Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Oxford, Magdalen College School

Origins in the fifteenth century

Mary of Magdala
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William Waynflete founded the free school with four chaplains, eight clerks and 16 choristers in about 1478. The youngest choristers were educated at the song school, an elementary school or "absy" (from abc) and the seniors were moved on to the college school. Waynflete arranged that the song school should be governed by one of the chaplains or clerks, and the post became synonymous with that of organist. A certain number of non-singing boys were also admitted to the school. These last probably had to pay a small fee. In 1487 a special house was built for the juniors, set at a certain distance from the college school in order not to disturb the pupils of the latter. Older choristers at the college school often moved on to the college as undergraduates.

Pre-Reformation customs and traditions

The timetable in both schools was harsh, but in compensation there were many holidays and half holidays for the numerous saints' days that existed at this time. Amongst the old customs that prevailed was that of the president of the college washing the feet of seven of the choristers on Maundy Thursday. Also there were ceremonies in connection with the Boy Bishop on St Nicholas Day, 6 December. As in other collegiate schools and cathedrals these ceremonies disappeared at the Reformation, were revived by Queen Mary and came to an end for good under Queen Elizabeth the First, although In recent years both Hereford and Salisbury have revived some of these ceremonies. Another tradition, peculiar to Magdalen and surviving to this day, was the singing of a hymn on top of the tower at dawn on May Day morning; the origin of this is unknown.

As particularly at St Paul’s, acting seems to have been a popular amusement with the choristers and there were other hobbies such as fishing, liming birds (a sticky substance spread on twigs to catch birds, "maying" (the festivities of May), shooting, running, dancing, orchard robbing and country walks. All this was carried out in Latin for undergraduates and choristers were forbidden to speak in any other tongue. The choristers waited at table in hall and it was not until 1802 that this custom came to an end.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there were many comings and goings owing to the outbreaks of plague, and at one time there appears to have been only about a dozen fellows, the four chaplains, seven clerks and a few choristers left. Not long after this, things must have been more normal, for Bishop Fox, bishop of Winchester and visitor to Magdalen College, ordered that the choristers were to attend the grammar lectures at Magdalen school; this custom was continued until about 1600.

The sixteenth century

Thomas Cooper

Stained Glass in
Magdalen College Chapel
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In 1549 the school had a master called Thomas Cooper. He was the son of a poor tailor in Oxford who entered the school as a chorister in 1531. By 1539 he had risen to be a fellow but resigned in 1546.  He wrote several learned books on becoming master of Magdalen School. He also studied and practised medicine. After his resigning of the mastership in 1567, he became successively dean of Christ Church, dean of Gloucester, bishop of Lincoln and bishop of Winchester, the latter in 1584.

1550 – a threat arises to suppress Magdalen school

Early in 1550, and stemming from certain puritanical influences, there was a threat to suppress Magdalen school. Twelve of the king’s council, Edward the Sixth being a minor, brought injunctions forbidding any money to be spent on the upkeep of the chaplains, clerks and choristers. A petition was sent back to the council stating, among other things, that the 16 choristers after their elementary education at the song school, went on to learn grammar at Magdalen school. The president approached Archbishop Cranmer, and the mayor sent an appeal to the king. The petitioners were successful and the school was saved.

During the second half of the sixteenth century a puritan president, Humfrey, was appointed with adverse effects on the music of the college and its choristers. The latter became little more than extra undergraduates ranging in age from about 15½ to 20 years. However, Humfrey’s successor, President Bond, seems to have been a musician, for in 1592, the age of appointment of choristers dropped once more to 10 or 11 years.

The seventeenth century

Civil War and the Restoration

In 1648 a parliamentary visitation descended on Oxford and focused particularly on Magdalen, expelling the choristers and the schoolmaster. However, the city did not suffer to the extent that most cathedral cities did, anyway not physically, but learning was generally disrupted. At the Restoration new choristers and clerks must have been chosen and trained and a new musical tradition founded.

