Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Wells Cathedral School

Wells Cathedral
Photo by Steve Jones

There are early records of a song school at Wells in the oldest statutes but the exact date is unknown. In all probability one existed in very early times. In these early statutes it was the precentor who was in charge of everything to do with the singing, the admission of boys and their discipline. Their duties included attending Evensong, Compline, Prime, Mass, Vigils for the dead, and to remain standing throughout except for several small breaks in the singing.

The eleventh century

An early account of the life of a chorister

By the year 1000 we have an account of the life of a chorister – Alelfric’s Colloquy – a book written in Latin and Anglo Saxon discussing the life of a chorister at that time. In it a chorister was asked questions by his master; the boy stated that on hearing the bell ring in the middle of the night he rose from his bed and went to the church to sing Nocturns, then Terce and then Mass of the Day and Sext, (all this on an empty stomach). Then (unbelievably) they had their breakfast. More sleep was followed by Nones. The master then enquired if he had been beaten that day, and the boy answered in the negative. On being asked what food he had been given he answered that he had eaten meat, herbs, fish, cheese, butter and beans. What did he drink? He answered "Ale and water, but not wine as he could not afford it". He slept, he said, in the dormitory with the brothers and on hearing the bell for Nocturns he promptly got up otherwise he would be woken with the cane.

The fourteenth century

The music was unaccompanied plainsong as there is no mention of an organ until 1310. Curiously this was not used for general accompaniment to the singing but for interludes between the verses of hymns and for giving the pitch at the start of unaccompanied singing. For their schooling the boys were only taught Latin and religious knowledge and for their recreation they played a primitive type of football which was thought to be a dangerous game at that time.

New accommodation

In 1354 a new chorister’s house was built, at right angles to the cathedral. It appears to have been very small but bearing in mind that there were only six choristers at that time, occasionally increased to eight, it may have been adequate.

The master of the choristers, who lived with them, was appointed by the precentor and had, on admission, to swear on oath holding a copy of the gospels that he would to the best of his ability fulfil all the duties required of him. He must choose and appoint an under master who in turn had to take the oath. Great emphasis was put on the boys’ behaviour, as well as in the cathedral in school, and in other places that they might be. They must present themselves at service times in a quiet and orderly manner, dressed in clean surplices, long cassocks and "proper capes", two by two, the junior boys leading and the senior boys following. They must bow to the altar and to the bishop and the dean if present. For the maintenance of discipline two choristers were appointed as weekly monitors to observe and note down any misbehaviour committed by boys and to report it to the master each evening.

The fifteenth century

A time of high standards

Richard Hygons was made master of the choristers and "Informator" in 1479. He taught the boys plainsong, prycksong, measured music, and also the organ if they were sufficiently advanced. In school they now learnt reading, writing and arithmetic. Richard Hygons must have been a great choir trainer as a five part Salve Regina by him has survived, which is elaborate and needs a high standard of choral singing. He was succeeded by Richard Bramston who maintained these standards and who wrote a large five-part antiphon Maria Virginis Fecunda Viscera. Perhaps not without reason the number of choristers had been raised to 13. Also it would appear that at this time the choristers were divided into two teams (Decani and Cantoris?) one team singing in the cathedral while the other stayed in school for lessons and vice versa the next day.

Their clothing was again mentioned at this time. The boys were forbidden to wear pointed slippers, long hose and half-length cassocks which if found the master was to take away. But they were to wear long ankle-length cassocks, with long tunics and short stockings.

Table manners were dealt with in some detail. The boys must enter the room quietly and together say grace after which they could sit down in an orderly fashion and not leaning on the table. If there was anything they needed they were to ask for it quietly, and in Latin. As forks were not invented until Jacobean times they had to manage with knives only. After the meal they were all to rise together and once more say grace, These rules are thought to have been drawn up by one Robert Cator or Catur who was organist between 1461 and 1462. He died in 1469.

