was a period of transition from day to boarding which Reverend Rogers found rather trying. However, by the end of his time all choristers and probationers were boarders. He had decided to get married but first he had to apply to the Dean and Chapter for permission. Happily, his application was successful but he was told, "this was not to be taken as a precedent".

There was still no permanent playing field except for a corner of the Christ Church cricket field, and then only when students had gone down. Occasionally the boys were allowed to play football on the field opposite the Christ Church barge.

Dorothy L. Sayers

Christ Church Cathedral Oxford
Source: Wikipedia
GNU Free Documentation License

In 1884, the Reverend H Sayers became headmaster and stayed for a long and happy 13 years.  In 1893 a daughter, Dorothy, was born at the choir school, who was to grow up to be the famous Dorothy Sayers, writer of detective stories including the Lord Peter Wimsey books, and later in her life the author of some religious writings including The Man Born to be King, a cycle of radio plays.

The signal for lights out was the ringing of the bell Great Tom. Anyone caught out of bed was in trouble. One night in 1882 Great Tom did not ring and all the boys were caught out of bed by Mr Sayers. It was the night of the university rag and the students had cut the bell rope.

Bright new half crowns all round

Every Christmas Eve for years, the dean had presented each chorister with an orange and a mince pie after Evensong. Now there was a new dean, would he continue the custom? The choristers were apprehensive. Christmas Eve dawned and still no sign. After Evensong the choristers decided to visit the Deanery where they were admitted by a butler who showed them into the dining room. Very soon Dean Paget appeared asking what they wanted. The head chorister explained that Dean Lidell, chiefly remembered as the father of the little girl who served Lewis Carrol as a model for Alice, had always given them an orange and mince pies on Christmas Eve and they hoped Dean Paget would do the same. The Dean replied that he was very sorry but he had decided to discontinue the custom. The boys’ faces fell and there was great gloom. The Dean went on to say that he had intended to follow his father in law at St Paul’s Cathedral and given them all bright new two shilling pieces instead. The boys’ spirits rose. But the Dean continued that he had searched all the banks in town and had been unable to find enough bright new two shilling pieces, so he was sorry to have to disappoint them again. The boys’ spirits were dashed. So, the dean explained, they would have to be content with bright new half crowns all round instead.

Mr Sayers, looking back on some of his memories of the school, said that he was surprised to find that there had been no serious illness at the choir house, which was situated in a low lying area of an already damp Oxford. Furthermore, the boys were closely packed in the building and the rooms were small and dark, overshadowed by other buildings. There was only one door to the house and people, as well as food and other deliveries, had to use it. However, in time the dean gave permission for a second door to be made. In one of the dormitories there was a small vent and, on summer nights after lights out, the boys used to crawl through it on to the flat roof outside. This game was known as "roof rabbits".

Gardening was a popular occupation and each boy had his own plot, some boys producing floral layouts while others brought in salads for tea.

When Mr Sayers announced that he was getting married, it was realised that something would have to be done to enlarge the house. After much deliberation, it was decided to build an entirely new house. There were innumerable difficulties in finding a suitable site but at last one was agreed upon and the foundations were begun. It was to be a long and fraught operation and some digging had to go as deep as eighteen feet. Two years later the house was ready and a service of blessing was held, attended by the dean and canons, the headmaster, staff and boys.

The politics of the boys at this time were distinctly Conservative, for on hearing that Mr Gladstone was in Oxford and would be coming their way, unknown to anyone the boys gathered at Tom Gate and hissed at the great statesman.

Choir holidays underwent a change for the better at this time, for until then the boys had gone home one half at a time. Now, all 16 would go home at the same time whilst the choral services were sung by the men. Another improvement was the acquisition of Merton Meadow for cricket and football.

The twentieth century

Brass from Christ Church Cathedral
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
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By 1913 life for the choristers had become more civilised,  especially at Christmas when the non-singing boys had gone home. The choristers were invited out by the dean, the archdeacon and the organist, Dr Henry Ley. Discipline at Choir House was relaxed; the presentation of a large cake from Mr and Mrs Allchin became an annual event and a first class dinner was provided. Dr Ley would organise a concert of part songs and piano solos before an invited audience.

Weather permitting, bird watching in Christ Church Meadow became a popular practice, and a heron was spotted in the meadow one Christmas. Further recreation was had when, from time to time, the boys were allowed to take a fourpenny steamer to Iffley where they would walk to Sanford railway bridge and from there board a train back to Oxford.