The eighteenth century

Magdalen Tower from the entrance
to the botanical gardens
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... and a slackening of standards

Nevertheless, in the eighteenth century there was a slackening of standards in the university as a whole. A typical chorister would be admitted at the age of about nine. When his voice had broken he would immediately proceed to the position of undergraduate when he would gain the degree of Master of Arts, immediately followed by a fellowship. After some eight or nine years he would be appointed to a living in the church whether suitable for the priesthood or not.

One president, Dr Thomas Winchester, rose from a choristership in 1722 to 1729, to a fellowship, some years later becoming the second tutor to Gibbon, who said of him that he always remembered that he had a salary to receive but was inclined to forget that he had a duty to perform. It was towards the end of the eighteenth century that the school gradually transformed into simply a choristers' school, and the master seldom attended owing to his suffering from gout. Another master, William Cobbold, was infamous for his harsh treatment of the boys and his over liberal use of the cane. But there were exceptions; Dr Edward Etherton was kind if rather possessive of his pupils who all loved him.

The nineteenth century

In 1810 the school enjoyed a temporary comeback under the mastership of Henry Jenkins. He was interested in games as well as school work and saw that the boys had proper playing fields. There were once again non-choristers in the school whose numbers grew to about 20, and some of these were boarders. The college rewarded Jenkins by presenting him with a testimonial of £100 and by raising his salary to £120 per year. Before he left in 1828 various changes and improvements had been made to the school buildings.

The reminiscences of two choristers

Jenkins' successor was Richard Walker whose mastership lasted from 1828 to 1844. During this time there have survived the reminiscences of two choristers, Millard, later to become master himself, and Knight. The latter remembered Walker as being an inefficient master under whom very little work was done. Walker was nonetheless something of a Hebrew scholar and author of a book on botany. He had a habit of studying French during lesson time, seated in front of the fire with his back to the boys, unconscious of what was going on behind him.

Both Millard and Knight remembered Mr Grantham Usher from 1801 until he broke his neck falling out of a window in 1840. He organised the three youngest boys to light the fire, pump and fetch water and a third to sweep the room. They added that he was a passionate man and very severe when he lost his temper. Millard told of three other masters, Thomas Lancaster, Mr Lockey and his son Angel Lockey. Lancaster succeeded Grantham and happily for the boys relied on a system of good and bad marks rather than the cane. Mr Lockey was an arithmetic master who was followed by one Morton, an 18 year old who was far from popular and said to be conceited. He had a habit of searching out the most difficult passages from Virgil and Horace for the boys to construe.

Severe disciplinary problems

At this time the choristers lived in various lodging houses in Holywell and Longwall. Knight remembered a certain amount of bullying by the bigger boys so that after a year he was moved to Longwall where he was much happier and, he said, well fed. It is quite amazing what in the way of violence and vandalism was going on among the choristers at this time. There were fights with the "blackguards" or the town boys. There was much bullying of small boys by bigger ones, and thefts of money both from them and Usher himself. One boy shot a neighbour’s dog and another was let down in a basket from the top of the tower. A fellow was threatened with horse whipping and the culprit was expelled. A pudding for the high table was filled with nails and some boys were found to be seizing and dragging carts and barrows into the quad, hidden from their owners.

1840 – the Magdalen school newspaper reports more problems

The choristers were producing a Magdalen school newspaper at this time and in the issue dated 1 May 1840 they recounted that the old custom of throwing rotten eggs down from the tower at the May morning festivities had been revived. It was successfully stopped by Usher who caught the boys on their way up to the tower, giving them a smart rap on the trouser pockets after which they very soon thought better of the escapade. Drinking beer and smoking pipes was prevalent among the boys, the while plans were being made for sorties against the town boys. "Barring out", that is to say barricading their masters out of the schoolroom was another prank indulged in, especially against the unfortunate Morton. This soon progressed to "barring in". The choristers plastered the schoolroom with asafoetida and made fast the door while poor Morton was trapped inside until the clock struck four and the boys were compelled to let him out and go over to Evensong.