The sixteenth century

Map of Wells from Britannia Depicta.
The Britannia Depicta book of roadmaps was
issued four times between 1720 and 1764.
It was published by Thomas Bowles, annotated
by John Owen, engraved by Emanuel Bowen.
Photo by Daniel Boulet
Some rights reserved

In the meantime Bramston had left for Bristol, but returned to Wells between 1512 and 1515, where he remained as master of the choristers until 1531. Already there was a certain amount of borrowing of choristers from good choirs to serve in royal chapels. Queen Elizabeth herself commanded that a Wells chorister, named John Pitcher, should be brought to her chapel, who, when his voice broke was abandoned by the royal authorities without any provision for his future.

It would seem likely that at about this time the grammar school and the choristers school were amalgamated. To strengthen this argument it was laid down that the Dean and Chapter must pay the master of the grammar school 10 per year for teaching the choristers.

The seventeenth century

Declining standards

Early in the seventeenth century there were complaints about the bad behaviour and generally low standard of the choristers leading to an admonition to Walter Tailer, master of the choristers to see that this state of things was put right. However, things did not improve so that the precentor sent an agenda to the Dean and Chapter stating the facts. The outcome was that one, John Oaker (or Okeover) was appointed organist in 1620 while a Mr Evans held the post of master of the school until 1622. Nonetheless standards of instruction and discipline failed to show much improvement. This state of affairs seems to have dragged on until The Civil War put and end to the choir for the duration.

Will the real John Oaker...

There is some confusion over the name John Oaker at the time of the Restoration. As we have seen, there was one John Oaker previous to the Commonwealth and the same or perhaps another (possibly his son) as organist and master of the choristers at the Restoration. One or other died in 1664 and in that year his widow was paid 13 15 shillings for her son, another John Oaker who was one of the choristers. Another two former choristers, John Paris and Charles Tudway were paid certain amounts over the following years probably for going to university.

It would seem that a new set of choristers had been formed and trained fairly rapidly, for in 1666 they were living with the schoolmaster, Charles Thirlby, and sleeping in his house. There were a number of changes of both masters of the choristers and organists at this time owing chiefly to their disorderly conduct. Little is recorded of the choristers during the eighteenth century except that they were a small group in a fairly large school.

The nineteenth century

Wells Cathedral
Photo by Lee Kottner
Some rights reserved

Of the nineteenth century more is recorded. Two choristers, Beauchamp and Turle are mentioned by name, the latter becoming organist of Westminster Abbey in due course but at this early age at Wells is remembered as having thrown a stone through the nose of St Andrew in a stained glass window. It seems that the nave was used as a playground for the choristers and that stone throwing was much indulged in. The organist at this time, from 1781 to 1819, was one Dodd Perkins and his son William Perkins was then a chorister, becoming organist after his father.

Deportment was still bad: it was said that the choristers would leave their places during the reading of the lessons and rush down to the north transept to see the famous clock strike the hour and watch the mechanical figures on it set in motion. The standard of singing too must have been low as in 1831 an order was made that the Sunday evening’s anthem must be performed the day before so that the choir was familiar with it. What had happened to rehearsal time? In the same year the Chapter had agreed that a week’s music scheme should be drawn up in advance as up till then the head chorister had, at the start of the service, contacted the canon in residence asking him to choose the anthem, then using the speaking tube, the remains of which can be seen to this day, on Decani to tell the organist in the loft.

1831 – the reintroduction of the custom of the choir entering in procession

Hitherto the choir had entered the services in a haphazard way, boys, men and clerics in twos and threes or perhaps not at all. This state of affairs was remedied on Whit Sunday 1831 when the ancient custom of the choir entering in procession was reintroduced. For a time early in the century the cathedral school boys including the choristers moved to the Blue School in Chamberlain Street, but as the choristers had to walk to and from the cathedral for Matins and Evensong each day this arrangement was soon brought to an end. Also the inhabitants of The Liberty were disturbed by the noise.

Maria Hackett

Maria Hackett gave a short report on the school at this time. She said

"The choristers are six in number and nominated by the Dean and Chapter. They are all required to attend the choral services in the cathedral twice every day at eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, and are educated in writing, reading and arithmetic by a schoolmaster upon an ancient foundation. Their proper hours of study are from seven to nine and ten to 12 in the morning, and from two to five in the afternoon, of course excluding the service hours. They are taught music by the organist. There is no exhibition or other provision for superannuated choristers. They have often settled in life in reputable trades, and some have arrived at eminence as professional gentlemen".

