Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Ripon, The Cathedral Choir School

Ripon Cathedral
A church on the site
is thought to date from AD 672.
Photo by "dvdbramhall"
Some rights reserved

It was not until 1960 that a choir school was founded at Ripon. For many years previously boys had sung in the cathedral, drawn from local schools (mainly the grammar school).

Towards the end of the 1950s thoughts were stirring in the minds of various clergy and others, amongst them the archdeacon of Richmond, Harry Graham, Canon James Wilkinson and the organist, Philip Marshall. They all felt that a choir school should be founded which would take non-choristers as well as choristers. It was agreed that the cost of the project could only be met initially by the sale of a number of valuable books from the cathedral library, including a Caxton Bible. This move was agreed and the next step was to find a suitable building in which to house the school.

St Olave's

On the southern fringe of the city there was a preparatory school called St Olave’s, set in a Victorian building which had once been the grandstand of Ripon race course, and this was duly bought by the Dean and Chapter to house both choristers and non-choristers. It opened in September 1960 under the headmastership of the Reverend Canon Duncan Thomson, who stayed 23 years and who had had considerable experience of this age group at Aysgarth school. He was also a competent musician and singer who, between 1953 and 1957, had been succentor and minor canon at the cathedral. His wife had read music at Oxford so was able to teach music in the school.

Quite soon the number of non-singing boys had grown, putting the school on a solid financial basis and giving it a good reputation for gaining scholarships to public schools. The buildings were considerably extended at this time and a large dining room, rooms for matrons and boarding facilities were added as well as a row of temporary classrooms.

1979 – the choir school becomes co-educational

In 1979 girls were admitted to the school. Over a period the number of boarders decreased and the day children’s numbers expanded, particularly in the late 1980s. The building of a large sports hall with a stage, an art room and music rooms were all achieved after a very successful appeal had gone out.

1982 saw a performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass by the choir, and at the end of the year Yorkshire Television relayed a Sunday Eucharist live followed by the filming of a programme of Christmas music with the choir of Leeds Parish Church and the Halifax Choral Society.

Mr Robert Horton succeeds Canon Duncan Thomson

Canon Duncan Thomson died in 1983 after 23 years as headmaster. His successor was Mr Robert Horton who had taught both at King’s College school, Cambridge and Westminster Abbey choir school.

Broadcasts, recordings and concerts

Ripon Cathedral nave
Photo by "*Pete" 
Some rights reserved

Meanwhile, the choir was having an increasingly busy time over and above the daily Evensongs, two of which were broadcast on Radio 3. Volume II of Music from Ripon Cathedral was released, the choir having been conducted by Marcus Huxley, both accompanying the choral works and playing the organ solos.

The three choirs of Ripon, Durham and York combined for Evensong at a date in June, and also gave a concert of music by Duruflé, and in October Ripon joined with Wakefield Cathedral and Leeds Parish Church for a British Music Weekend. And for Ripon alone there was a performance of Bach’s Magnificat in honour of St Cecilia’s Day when the solos were all taken by the choristers and lay clerks. Finally, the choristers took part in Bach’s St Matthew Passion given by the Ilkley Choral Society and conducted by Marcus Huxley.

1986  saw the Charter Day Service on 1 June attended by HM Elizabeth the Queen Mother, also the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the diocese, although there seems to have been a See in 672 AD. Also during the year there were appearances on Highway and Songs of Praise as well as Radio 3 broadcast Evensongs. In July, the organist, Ronald Perrin, completed his twentieth year in office, Marcus Huxley went to Birmingham Cathedral and Robert Marsh was the new assistant organist.

In January 1987 there was a new headmaster, Mr Richard Moore. The choir was busy with several concerts at home and roundabout, also hosting the Northern Cathedrals' Festival. Before Christmas there was a programme called Rejoice filmed by ITV and featuring Dame Janet Baker, Robert Hardy and the Huddersfield Choral Society.

1988 was a rather quieter year as far as outside events was concerned, but there were recitals both in the cathedral and in the diocese. St Cecilia’s Day saw a performance of Purcell’s Come ye sons of art, as well as a Radio 3 broadcast Evensong in December. Meanwhile, in this year scholarships to Eton, Radley and Uppingham were gained.

The choristers’ daily routine

Stained glass window in Ripon Cathedral
Photo by "rofanator"
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The choristers’ daily routine at this time was as follows: rise at 6.30am and have cocoa and biscuits, then their first instrumental practice, followed by breakfast, after which they had practice with the organist. The normal school day followed, along with all the non-singing pupils. Evensong was at 5.30pm, preceded by another 35 minutes’ practice; on Sundays Parish Eucharist, Matins and Evensong were all sung.

The year 1989 fully occupied the choristers, and performances were given of the following works: Britten’s War Requiem, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, and a carol concert with the Hallé Orchestra. In addition, there were the daily Evensongs and special music for Advent and Christmas.