A few more serious souls

Nevertheless there were a few more serious souls in the school. Millard was said to have asked the master’s permission to stay away from school as he wanted to work. He was flogged for impertinence, but his request was granted. And there was RH Hill, a future master, and Benjamin Blyth, a future organist who were to raise the standard of the choir. A library had been installed and by means of presents and fundraising activities had been expanded to between 500 and 600 books, Millard had become the librarian and sorted out and arranged the books, regulated which boys could use the library, and at what times it should be open. Another humanising move was the construction of a small theatre where the boys acted out their own plays. They also produced some periodicals the most successful being the Choristers monthly magazine which was circulated among the undergraduates and fellows. These bodies were so impressed that they offered a prize for the best poem. A selection of these was published in a magazine called Poems by Members of the Magdalen College School, Oxford.

Games too began to absorb much of their surplus energy, and Millard recounted that there were many successful cricket matches against New College School and Christ Church cathedral school. A primitive form of hockey was played in the winter months called "Bung and Hockey". Millard summed up his reminiscences with a tribute to various of the college dignitaries who, while the choristers were behaving in such an appalling manner, never withdrew their kindness and understanding towards them. This benevolence began to grow in the 1840s led by Bloxham, the dean of Divinity. He saw that better schoolroom accommodation was vital to reform, also better qualified masters must be recruited. He found William George Henderson, a man with a true vocation. At the latter’s resignation in 1846 JE Millard himself was appointed and was to see the school through an entirely new phase in its life.

1851 – the new school is ready

Magdalen College Chapel
Photo by "Simon the red beard" Kelly
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There were now plans for a new school with a house for the master. Eight long years were to pass bedevilled by interruptions and delays, before the school was ready for occupation. The old schoolroom in Magdalen Hall was pulled down and the boys were temporarily accommodated in rooms in the Chaplains’ Quadrangle. Finally the new school was ready in May 1851, housing the master, 16 choristers and some other boarders. It was situated on the corner of Longwall and The High. Millard now came into his own. A boy called Sherwood, one of his pupils and later a master, remembered what an excellent disciplinarian Millard was, much loved although feared. He had a laboratory constructed so that science could be developed. Standards of work were rising and there was a steady flow of scholarships to public schools. But perhaps more than anything else, said Sherwood, was the influence of Millard’s high churchmanship, to him the chapel and its services was the centre of school life, and this filtered down to the boys.

Further expansion of the school

Numbers were increasing so Millard bought number 57 next to the boarders’ house. In 1856 to 1857 a school chapel was built and paid for by Old Boys and parents. In 1863 a dining hall and kitchen were added and in the same year a new laboratory. During Millard’s time of office numbers had soared from 18 to 80, and in the year of his retirement, 1864, the school was inspected by the School’s Enquiry Commission who reported that there were 63 boarders including choristers and 28 day boys. RH Hill inherited a fine school in that year. He was something of a personality, expanding the work started by Millard. There were now more staff, all able and competent men. Scholarship winners increased and more expansion of buildings took place as numbers had again risen slightly; in fact some boarders had to be accommodated in the masters houses.

Mr Hill retired in 1876 just in time to avoid the worries caused by a university commission. His successor, HC Ogle was left to deal with numerous new rules and regulations; for the school the most alarming being that the college was empowered to take over the school buildings for its own purposes after three years' notice to the master. Happily in 1880, a second university commission revoked this clause saying the school should always be maintained.

Ogle was expected to do more for the day boys, abolishing compulsory games and chapel for them (these would seem to have been doubtful improvements), and reorganising the timetable to suit their needs. He was something of an eccentric and when he resigned in 1886 standards achieved by his two predecessors had fallen somewhat. There was still a certain amount of bullying but on the plus side music flourished in Ogle’s time and a Madrigal Society had been formed. Greek drama was performed by the boys with piano accompaniment by Walter (later Sir Walter) Parratt, the college organist. The choristers were unable to take part owing to their duties in the chapel. In 1871 a debating society was formed and a year later, a rifle corps which lasted until 1880. A few more subjects had been added to the curriculum which now consisted of Latin, Greek, English, geography, history, scripture, mathematics and French and German at a later date.

