Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Tewkesbury, The Abbey School

1952 — the seeds of an idea appear

Tewkesbury Abbey interior
Photo by Tom Green
Some rights reserved

On an idyllic spring morning in 1952  Miles Amherst set out in his ancient car from Worcester to Tewkesbury. He was overwhelmed by the abbey which he had never seen before and immediately felt that there was only one thing missing – a choir school. This idea was never far from his thoughts during the years that followed, through his time at Cambridge and through another spell at Worcester in 1956 when he paid another short visit to Tewkesbury. So great was his sense of vocation that he called on an estate agent and asked if there were any large properties on the market.

A year later he found himself on the staff of the King’s School, Ely where for a time his thoughts were absorbed in his work as a housemaster. However, ten years after his appointment at Ely he decided to leave and settle down in the West Country for a while. But soon he was back at Ely, this time to a teaching post in the junior school. Nonetheless he discovered the error of returning and trying to relive the past and was on the point of starting his own prep school nearby. But Canon Peter Moore advised him against the idea and, not knowing his mind in the matter, suggested that he should start a choir school at Tewkesbury. Canon Moore immediately rang Michael Ferguson, the organist at Tewkesbury, who welcomed the idea wholeheartedly.

The plans to found the school begin to take shape

Good fortune followed the project as the county had decided to go comprehensive in September 1972, leaving the buildings of the former High School for Girls on the market. The situation was ideal, near the centre of the town, and a few minutes’ walk from the abbey and no planning permission needed as it had been a school already.

1973 — the founding of the school

A local solicitor fixed the date of completion for 1 April 1973. Many doubts and uncertainties began to arise and Miles Amherst had visions of an empty school with no pupils. However, on 13 September 1973 a small procession consisting of five little boys, a Froebel teacher, Michael Peterson and Miles Amherst made its way to the abbey for morning prayers. On their arrival the sacristan bowed and greeted them with a respectful "Good morning, boys" making everyone feel thoroughly at home. The number of boys steadily grew and a simple service was sung in May 1974 with eight boys and three men. It consisted of one psalm, ferial responses and Arnold in A. At first a service once a fortnight was all that was considered practicable but it wasn’t very long before they sang once a week. In the meantime the school was still growing so that Mr Amherst was able to appoint more staff. One condition of their appointment was that they must be able to sing, but it was not until September 1978 that the choir achieved the full complement of two altos, two tenors and two basses, all on the teaching staff. The school numbers by now had reached about 100 including some girls who as yet were not admitted as choristers. The abbey choir sang Evensong from Mondays to Thursdays and the repertoire included all that was best from early times until the present day. The Sunday services were sung by the parish choir so that the abbey choir had a free weekend.

Fundraising to endow choral scholarships

Tewkesbury Abbey side chapel
Photo by Tyler Massey
Some rights reserved

Raising funds to endow choral scholarships had been a major problem, but in 1994, their twenty-first anniversary, numerous fund raising efforts were under way. In April of that year a tour to France was made;  concerts took place in Tours, Fondettes and Amboise and works by Byrd, Tallis, Fauré, Britten, Finzi and Parry were included. Also in 1994 a recording of Christmas carols was released for Naxos.

There were now 16 choristers who were kept busy not only with the services but with recitals and recording work. Practice took place on every "singing" day for 45 minutes before school and again before Evensong. Some of the boys were weekly boarders. The men of the choir were drawn from St John’s College, Cambridge, Jesus College Cambridge, Gloucester Cathedral, and the headmaster, at the time of writing – 1998, was Mr Jonathan Milton, who at one time sang in the choir of York Minster. All the choirmen and the headmaster were members of the school staff in line with Mr Amherst’s original practice.

1994 — a trip to Sweden

In 1994 a recording of Christmas music for Naxos sold over 20,000 copies in Sweden with the result that the choir was invited over there just after Easter in 1996. Their first stop was Tomellila where their host was one Gustav, who ran a school locally. After the choir had practised, the boys were taken to see this school and to be interrogated by the pupils who asked them whether they liked Sweden so far, also if they had many girl friends. They then gave a short informal concert followed by a game of football in snowy weather! That evening they gave a concert which was very well received.

They then moved on to Malmö, Helsingborg and Vaxjö where they gave concerts in all three places finding themselves most welcome everywhere. On their free day they were taken to see some wild pigs although only a few of these turned up. In Malmö a science museum was extremely popular also they had the opportunity to try out a sauna followed by a plunge into what seemed like a cold swimming pool.

1997 — a trip to Belgium

Tewkesbury Abbey interior
Photo by Tyler Massey
Some rights reserved

August 1997 saw a trip to Belgium to take part in the Flanders Early Music Festival in Bruges. They gave two concerts, the first in the Church of Our Lady, entitled "Evensong" consisted of psalms, canticles and anthems by composers from Tallis to Purcell. The second concert was held in the large church of St Walburga and consisted of a performance of Messiah, broadcast live on Belgian Radio. Both concerts were immensely successful. Towards the end of the year the choir’s latest CD Music for Evensong from Tewkesbury Abbey was released with music by Byrd, Gibbons, Stanford, Parry, Ireland and Richard Lloyd.

June 1998 saw the choir return to Sweden. Firstly there was a concert in Stockholm and a 200 mile journey north to Rättvik, where by invitation the abbey choir was the guest choir of the annual Swedish Boys’ Choir Festival. One concert was given in the church and the Swedish boys in the final concert sang in a quarry – surprisingly effective.

The founding and growth of the Tewkesbury Abbey choir is a great twentieth century achievement and shows what can be accomplished without the benefit of past centuries to build on.