Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Westminster Abbey Choir School

Records from the thirteenth century

Westminster Abbey with a procession of
Knights of the Bath — Canaletto, 1749
Source: Wikipedia

In 1290 the records show payments to singing boys for Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and for St Nicholas’s night, and later for King Richard the Second. However, at this time most of the singing would have been by monks.

The advent of polyphony

It was the gradual advent of polyphonic music that led to the choosing of four boys from the almonry school to sing with the monks in the Lady Chapel as early as 1380. The boys were taught, amongst other things, to improvise descants to the plainchant. In 1384 Walter Whitby was put in charge of the music of the Lady Mass in the east chapel and in 1389 John Tyes became master of the choir and was allowed six professional singing men to sing with the boys. A Sanctus by him, which was written for men’s voices around the turn of the century, has survived; for some unknown reason there were no boys at the abbey for the greater part of the fifteenth century. At the close of the century Henry the Eighth became interested in the music of the abbey and, realising that there were no boy choristers, gave his permission to the Master of Music to go out and "impress" good boys from other choirs so that very soon a good treble line was established.

The sixteenth century

In 1521 there are records showing 30 shillings for the expenses of the Boy Bishop ceremonies.  A good, full choir was now singing twice a day in the Lady Chapel supplementing the daily offices sung in the quire by the monks. After the dissolution of the monastery and the disappearance of the monks, this Lady Chapel choir became the choral foundation created by Henry the Eighth. William Grene, who had been master of the choir under the old regime, became the first master of the new choir which sang the liturgy in the quire of the new cathedral.

In 1560 under Queen Elizabeth the First the choral foundation was established thus: there were to be 12 minor canons, 12 lay vicars, one master of the choristers and 10 boy choristers. Over the years the 12 minor canons were reduced to two, and the choristers of the foundation are nowadays augmented by 12 "singing boys" with about 12 probationers. Queen Elizabeth’s regime did not include an organist until John Taylour was appointed in 1569.

Archbishop Cranmer recorded that very often the choir sang at St Margaret’s church, Westminster, as the fabric of the abbey was falling into ruin. In Elizabethan times the accounts show that the ten choristers’ gowns cost four shillings and eight pence apiece yearly, and for their "Grand" days a bushel of wheat for their bread, "in a year costing four shillings a bushel". They were housed separately from the grammar school, now Westminster School, boys at this time, and there is a bill for the repairing of broken windows at the school house!

Elizabethan statutes

The Elizabethan statutes declared that the choristers must attend the grammar school for two hours during each weekday for grounding in Latin. Only one hour twice a week was to be given to music with their choirmaster. Also under these statutes the choristers were expected to act plays under the guidance of their master, Edmund Hooper, and after him in 1569 John Taylour, under whom they performed pageants. The expenses of the Lord Mayor’s Day are shown thus:

"For his (John Taylour’s) expenses as master of the children of the late monastery of Westminster…, for his children singing and playing at the pageant, the choristers of Westminster performed a goodly play before the Society of Parish Clerks after their Annual Dinner".

There are detailed accounts of these performances including a potion to clear the throats of choristers and prevent hoarseness!

Outbreak of plague

There was an outbreak of plague in Westminster about this time and the choristers and grammar school boys were evacuated to Putney and elsewhere for short periods, and there are records of their fees for lodging there. In 1570 Robert Whyte was appointed master of the choristers, but following certain indiscretions and bad behaviour in the choir, was dismissed.

The seventeenth century

On 7 September 1621 John Parsons was granted the patent to be organist and master of the choristers for a fee of £16, and for teaching and finding choristers, £36,14 shillings and four pence a quarter. He was closely followed by the celebrated Orlando Gibbons in 1623, who died some two years later.

The Civil War

Owing to the troubles of the approaching Civil War no more boys were admitted to the choir from about 1644 to 1665.  During the Commonwealth the Reverend Jocelyn Perkins wrote: " …organs were demolished and pulled down and the treble and bass singers…driven out".

Following the Restoration Christopher Gibbons (son of Orlando) was given the arduous task of building up a new team of choristers from scratch. However, they did sing at the coronation of Charles the Second on 23 April 1661. In 1679 the great Henry Purcell was appointed organist and master of the choristers and was responsible for the music for the coronation of James the Second on 23 April 1685. The eight choristers who sang at this service were William Christian, Thomas Price, George Rogers, William Morley, John Bates, John Walker, John Howell and William Williams. Henry Purcell died young in 1695 and his place was taken by Jeremiah Clarke who held the post until 1707.