When ER Christie took over the mastership in 1887 he brought 20 boys with him from his previous school, West Kent grammar school. He proceeded to degrade the old prefects and appoint new ones from the boys he had brought with him. This naturally was a most unpopular move which was met by brutal discipline on the part of Christie so that he was feared and hated by the boys. Worse was to follow. Rumours concerning his moral character began to spread around Oxford so after an investigation, the college dismissed him. In the meantime the school had been reduced to 36 boys.

A turnaround in the late nineteenth century

A former chorister, and master under Mr Ogle inherited this disaster of a school.  WE Sherwood became master in 1888. His appointment was an inspiration. A dedicated Christian who sought the best in all aspects of his work and in the work of the boys and masters under him. Numbers began to rise again and by 1890 there were 72 boys in the school. Seven years later there were 100. Academic standards rose dramatically and many scholarships and exhibitions were gained. Sherwood’s staff included a team of remarkable men – Owen Seaman, AW Verity, CE Brownrigg, PD Pallan, and others. Games and sports were revived and Mr Brownrigg instilled a new spirit of enthusiasm into the boys. Out of school activities were encouraged especially debating, chess, natural history, literary and scientific societies and the Saturday evening concerts. The choristers were especially well looked after, having been in the choir under the organistships of John Stainer and Walter Parratt was an education in itself. Gaudy Day, 22 July was a great event. After morning service and prize giving, the choristers went to the Bursary to receive their Gaudy money. The four seniors also receiving each a bottle of port. At 5.30pm there followed the dinner before which the choristers sang a Latin grace. They were then employed in waiting at tables, the senior chorister waiting on the president.

The Christmas Eve party was a great tradition attended by fellows and visitors. The choristers joined them and firstly sang the Christmas music from Messiah with piano accompaniment, then, harking back to mediaeval times and the Boy Bishop, the choristers were led to the High Table where they were waited on by the president and senior fellows. Supper was followed by the lighting of the Christmas tree and the distribution of presents to the choristers. Carols followed and then a peal of bells from the tower.

As a result of an outbreak of scarlet fever in the last decade of the century it was found that the drains of the boarding house were deficient. The house itself was fairly dilapidated so it was decided to build a new boarding house. This was ready for occupation in September 1894. Further playing fields were obtained from Christ Church although, until bridges were built, players had to be punted across the river.

The twentieth century

Magdalen College Cloisters
Photo by Stuart Yeates
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In 1900 Sherwood was forced to retire owing to his wife’s ill health but continued to live in Oxford for 27 years. CE Brownrigg, the already popular usher, was appointed master in the same year and stayed until 1930. He was much respected and admired by the boys and was a superb teacher. Among the small extensions that he made to the school were a bicycle shed in 1901 and in 1905 the erection of two temporary classrooms. The remainder of the playing fields was levelled in 1907, and in 1913 a good pavilion was built.

In the following year the first world war broke out, and the story was much the same as in other schools – sad losses on the battlefield and a shortage of staff and of food.

The inter-war years

After the war, in 1928, the college needed to expand so that the school had to find new buildings on the western side of the Iffley road. There was a countrywide boom of boarding education at this time so that an additional boarders' house had to be found. Also Mr Kennard Davis took over the mastership from Mr Brownrigg in 1930; he found the school fairly small, about 100 pupils in all. Out of school activities had dwindled to a debating society, a small and a rather primitive orchestra and a little drama, but he managed to start a scout troop among the boys of the lower school.

In 1938 problems arose over the state of the temporary buildings put up in 1928. There just wasn’t the money to replace them. After every avenue had been unsuccessfully explored efforts were made to launch a building fund. But despite many generous offers enough could not be raised. In view of the political situation at this time the whole matter had to be postponed.

The second world war

The following year war was declared and although Oxford was mercifully spared the bombing, there were tiresome duties such as blacking out the boarding house, reinforcing the basement library as an air raid shelter and constructing further air raid shelters on the edge of the playground. Owing to Oxford being considered a "safe" area numbers began to increase, including a few choristers transferred from Westminster Abbey, and by sheer good luck extra accommodation became available when Milham Ford school moved leaving some empty hut classrooms.