In 1833 the school had 26 boys including eight choristers, and the headmaster was John Vickery who was succeeded by the Reverend GHW Thompson and soon after by the Reverend William Aldrit who had no assistant master and had 18 subjects to teach to boys aged seven or eight to 16. The subjects were Latin , Greek and Hebrew classics, mathematics and merchants accounts, history, elocution, English, grammar and composition, penmanship, geography, French, Italian and German, drawing, dancing and "military exercises". The well loved Henry Harold was headmaster during the latter part of the century.

A period of fluctuating fortunes

However, for the next 90 years or so, the school was to see periods of prosperity and adversity as in 1870 there were only three boys and the choristers; these were transferred for a time to the Wells Middle School, Mr Harold having been pensioned off. With the arrival of Dean Plumtree in the 1880s a period of expansion began and for a time things improved. Nevertheless in 1899 numbers had again fallen to six boys and the choristers; moreover there was a serious shortage of applicants for the choir. As a result, and to make things more attractive to prospective parents, choristers holidays were somewhat lengthened.

The twentieth century

Improving standards

Wells Cathedral interior
Photo by Holly
Some rights reserved

In 1902 the headmaster, the Reverend HJ Green drew up a much shortened list of the most basic subjects for a trial period. Numbers continued to fluctuate and in 1924 there were 24 boys, including the choristers. This year saw the turning point of the school when Mr AF Ritchie was appointed headmaster. In less than 12 months the school was overflowing, with makeshift dormitories in the dining room. So the Tudway mansion, The Cedars, was rented by the Dean and Chapter with the adjoining park which was used for playing fields. The garden of 21 The Liberty was converted into a kitchen garden providing fresh fruit and vegetables, and the school bought a cow, and fresh milk and cream were served. Bees were kept and it was a popular hobby with the boys to help with these. Mrs Ritchie was something of an expert on diet and worked out suitable menus containing sufficient calories.

Soon there were 100 boys on the roll and in 1934, 23 The Liberty was bought as a junior house. By 1945 there were 140 boys in the school and numbers have gradually grown to the 700 or so boys and girls of today. Mr Ritchie died in 1954 and Mr Frank Cummings was appointed headmaster in September of that year. He increased the staff salaries to Burnham Scale attracting better qualified staff who stayed for years. Academic standards improved and discipline was tightened. He also had new classrooms and laboratories built.

Frank Cummings left in 1964 and was succeeded by Mr AK Quilter who was able to continue the great expansion and improvement made by his two predecessors. He had a sports hall, swimming pool, laboratories, music school, and additional classrooms and a dining hall built as well as additions to the houses.

Lay governors were appointed for the first time in addition to existing Dean and Chapter. During the late 1960s four canons moved into smaller and more economical houses, thus releasing their old houses for rent to the school. As there was already a waiting list these were quickly filled.

1969 – the school becomes co-educational and soon after becomes a Music School

The greatest change was in 1969 when girls were admitted for the first time starting with a few juniors. In the following year it was decided that Wells Cathedral School should become one of the four Music Schools in the country, the other three being Chethams, the Menhuin School and St Mary’s, Edinburgh, where the pupils could obtain a first class general education as well as music tuition at a very high standard. In the same year the girls were being admitted at all ages including direct entry to the sixth form.

Bill Whittle, a former chorister, was appointed to take charge of the specialist music scheme. Two small orchestras were founded and the already strong choral tradition of the school was developed. The new music school was built and furnished owing to generous grants from various trusts including 25,000 from The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and the school was opened in 1974. In time, public concerts were given all over the country including one at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The junior school, which included the choristers, had moved to The Liberty some years before and had been under the excellent headmastership of Claude Holmes. He left in 1972 and Mr Quilter was faced with finding a good substitute. This was not easy as it involved finding a suitable candidate who was willing to take shorter holidays and to spend Christmas in school owing to the cathedral duties of the choristers. The right man was found in Philip Peabody.

To round off the decade a special event took place – the visit of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on 6 July 1979, who graciously opened the new classrooms, Tudway buildings and toured the school.