The eighteenth century

Westminster Abbey at night
Photo by Amy Keus
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During the eighteenth century the choristers were living in their homes and their numbers had increased to 23. By statute they were members of Westminster School but their attendance there is in some doubt. There was much indiscipline among the boys with reports of bullying and flogging, a few boys even drowned in the Thames and there are records of their funerals. Five new boys joined the choir on 12 June 1770, Robert Crucifix, Robert Greville, Albany Walker, John Wheeler and James Bantleman.

Then, as now, special services were frequently held in the abbey such as the great service for the bicentenary of Queen Elizabeth’s foundation. The music was mostly by Purcell and afterwards there was a great feast to which all officials, including the choristers were invited. There followed a Festal Evensong with more Purcell music. Then there was the funeral of George the Second and the coronation of George the Third. Perhaps the greatest of these services were the Handel festivals the first of which took place in 1784. There were five performances and the choristers were joined by 10 boys from St Paul’s and six boys from St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The music included Zadok the Priest with orchestral accompaniment. Samuel Arnold was organist at this time chiefly remembered for his Evening Service in A. At the abbey as elsewhere the general care and education of the choristers was scandalous and very few even went to school.

The nineteenth century

Richard Guise became organist and master of the choristers early in the nineteenth century. He received a salary of £10 and £33, six shillings and eight pence for the choristers. In 1815 he was ordered to make a further allowance to the boys, nine pence a day for seniors, and six pence a day for juniors. In lieu of boarding he paid the eight boys £7 each, later raised to a total of £91 with the promise of more for himself. The money paid to the parents could be cut or stopped by reason of bad behaviour, inattendance or uncleanliness. When a boy left the choir at an appropriate age he was given £10. When a boy joined the choir the parents were informed of the rules, payments and services required. Two probationers were added in 1831, and four in 1844. James Howe entered the choir at the age of seven and kept his treble voice until the age of 21! And a certain John Herring sang at the coronation of Queen Victoria and that of King Edward the Seventh 64 years later!

1848 — a separate school for the choristers

A separate school for the choristers was founded in 1848 and all connection with Westminster school was broken. Mr W Sanders was their master and there is a description of the school from a former chorister William K Waterson:

"It consisted of one single room at the north-east corner of Ashburnham House. There were four tall cupboards for surplices, four in each as there were now sixteen choristers, there was also a desk for the master and four four-seater desks for the boys, also a fireplace. Outside there was a small cubicle with WC and a basin with one tap. The lighting was by gas".

There are also some reminiscences of AF Clement, a probationer for five months and then a chorister. As a probationer he had to go on Tuesday and Friday mornings from 9 to 9.45am and then to service in the abbey. He was instructed in music by the senior boy. He walked from Clapham and back every day, but when his two brothers joined the choir their father supplied a pony and cart to take and fetch them. He adds that they wore no cassocks at this time so the surplices had to be very long.

Another in the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Tinney has written of his time in the choir. School began at 9am. The rehearsals were held in a practice room or in the house of the organist, Turle, where there was a small organ. There was much jealousy over promotions and much bullying and caning. Turle was well known for being late in his payments to the boys, so at last one boy shouted at Turle, who was wearing his usual brown "Inverness", "I say old brown coat when are you going to pay up?" for which he was caned. At the funeral service of the Duke of Northumberland a Handel anthem was sung which included a quartet. Tinney took the treble part and unfortunately his voice broke on a high note. Turle summoned him to be caned but on hearing that he was 16 dismissed him from the choir. Basically Turle was a really kind man, for on one occasion Tinney’s coat had been stolen from the playing fields and Turle met him and asked him where it was; on hearing that it had been stolen and the weather being very cold, Turle sent him to a tailor to have a new one made.

Westminster Abbey west door
Photo by "antmoose"
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In 1850 the Reverend John Jebb wrote concerning an ordinary everyday service:

"The service opened in a most careless manner, there was no decent procession and the striking of a wretched clock was the signal for beginning to race through the office… the books were torn and soiled and the custom of the place enjoined on the choirboys the use of surplices more black than white".