Mr Kennard retired in 1944 and was followed by Mr RS Stanier who managed to write a delightful history of the school in his spare time. Shortly after his appointment he found himself facing problems both old and new. Should the school give up the direct grant status and become independent, or should it be handed over to the local authority? Eventually the decision was taken to remain on the direct grant list for the time being, partly because loans would be forthcoming from the ministry for scrapping the old temporary buildings and replacing them with permanent ones.

Expansion in the mid-1950s

In 1955 a three storey concrete block containing a changing room, eleven classrooms, an art room, a craft room, and cloakrooms was put up, running roughly from Iffley Road to the chapel. The classrooms and laboratories to the north of Big School were reorganised to provide senior and junior chemistry labs, and a senior physics lab. Another new building containing five rooms replaced accommodation lost elsewhere. In 1956 an important appointment was made, that of Dr Bernard Rose as Informator Choristarum, well known for his charming Responses.

In the same year some firms began the Industrial Fund for the Advancement of Science in Schools, which gave grants to independent and direct grant schools. The upshot was that the school obtained two physics and two chemistry labs, a workshop, preparation room, dark room and a balance room. These were completed in 1957.

With about 400 boys in the school clubs and societies grew to over 20. A parents’ association was formed which did many useful things from raising money for out of school activities to organising cricket teas on match days.

A keen and competent music master, Christopher Bishop had joined the staff. He instituted the custom of singing madrigals on the river on the eve of "Commemoration"; he also moved the annual carol service from the school chapel to the college chapel. In 1958 he started the second orchestra and the Corps Military Band. Messiah was sung in the college chapel and operas by Schubert and Purcell were given in the school and also The Pirates of Penzance. Under Richard Silk who followed, Christopher Bishop in 1959 many operas were given. Another development at this time was that some choristers were allowed to come as day boys.

Mr Alan Tammadge was appointed master in 1967. He inherited a well nigh perfect school from Mr Stanier, but there were problems of a different kind looming. Were the direct grant schools to be abolished? And would the school have to decide again whether to become comprehensive or go independent? However, things did not come to a head for a little while yet.

Plans for the building of a music school were under way at the end of the 1960s due to many generous gifts and contributions. By the summer holidays of 1971 site clearance was able to begin. In the following September an additional music master, Mr A Cook, was appointed. A regular pattern of plays and concerts had developed over the years. The group known as The Bach Gesellschaft gave a concert in most terms, and there was a Christmas concert by the second orchestra. Choral and orchestral concerts were given from time to time and also operas and plays.

In mid May the school learnt that Mr Tammadge would be leaving at the end of the term. Naturally a new appointment could not be made quickly so the September term began with an acting master, Tony Joyce. By half term Mr William Cook’s name had been announced as the new master but he was not free to come until April 1972.

1973 – tour of the USA

Magdalen Cloisters, Oxford
Photo by Robby Garbett
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In September 1973 Dr Bernard Rose and the chapel choir set off on a tour to America. They sang in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, giving eleven concerts in a fortnight and attending a reception at the British embassy in company with The London Symphony Orchestra. In preparation for the tour they had given a concert in the college chapel to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Thomas Tomkins’ birth.

In March 1976 the highlight of the year was a performance of Fauré’s Requiem made more poignant by the sudden death of Horace Elam who had been a member of staff for very many years. Four months later the axe finally fell, direct grant status was withdrawn and the school became independent.

1981 – Dr Bernard Rose retires

In 1981 Dr Bernard Rose retired after 25 years as organist and Informator Choristarum. His place was taken by John Harper who later was appointed director general of the Royal School of Church Music and who published many books on different aspects of music.

Grayston Ives succeeded John Harper as organist and Informator Choristarum in 1991. Widely experienced in choir training and conducting, a former member of The King’s Singers he was also an accomplished composer.