In 1980 computers were installed and craft, design and technology were introduced up to "O level" standard. Richard Hickman came to the school in 1981 to supervise the music scheme. There were four departments academic and choral, brass, keyboard, strings and woodwind, with ensemble work, and a concert band and chamber orchestra. At this time a new library was badly needed; this was achieved and many new books were obtained.

The first round-the-world tour of any cathedral choir?

Stairs to the Chapter House
Photo by Holly
Some rights reserved

Meanwhile the choir went on a far flung singing tour in April 1986.  They visited Singapore and sang seven times in New Zealand, then on to Los Angeles where they gave a concert at the Beckman Auditorium. Perhaps the first round the world tour of any cathedral choir? They followed this up with a tour to the Friesland province of Holland, where they gave 11 concerts. One of these was broadcast live and a further six recorded. At home on 6 February 1988 they joined with the choir of Bath Abbey to sing at the enthronement of Bishop George Carey as Bishop of Bath and Wells, and in June of that year they sang at the festival of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage. At the next voice trial there were far more applicants than places available which proved the choir to be in a very healthy state. Two local concerts were given, one in St John’s, Yeovil, and the other at the church of St John the Baptist, Batheaston.

1989 - tour of Italy

The climax of 1989 came on 11 December when, after much fundraising, the choir packed up and flew to Italy visiting Rome and Naples for just under a week. The organiser in Rome was the Reverend Bevan Wardrobe, former headmaster of The Minster School York. There was a day’s trip to Naples where, in the evening they gave a recital in an enormous Basilica to a capacity audience. To finish they sang a carol by William Walton which drew the blowing of kisses from his widow who was in the audience. Back in Rome they sang mass in Santa Maggiore and a Saturday evening mass in the Papal Basilica. A nice touch was the singing of a Palestrina mass in the church for which it was written. Finally they gave a carol service in The English Church which was so full the choir had difficulty in moving in procession.

The following year the choir went to Brussels and sang in the National Basilica. Back home there were three Radio 3 broadcasts of Evensong and over Easter two television appearances; also they recorded a selection of the music of Herbert Howells. There were also performances with the school orchestra and The Wells Oratorio Society.

1991 and 1992 were busy years for the choir. They gave a number of local recitals and in December 1991 the choristers were filmed singing carols at various locations including Wookey Hole Caves. In February 1992 the choir, along with the school chamber orchestra gave a very successful concert in St John’s, Smith Square, London. Later in the year they were filmed by the BBC for Titmarsh on Song which included an anthem by the head chorister, Michael Wilson.

1994 - the girls' choir is launched and the boys' choir travels to Brazil

Wells Cathedral at night
Photo by Joe Dunkley
Some rights reserved

A girls’ choir had been planned and then trained for some time and by 1994 it was ready to sing and all 18 girls were admitted by the Dean on 15 October before singing their first Evensong.  The boys and men travelled to Brazil and gave very successful concerts in Sao Paolo, Rio de Janiero and Brasilia.

In 1995 the choir took part in the Choral Foundations series for BBC Radio 3 at which one of their contributions was selected for the Pick of the Year programme on 31 December. Shortly before that, in October, they gave a recital in St Michael’s Church, Minehead. The girls’ choir was going from strength to strength singing in a joint Evensong with the Salisbury girl’s and taking part in the BBC’s Songs of Praise also helping with the Oratorio Society performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom. The following year saw the retirement of Dr Anthony Crossland after 35 years, first as assistant organist and, from 1971, organist and master of the choristers. He was succeeded by Malcolm Archer from Bristol Cathedral. The choir saw Dr Crossland out at the end of a short tour to the USA in July, finishing at St John’s, Newport, Rhode Island.

The girls’ choir went a step further in that year singing weekday Evensong on alternate days with the boys; in 1997 they made a tour of the east of England joining with the girl’s of St Albans Abbey and Norwich Cathedral. However, in April 1998 they were able to travel to the USA together with instrumentalists from the school, singing in New York, Philadelphia and Washington cathedrals. The Four Choirs' Festival took place in wells in July 1998, the three other choirs being those of Truro, Exeter and Bristol.

To conclude, I quote Mr Quilter, former headmaster:

"A characteristic tradition which choir schools possess is professionalism. Choristers are professional singers when they are in the choir and professional standards are expected of them even when they are still children".