Writing in 1928, a former chorister GF Williams had this to say about his school days between 1870 and 1874:

"The choir consisted of 16 boys, eight on each side, divided into eight seniors and eight juniors. A number of practising boys were held in reserve to fill vacancies as they occurred. These practising boys were usually drilled on Friday, when the service was held without the organ. It should be noted that each boy, on joining the choir had to supply his own surplice. This meant that at least two were necessary, as a clean one was required on Sunday mornings.

There was no school house; the actual choir boys were educated in a very small room to which access was gained by what has accurately described as a "hole in the wall". But perhaps the school was big enough for its purpose: numbers were small after all. All the boys lived at home, most of them not a very great distance away, and they had to attend practice at 9 o’clock every morning except on Sunday. School began immediately after 10am service, and lasted until 1pm when an hour was allowed for lunch, school began again at 2pm and lasted until 2.45pm; service followed at 3pm, after which the boys returned home with a fair amount of homework to be brought to school next day".

Occasionally there were games of football in the Dean’s Yard and in the summer cricket was sometimes played in Vincent Square. On one occasion there was a cricket match against "The Children of the Chapel" which was played between practices and services. The abbey’s first performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion took place on Maundy Thursday 1871.

1877 — a new boarding school is built

The choir house was by then at the north side of Little South Street.  However, a new boarding school was being built on the opposite side of the road and by 1877 it was ready. A new regime was inaugurated. Juniors had to be in bed by 9pm and seniors by 9.30pm. On Saturdays home leave was granted until 9pm. There was a good library, and chess, draughts and bagatelle were played but there was very little in the way of outdoor games. The curriculum consisted of Latin, French, German, arithmetic and drawing. On Wednesdays the boys now had a half holiday and Evensong was sung by the men. So the boys walked to Battersea Park where they played games and for a treat they sometimes took a penny steamer down the river. Occasionally matches were played, Decani against Cantoris, or the whole side against The Chapel Royal or St Paul’s. There was quite a lot of concert giving. They sang the Tallis 40 part motet at the Holborn Restaurant, gave a recital in Rochester Cathedral and visited St Mark’s North Audley Street and Lambeth Palace.

"Westminster Bridge"

Frederick (later Sir Frederick) Bridge – known to the boys as "Freddie" or sometimes "Westminster Bridge" – was appointed organist and master of the choristers in 1882 and stayed until 1918.

About this time more attention was given to the orderly conducting of the services. The clergy and choir were to process in to and out of service, first the choristers, followed by the gentlemen of the choir, then the members of the clergy followed by the dean. The standard of sight-singing was said to have been excellent and as there were no practices for the gentlemen perhaps this was just as well.

In 1891 there was a further house move for the boys. George Tarbutt who was then a chorister remembers vividly the layout of this new choir house and how it was both spartan and rather too small for them all. It seems that day boys as well as boarders were now taken as he reports that he went home to Battersea each evening. There were some dozen rooms on different floors including the headmaster’s rooms, two dormitories, two bathrooms, matron’s quarters, various classrooms and rooms for an assistant master. There was no hot water apart from that which fed the two baths from a solid fuel boiler above. There was no heating and the sanitation left much to be desired. The lighting was by gas and there was very nearly a tragedy when one of the gas lights leaked in a dormitory. Nearby on the corner of College Street was the London house of the Cowley Fathers who were most friendly to the choristers treating them to tea with strawberries and cream from time to time.

Into the twentieth century

Westminster Abbey at night
Photo by "equilibriax"
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At the turn of the century a new precentor was appointed who virtually became headmaster. He was very keen on exercise and introduced football in St James’s Park, also a tennis court was made in the abbey gardens and the boys themselves kept it in good condition. Swimming also was started at Westminster Baths. In 1908 the Reverend WB Dams came from St Paul’s choir school to be the new headmaster and the whole timetable was revised.

About this time rehearsals for the men took place regularly on Tuesdays so that the standard of singing must have improved and the introduction of new works made possible. In 1911 the abbey was closed for repairs and preparations for the coronation of King George the Fifth which took place on 22 June in great splendour. The Westminster choir was joined by other choirs who all were seated in the galleries surrounding the organ.

The new headmaster developed the recreational life of the boys; they were taken on outings to Maskelynes and other places of interest, and there were tea parties for them at the Deanery and an annual dance at Fulham Palace. Also Sir Frederick Bridge presented them with a gramophone.