1990 brought many and varied concert dates, including visits to some parish churches in the Diocese, a concert with James Bowman, a BBC recording for Palm Sunday, recitals at both Rossall School and Eton College and an involvement in the Northern Cathedrals' Festival and the Yorkshire Three Choirs' Festival.

The school's thirtieth anniversary

The following year was the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the cathedral choir school under Cannon Duncan Thomson, and very much had been accomplished during these years.  A CD of twentieth century music was made in 1991 and later recitals at Glenalmond and Fettes Colleges, Edinburgh were given, as well as the Northern Cathedrals' Festival at York and a concert at Sedbergh School.

In the Ripon choir in 1992 were three American choristers, Alex Tarter from California, whose parents settled near the cathedral, Jesse Beaumont, who was born in America and whose mother was American, and Jonathan Carberry, the son of an American who was Chaplain and Vicar Choral at York. Ripon was host to the choirs of Wakefield and Leeds Parish Church for the Yorkshire Three Choirs' Festival which was noteworthy for a splendid performance of Walton’s Coronation Te Deum.

Overseas (mis)adventure

Ripon Cathedral
Photo by "dvdbramhall"
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In contrast to the many smoothly proceeding foreign tours mentioned in this book, one undertaken by the Ripon choir in April 1994 deserves mention. The choir set off for Luxembourg with 17 choristers and a number of adults, including the dean, the organists and the headmaster, Richard Moore. Following an overnight crossing from Harwich to Zeebrugge in reclining seats and with little sleep, they arrived at Echternach where the adults were taken to luxurious accommodation. The choristers and headmaster made do with the "Auberge de Jeuness", and very plain dormitory accommodation where the only hot water was in the showers that were locked, and there were no balls for the table tennis. On arrival at the practice room of the Basilica of St Willibrord, they found it locked up, also the coach driver failed to bring the music. Next they were informed that Ronald Perrin, the organist, was laid low with illness, and the key to the organ could not be found. However, not to be beaten, the concert went ahead with Bob Marsh conducting and playing the organ. Then things began to improve; Ronald Perrin recovered and conducted a splendid concert in the Basilica next day and from thence all went well.

1994 – Ronald Perrin retires after 28 years as organist

On returning home, it was time to say goodbye to Ronald Perrin, retiring after 28 years as organist.

February 1995 saw a return of James Bowman, with Alan Cuckston, in a programme of Baroque music, and in June the Northern Cathedrals' Festival was sung with the choirs of Durham and York. Ronald Perrin was replaced as organist by Kerry Beaumont, who made two CDs soon after his arrival. Britten’s War Requiem was given by the choristers and the Harrogate Choral Society on Armistice Day, and Ronald Perrin’s new mass Missa Sancti Petri was given its first performance.

A successful choir trip to the Czech and Slovak republics was made in April 1996, which more than made up for the mishaps of the trip to Luxembourg. Ten days of warm sunshine and equally warm friendliness of the people made the tour unforgettable.

Founding of the girls' choir

Stained glass in Ripon Cathedral
Photo by "*Pete" 
Some rights reserved

At home the newly formed girls’ choir was going from strength to strength and sang  their first service with the lay clerks on Sunday, 17 November. They were anticipating the singing of one service a week and other services at times when the boys were a bit over burdened. Those girls at the cathedral choir school were awarded scholarships to the value of 20 per cent of the fees, but membership covered a wide area, one girl coming from 40 miles away in the Yorkshire Dales. This would not have been possible without the unfaltering dedication of parents and their transport. Voice trials were lengthy and exhaustive, there being 22 girls between the ages of eight and fourteen. They were soon broadcasting for BBC Radio and sang several Eucharists and Evensongs by 1997.  In that year, sadly, the death of Ronald Perrin, for so many years organist, occurred.

The year 1998 saw an interesting and successful tour by the boy choristers and lay clerks to Luxembourg and Holland. They sang in St Bavokerk in Holland and Echtermach, and the cathedral in Luxembourg. In June 1999, the girl choristers and the lay clerks made a CD of well known anthems. The girls by now were so well established that they sang one service a week with the lay clerks, and also went on their first singing tours where they sang at Fettes College and Glenalmond College in Scotland.

On St Peter’s Day in the same month they exchanged services with the boy choristers of Leeds Parish Church for the Patronal Festival of both foundations. At the end of the month the boy choristers and lay clerks made a recording of popular hymns after the success of those of the previous year.

The ability to start afresh

Early in the second world war when Westminster Abbey decided to disband its choristers and start afresh after the war, an eminent cathedral organist lamenting this decision said:

"They will never be able to start again from scratch as the continuity of the tradition is automatically handed down from boy to boy. This will be the end of Westminster Abbey Choir School".

How wrong he was. At Westminster as well as at Guildford, Tewkesbury, Ripon, Lichfield and others, not to mentioned our recent girls’ choirs, this has been done most successfully and in record time.