In late summer a cricket match was organised when the lay clerks, augmented by some friends of Dr Ley, played against the school, but it is not recorded which team was the winner. Afterwards, tea was provided in The Old Library.

Some days later some carthorses broke into the Christ Church ground and did inestimable damage.

The second world war

With the coming of the second world war, St Aldates was opened as a temporary annexe to relieve pressure on school buildings. It was equipped with an air raid shelter in the kitchen, and six boys slept there, as well as a Mr Cripps who was in charge of the house. Also, from 11 November, the hour of Evensong was changed from 5.30pm to 3pm for blackout reasons.

In spite of wartime conditions the choir managed to do some singing extra to the regular cathedral services. They gave a recital in Keble College chapel, singing Bach’s Jesu, Priceless Treasure and Palestrina’s Stabat Mater. The choir was lucky in that it still had all the lay clerks with it. However, various call ups were expected very soon and before that happened, plans were going ahead to record Jesu, Priceless Treasure.

In 1939 the autumn term saw only two extra services outside those of the regular cathedral services, and both were weddings, one in the cathedral and one in the university church. There were two ordination services in the cathedral, one early in the term and one just before Christmas. There was very little new music sung during the term but parts of Brahms' Requiem were brought out from the back of a cupboard after a lapse of time. New to the choir were Mendelssohn’s Lift Thine Eyes and See What Love Hath the Father, and Statham’s Communion service in E minor.

The post-war period

In 1943 there was an inspection of the school by the Board of Education, and happily it was recognised as efficient. On 27 February, forms 1 and 2 gave a performance of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and after the interval four senior boys produced From Cloister to Cathedral by Elizabeth Goudge. Later in the term the school orchestra played Heller Nicholls’ Toy Symphony on American Airs, and the senior members of the school orchestra gave a Corelli sonata at the end of one of Dr Thomas Armstrong’s, the cathedral organist, children’s concerts in the town hall. Shortly before the end of term the name of John Horton appeared on the service sheet as the composer of a chant for the Benedictus. Dr Armstrong had organised a competition for this among the choristers and Horton was the winner. Second was Henry Moule whose chant would be done the following term.

There was also a broadcast in that year in which two new anthems by Herbert Howells  –  Let God Arise and O Pray to the Peace of Jerusalem, were sung, but unfortunately owing to a break in the landline to the transmitting station, most of it was lost. On 31 October the choirs of Christ Church, Magdalen and New College gave a united concert in the Sheldonian Theatre which included Parry’s There Is An Old Belief. Sir Hugh Allen was the conductor.

In 1956, Dr Sydney Watson, organist at Eton College, was appointed to Christ Church Cathedral. At the beginning of the academic year the Sunday choral Eucharist was sung every Sunday instead of on alternate weeks, and in November, at St Cecilia -tide, the choir and undergraduates gathered in the hall and sang Grace and a madrigal before dinner, the custom having been begun some years previously by Dr Armstrong.

In 1957, extensive repairs were being carried out to the organ so that the choir was singing unaccompanied for a considerable time. It was customary at The Gaude for the choir to give a concert on the staircase leading up to the hall and this year Dr Watson introduced new music.

In the summer of 1958 came the welcome news that Dr Armstrong had been given a knighthood. Dr Watson and his choir continued to make music both within the cathedral and beyond, including a concert at St Mary’s with the choir of New College. On 22 June, the choir gave a concert planned to be sung on the staircase, but owing to bad weather it was transferred to the cathedral. It was an exciting programme, a Vittoria Mass, three Bach chorales, two Stanford anthems, and music by Byrd, Palestrina, Tomkins and Armstrong-Gibbs.

The fifth of July saw the fiftieth anniversary of the Territorial Army and a commemoration service was held in the cathedral at which the choir sang Parry’s I Was Glad.

Dr Watson was full of new ideas, one of which was to take the four boys who would be leaving at the end of the term up to the organ loft with him, leaving the remainder, who would be on their own next term, to sing Evensong by themselves and get accustomed to taking responsibility.

First recordings

Tom Tower
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
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In March 1961, the choristers had what was for them a novel experience. They spent the day in the cathedral making recordings for the Delyse’s company. They were surprised to find how much time, preparation and repetition went into the final perfecting of about half a dozen works.  The quietest cough or rustle of papers and the whole movement had to be done again. The works recorded were a Mass by Vittoria, some motets by Byrd and some of Adrian Batten. The final result was a triumph both of recording and choral singing. Shortly after this, the choir was learning a new work specifically written for it, the Missa Aedia Christi by Herbert Howells.