1915 — new choir house in Deans Yard

A new choir house in Deans Yard was begun in 1913 and was ready for occupation by 1915. However a bomb fell on the house one night but happily there were no casualties. In 1918 the school became a registered preparatory school and Dr Sydney Nicholson, (knighted 1938), founder of The School of English Church Music, now The Royal School of Church Music, was appointed organist and choirmaster on the retirement of Sir Frederick Bridge who had served for 40 years. Nicholson introduced some day boys so that services could be sung all the year round, and increasing the number of choristers to 50.

On the 15 July Peace Day was celebrated with a service of thanksgiving at the Cenotaph. Walford Davies (later Sir Walford) conducted the abbey choir, St Paul’s choir and the Temple Church choir with the London Symphony Orchestra; afterwards there were bonfires and fireworks.

A tour to Canada in the 1920s

Harry Abbott, day-boy chorister from 1922 to 1928, was one of the 12 boys selected to go on the great tour of Canada along with eight gentlemen of St George’s Chapel Windsor in1927. It was wintertime and the Canadians kindly provided snow boots, leather coats, caps and gloves and knee breeches. Harry remembers that the luggage included the music – all by English composers from Farrant to Stanford, and class books, for lessons had to continue.

Rehearsals with the Windsor gentlemen were held before the start of the tour and the boys stayed in Windsor with the dean and canons. The Windsor choristers were not included in the tour as their average age was somewhat lower than the Westminster boys, and it was thought that the tour would be too much for them. The choir travelled nearly 16,000 miles, sang 25 services, gave 35 concerts and illustrations to lectures, also took part in eight Scout sing songs. They travelled from Liverpool in the SS Montrose and met the worst storms it was said, for three years with 80 mph gales.

Despite sea sickness they managed to sing a full cathedral evensong in mid Atlantic! These storms delayed their arrival at St John New Brunswick, where they arrived on 31 January. There was deep snow everywhere, but they were well taken care of by the Canadian Pacific Railway. They sang in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Quebec and Fort William, and visited Niagara wearing mackintoshes to walk beneath the torrent. Crowds welcomed them all along the line showering them with gifts and mementoes. Concerts and services were packed out and at Toronto 10,000 people were turned away from a service but were admitted to a repeat performance the next day.

They travelled all the way from the east coast to the west coast and back, stopping at all the major towns on the way. Even Red Indians in war paint and feathers turned out to see them. Nevertheless while on the move they managed to fit in two hours of school work every day. Returning to the east coast they boarded the SS Minidosa for a pleasant and relaxed journey home.

Sir Sydney resigned during the following year in order to found The School of English Church Music at Chislehurst, Kent. His place was taken by Dr Ernest Bullock from Exeter Cathedral.

1929 — a character called Willcocks

 In June 1929 a small rather cheeky little boy came to the abbey for a voice trial "What’s your name?" asked Dr Bullock. "Willcocks" replied the little boy. "What would you like to sing?" asked Dr Bullock. "The keeper" was the answer. Dr Bullock then asked him to hand over the music. "No I would like to play it myself please" said Willcocks, Dr Bullock assented, adding that "That was probably a good idea as it had two sharps!" Willcocks was successful, joining the school in the coming half term. On his first day, during a game of cricket in Deans Yard he managed to hit a ball over the wire fencing and out of sight. In an attempt to retrieve it he climbed over the fencing and dropped like a stone through a glass skylight and down into the boiler room, landing mercifully in a laundry basket unscathed! His next experience of choir school life was at his first practice in the song school. Someone announced that it was Stanford in C that day and he was asked if he knew who wrote it, he didn’t. Well then, did he know what key it was in, he didn’t and he felt very small.

During the next few years there was little in the way of special services at the abbey, but in 1937 Dr Bullock was called upon to take charge of all the music for the coronation of King George the Sixth and subsequently for Queen Elizabeth the Second for which he composed all the fanfares and the faux-bourdon and orchestral accompaniments for Veni Creator Spiritus.

The Second World War

Memorial to Franklin D Roosevelt in Westminster Abbey
Photo by "C4Chaos"
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At the start of the second world war in 1939 the choristers were evacuated to Christ’s Hospital school in Horsham but not long after it was decided to disband the choir for the duration. Some of the younger boys went to other choir schools including St Michael’s College Tenbury, New College Oxford, Magdalen College Oxford, and King’s College Cambridge. In 1941 Dr Bullock accepted the principalship of the then Scottish Academy of Music in Glasgow and Osborne Peasgood, assistant organist at the abbey, carried on for the duration with only the lay vicars to supply the singing.