There was a singing tour to Europe in 1992 which proved a great success, and in the same year Magdalen joined forces with the Salisbury Cathedral girl’s choir to take part in the organ festival in July.

1995 – trip to Japan

It was time for a highly educational singing tour to Japan in 1995.  The choir gave a series of concerts in the Ishibashi Memorial Hall in Tokyo. Although they worked very hard there was time to see something of the town in between. They were based at a university, Ueno Gakuen. Among other places they visited the Sensoji temple at Asakusa Kannon. Tokyo Disneyland was popular, especially as the characters spoke in Japanese. They were invited to a reception at Prince and Princess Tomahito’s palace and on the last day visited the Imperial palace.

Back home, in the same year, the choir raised the astonishing amount of over £1,300 giving a concert in aid of St Leonard’s Church, Aston le Walls, Northamptonshire, as well as for the choir school’s association’s own bursary fund. The programme included Tallis' If ye love me and Grayston Ives’ Spot the tone.

1996 saw Matthew O’Sullivan, a former head chorister and who went on to be organ scholar of Christ's College Cambridge, win the Federation of Old Cathedral Choristers' composition prize (and at the time a sixth former at the school) with his setting of words from Psalm 146 Praise the Lord of Heaven. It was given its first performance in Chapel on 18 May 1996.

End of college Michaelmas term usually falls about two weeks before Christmas Day, and in December 1996 the choristers were fully occupied with a number of activities. Within college they performed at various Feasts and Gaudies. Further afield they sang at Harrods, Knightsbridge, also at the restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. In addition they made a video of A Victorian Christmas and appeared at the Royal Albert Hall. Not to be forgotten in this year were the celebrations for the eightieth birthday of Dr Bernard Rose.

Chorister exchange with Nôtre Dame Cathedral

Magdalen Tower Oxford

In the following year the pre–Christmas activities took the choristers to Paris on an exchange with the boys of Nôtre Dame Cathedral. The Magdalen choir were warmly welcomed at the British ambassador’s residence where they sang carols and were given a magnificent feast. A congregation of 2,000 worshippers heard them sing at Cardinal’s Mass in Nôtre Dame after which they were given an audience with Cardinal Lustiger, archbishop of Paris. They were taken on a mini tour of the city, which included Eurodisney and managed to sample a variety of French food. The exchange visit by the choristers of Nôtre Dame took place the following May when 16 choristers from that cathedral came over to Oxford for five days, singing in Magdalen Chapel and seeing over the school. A month later the choir travelled to Hungary taking part in The Early Music Festival at Sopron and then going on to Budapest for a performance of Messiah in The Liszt Academy. This concert was attended by the British ambassador who afterwards took them to his house for a buffet supper. Time was also set aside for shopping and sightseeing.

Another tour of the USA

The third trip of the year saw the choir in Newport Rhode Island, USA, where they joined in a "Celebration of British Cathedral Music" in the church of St John the Evangelist, singing two, and sometimes three, services a day. They were put up with local families and actually found time to enjoy swimming, sailing, garden parties, ocean drive tours, clam bakes, beach sessions and more, all with the temperatures in the nineties. Their American hosts went all out to give them a happy and memorable time.

Now back in Oxford there was a change of master in 1998. Peter Tinniswood moved on to Lancing and his place was taken by Andrew Halls from the deputy headship of Trinity school, Croydon.

On 9 May of that year during choral Evensong Mrs Bernard Rose (Molly) unveiled a memorial plaque to her late husband, Dr Bernard Rose. That term also saw the choir taking part in the filming of Everafter with music by George Fenton.

In order to demonstrate how beautifully disciplined the Magdalen choristers are, some years ago my two eight year old boys and I had visited a shoe shop in Oxford where each child had been given a balloon. Next stop Magdalen College chapel for Evensong where the balloons were stowed away under the back row seats. All went well until "Let us Pray", after The Creed, in the silent seconds as we all knelt down there was a resounding bang. One of the boys had put the heel of his shoe through his balloon! There was not a movement nor a glance among the choristers.