A year later, on 25 May, the choir had the great privilege of taking part in the service of consecration of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral after the destruction of bombing during the war. At the rehearsal a fortnight before, it was possible to view the almost empty cathedral in all it splendour. Disaster almost struck as an outbreak of German measles swept through the Oxford school but mercifully it was over just in time.

Later in the summer, work was begun on moving the choir stalls to ground level, during which time the choir sang from under the tower. 1963 was chiefly remembered for the choir’s opening of the Oxford Bach Festival and their singing of Bach’s Jesu, Priceless Treasure.

Simon Preston, the then organist, left in 1980 to take up his appointment as organist and choirmaster at Westminster Abbey, and was succeeded at Oxford by Francis Grier.

Overseas tours

1982 was a year of touring both at home and abroad. In July the choir travelled to Belgium singing at the opening concert of the Flanders Festival in Bruges, followed by a concert in Antwerp Cathedral. Come the summer holidays, they were off to Denmark giving concerts in Soro, Hiorriag, Vendsyssel, Saeby and Herning. Back home there were concerts in Loughborough parish church, St John’s Smith Square and in their own cathedral. They also performed at The Queen Elizabeth Hall and The Royal Festival Hall.  25 May saw them travel to London, to St Paul’s, joining the choirs of St George’s Windsor and Chichester, and of course St Paul’s, for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy.

1983 produced an even busier schedule, starting on 18 and 19 January with two broadcast Evensongs, as well as recording "verse" anthems by Gibbons. A few days later they recorded motets by Tallis for the BBC. February saw all the boys in the school taking part in performances of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a children’s opera by David Bedford. In March there was a recording of Britten’s War Requiem for EMI, also Carols from Christ Church for ASV. More carols were recorded for American television and Central TV. Releases included some Bach motets and WH Harris’s Faire is the Heaven. Recitals in a number of places embraced those at Beaconsfield, Birmingham, Stoke Poges and St John’s Smith Square.

1985 was another busy year. From 29 July to 2 August the choir went on another trip to Belgium. Throughout the year there were many recitals, including those at Uppingham, Christchurch Priory, Spitalfields, St Luke’s, Chelsea, Oundle and, once again, at St John’s Smith Square. There were also many broadcasts and recordings, with one from the BBC of the music of Domenico Scarlatti and others.

The choir travelled to France for a singing tour from 12 to 23 July 1987, and there was a BBC choral Evensong during the previous month. On 3 December they appeared on LWT in the London Palladium charity variety show.

1988 saw a year packed with broadcasts and recordings in addition to the daily sung Evensong and Sunday services. The broadcasts included, in March the Bach Magnificat and Easter Oratorio at The Sheldonian Theatre and Bach’s St John Passion in the cathedral, and in July the Handel Festival at The Sheldonian Theatre. Among the recordings made at this time were some of Vaughan Williams choral works, Christian music by Holst and Walton, Palestrina’s Missa Dum Complementur with some of his motets, Weelkes’s ninth service and certain of his anthems.

Tour of the USA

Stained glass in
Christ Church Cathedral
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
Some rights reserved

In 1989 there was a very successful tour of the USA, and the following year there were foreign tours under the direction of Stephen Darlington, now organist. The choir gave a concert to mark Sir Michael Tippett’s eighty-fifth birthday in May, two concerts at The Sheldonian Theatre and the Oakham Festival in July.

1992 was again a year of tours, the USA after Easter and later Switzerland and Brazil; also around the UK when they broadcast from The Grant Theatre, Blackpool, and from St John’s Smith Square.

In 1994 the death occurred of Sir Thomas Armstrong at the age 95, and in October a memorial service was held for him. During March 1995 the choir travelled to Lebanon to give a number of concerts.

1997 saw choir activity both at home and abroad. A Unesco concert was given in Frankfurt Cathedral, followed by a further tour of the USA. At home the choir sang with Josť Carreras at the Royal Albert Hall and once again at St John’s Smith Square.

The school’s headmaster, Allan Mottram, would be retiring in the summer of 2000, but before that he planned a gigantic motorbike ride for charity, hopefully to visit all the chapels and cathedrals belonging to the Choir Schools Association. He had this to say a few years ago:

"To be a chorister in one of England’s magnificent cathedrals or collegiate chapels is an unforgettable experience for a boy. It is possibly the finest training that he can have. Many of today’s cathedral organists and professional singers started their education as choristers, but the discipline and professionalism that is part of the chorister’s upbringing will stand him in good stead for his future career. A chorister plays a vital role in the glorious heritage of English cathedral music, a tradition as old at the Church of England itself".