A new choir in the post-war era

At the end of hostilities a new set of boys was trained and in May 1947 the school was back to normal. Really good playing fields were found at Raynes Park and Lambeth Palace. Two "houses" were founded, "Blow" and "Purcell". Drama, especially Shakespeare was encouraged. Regular films were shown and the boys were taken to outside entertainments. On Christmas Eve carols were sung at Westminster Hospital and afterwards the youngest boy lit a candle. After this the younger boys were sent home for Christmas while the rest stayed on over the festival. Mr Edward Thompson was the new headmaster and the boys were under the care of two matrons, Mrs Thompson and another trained nurse.

William McKie and Field Marshall Montgomery

Dr William McKie was the new organist who had been appointed in 1941 but owing to his war service had been unable to take up his appointment until 1946. At this time Field Marshall Montgomery who lived nearby and was a fairly frequent visitor to the abbey, attended a service and afterwards asked Dr McKie if there was anything he could do for the choir. The answer came back promptly "give us back our choir school" (the War Office had continued to occupy the building after the armistice). In less than a fortnight they had reluctantly left the premises in Dean’s Yard and the school moved back in.

The choristers took part in many important services including the marriage of the then Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip in 1947, her coronation in 1953, the marriage of Princess Margaret in May 1960, that of Princess Anne in November 1973, and finally the Duke of York in 1986.

The Music Fund which had been founded some years previously was doing very well, and in 1978 to 79 raised over £2,000 by means of the Summer Fete, a contribution from The Purcell Club, The Balloon Race, and a stall at the Barnes Community Fair and a concert in the abbey. The Fund’s assets stood at just under £7,000. Some of the money was spent on instruments.

Meanwhile Dr McKie was working up a fine and enthusiastic choir, training his newly selected team of boys to a very high standard. He was knighted in 1953. He was a man of occasional temperamental outbursts when things went wrong having been known to throw books at the culprits. However he was greatly loved by all who knew him and did not retire until 1963. He died in Canada in 1984.

1963 — the arrival of Douglas Guest

Dr Douglas Guest was appointed in his stead and in his turn took care of two important services, The Queen’s Silver Wedding in November 1972, and the funeral of Earl Mountbatten of Burma in 1979. During the summer of that year the choir paid a short visit to Cologne to take part in the eight hundredth anniversary of the cathedral there.

...and in 1981 that of Simon Preston

On the retirement of Douglas Guest in 1981 the abbey welcomed the return of a former assistant organist, Simon Preston to the organ loft. He had built up a reputation as a first class choir trainer and recitalist at Christchurch Cathedral Oxford over the years and had made many recordings both of organ and choral music.

1983 and a trip to Paris

The choir made a comprehensive tour of Paris and its environs from 13 to 20 October 1983. They sang six concerts for the “Festival de L’Isle de France” as well as high mass in Nôtre Dame cathedral.

They also performed in St Germain-en-Laye, Rambouillet, St Cyr, Paris (St Germain des Prés), Sèvres and L’Isle Adam. In July four of the boys made a recording for the BBC World Service with the organist and headmaster. This included an interview with Nicholas Kenyon for Music Now.

1983 — four hundredth Gibbons' anniversary

Westminster Abbey
Photo by "jonanamary"
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1983 was the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Orlando Gibbons on Christmas Day 1583. A programme of his music was recorded in November and broadcast at Christmas. Earlier in the year music for the film Amadeus was recorded.

On 9 December the choristers joined with the Whitehall Choir (Whitehall Chapel no longer exists), the Twickenham Choral Society and the Rosebery Orchestra in a concert of music by Poulencc and Berlioz. Two special services deserve a mention at this time, one for the late Herbert Howells and the other for the late Sir William Walton. The usual festival of St Cecilia at St Sepulchre’s Holborn, took place on 22 November when the choristers were joined by some from St Paul’s, The Chapel Royal and Westminster Cathedral. All this in addition to the usual round of daily evensongs in the abbey.

1984 was to prove just as eventful. The choir’s record of the Handel Coronation Anthems was awarded a Prix Audiovisuel de l’Europe. In March the recording of Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Dettingen Anthem with the English Concert and Trevor Pinnock, conducted by Simon Rattle was released on Archiv. Choral Evensong was broadcast on 18 April, and early in June the choir took part in a concert promoted by the Festival de Francee in Chapelle Royale, Chateau de Versailles and the Vatican. On 17 September the ten choristers sang Mozart’s Cradle Song in celebration of the birth of Prince Harry, live on TV AM.

October saw the release of a Deutsche Grammophon record of carols old and new, and in the following month the boys sang at the opening of the Wightman Cup in the Royal Albert Hall. Later that month a handful of the more junior boys sang at the Royal Concert conducted by an old chorister, Sir David Willcocks, in the presence of HMM The Queen and Prince Philip; some 900 participated in this concert celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the great 1784 Handel Commemoration. During the summer the choir performed Messiah in the abbey accompanied by The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Simon Preston.

1985 saw a number of special services including the fortieth anniversary of VE day, and the choir made a record of Palestrina’s Papa Marcello mass with Tu es Petrus and the Allegri Miserere, later released by Deutsche Grammophon.

The wedding of The Duke of York and Sarah Ferguson took place in 1986 entailing all the usual work of preparation for all the departments of the abbey. Other broadcasts included carols on Breakfast Time on Christmas Eve, the carol service on 27 December on Radio 3 and the boys televised at the opening ceremony of The Wightman Cup. There was also a concert in the abbey in aid of The Richard Dimbleby Cancer Fund. Soon after the Christmas holiday the choir recorded Music for The Coronation of James the Second..

During 1987 the arrangement of Sunday morning services was altered. In future there were to be two services every Sunday morning with choral matins at 10am followed by the Sung Eucharist at 11.15am, instead of the latter being celebrated only on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. That year’s school play was Tom Sawyer performed on the rooftop playground which had been specially adapted for the purpose.

1987 tour of North America

In the same year a big tour of North America took place, which started on 19 September. Preparations included rehearsing the senior choristers without the five who were leaving at the end of the summer term, also preparing the junior choristers who would not be going and who would be responsible for singing the abbey services while the tour lasted. Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb was learnt in the space of a week and given at a pre-tour recital in the abbey on 15 September.

Some term dates had to be juggled with as a considerable slice would have to be taken from the start of the autumn term and lessons would suffer. So a week was added to the beginnings of the summer and autumn terms of 1988 and to the spring term of 1989. In order to safeguard the music each singer carried his own copies rather than having it all packed in one case and risking its loss.

The party sets off

Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey
Photo by Herry Lawford
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The party flew from Gatwick to Newark, New Jersey, and from there to Garden City on Long Island. Next day there was a morning rehearsal and then into New York for sightseeing followed by a drive northward to Worcester Massachusetts, and a midday concert. Mostly the boys stayed with families of choir members from local churches, and generally voted this to be the most enjoyable part of the tour.

An early flight to Toronto followed where there was a concert before 2,500 people in the vast Roy Thomson Hall; the audience brought the house down. On to Washington for a concert, and more concerts in New York and Buffalo. In New York the senior chorister, Jo Crouch, won special applause for his solo in Rejoice in the Lamb. There followed a visit to Niagara Falls and then Denver and autumn colours in The Rockies. On free and non-travelling days the boys would often be entertained by their hosts until late afternoon when they would be joined by the lay clerks for full practice. In Minneapolis there had been a request for a new work The Last Invocation by Carol Barnett which had to be very quickly learnt but luckily the choir achieved this in time for the performance.

The next stop was Milwaukee, followed by Sheboygan and Indianapolis, and a flight to the West Coast to the Crystal Cathedral near Disneyland. Next came San Francisco where the choir attended a buffet supper given by the British ambassador and Mrs Acland and where the boys were only just restrained from having a second glass of white wine. The final stop was Houston before flying home after three weeks away.

Return to the abbey

Back at the abbey the junior boys had kept the services going very well having previously sung one evensong a week without the choristers over a period of six months. They had been directed by Geoffrey Morgan and the organ was played by the organ scholar Simon Morley. Back home the choir sang a number of important services in addition to the normal daily Evensongs. The Welsh National Anthem was learnt in Welsh and on 1 November they sang in the presence of  HM The Queen for the four hundredth anniversary of the translation of The Bible into Welsh. Some weeks later the one hundredth anniversary of the bringing of Christianity to Russia was marked by the singing in Russian of the première of John Tavener’s Akathist of Thanksgiving (Glory to God for everything). The English Chamber Choir accompanied. A most moving service, that of Children of Courage awards was held in the choir and transepts with the Duchess of York presenting the awards; the choir sang two carols from where they stood in the sanctuary.

The carol service was again held at 3pm on Christmas Eve; they ran out of service papers as the abbey was packed solid. The feast of the dedication saw a new piece by John Tavener, A Christmas Proclamation to a familiar text, "The people that walked in darkness". As mentioned above the boys returned from their holiday a week early to make up lost lesson time because of the North American tour. Soon afterwards there was a short trip to Nantes in France, with two concerts, the first of English cathedral music and the second a choral and orchestral concert with the London Virtuosi Mozart’s Missa Brevis K194, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and the Fauré Requiem. The glorious acoustic of the church Nôtre Dame de Bon Porte was a joy to sing in.

On Monday in Holy Week the Fauré Requiem was given again along with Bairstow’s Lamentations and the Allegri Miserere. Easter Eve saw two innovations, first that every boy was present to sing at The Vigil and second that all present, the congregation included, carried candles which were lit at the same time as the Pascal candle, the electric lighting having been turned off. The following day, Easter Day, the nave and transepts being full, the choir was placed in the organ gallery and sang the Mozart Missa Brevis and Laudate Dominum from the Vespers, accompanied by a small orchestra. Evensong incled the Hallelujah Chorus beautifully accompanied on the organ by Simon Morley the organ scholar.

1990 proved another busy year. Songs of Praise previously recorded in January for transmission on 27 January had to be shelved owing to the outbreak of the Gulf war.  In its place a live Songs of Praise was mounted on the 20 January. September saw a very busy weekend; there was a concert in Oxford, the Battle of Britain Service, and another recording of Songs of Praise. Next morning the choir were off to Switzerland and Hungary with the City of Oxford Orchestra, Unfortunately some of the boys were taken ill with a tummy bug. Back home there were two concerts at the Barbican Centre with the English Chamber Orchestra; a performance of Messiah at the abbey with the Westminster Baroque Ensemble. Worth recording was the concert at St John’s Smith Square on St Cecilia’s day (22 November), when English Restoration composers Purcell, Blow and Locke were given with the Royal Consort accompanying. Galleries had recently been built and the choir was divided into different groups in the manner of Whitehall Chapel.

1991 — Dame Peggy Ashcroft thanksgiving service

Westminster Abbey
Photo by "The Celebrated Mr K"
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1991 saw a most impressive service in the abbey – the Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Dame Peggy Ashcroft. The music included Gloria by Guy Wolfenden, played by the members of the Royal Shakespeare Company Wind Band from the organ loft, sung by the abbey choir in their stalls below. Felicity Lott sang Mozart’s Laudate Dominum and Murray Perahia played Mozart’s piano concerto K467 with the English Chamber Orchestra. The abbey was packed with theatrical personalities and others.

On 19 May 1992, 16 choristers sang grace and gave a short recital at a dinner at Bridgewater House in aid of The Westminster Abbey Trust Fund which had been formed to raise money for the entire renovation and cleaning of the abbey. Among the guests was Andrew Lloyd-Webber so the boys sang the Pie Jesu from his Requiem, having only seen it for the first time a couple of hours before. In the same year there were two successful tours abroad, one to Germany, and the other one to the USA. The latter was to publicise the Westminster Trust Fund.

1994 — the school gets a makeover

During the summer and autumn terms of 1994 a small miracle was achieved by staff and school. It had been decided that the school buildings needed a complete refurbishment. The cost would be about £1 million. Nothing daunted, those concerned busied themselves in adapting to the new temporary regime. After considerable difficulty sleeping accommodation with breakfast and high tea was found at the Leicester Court Hotel in Kensington. Lunches were taken at Westminster School. Classes and instrumental lessons were held at Westminster Central Hall. A London Transport bus was hired to take the boys from Kensington to Westminster at 7.55am, returning them to Kensington at 6pm after Evensong. The worst trouble that the boys had was losing their possessions and looking for them.

Would-be probationers waiting at home to enter the school were delayed by two terms as it was rightly thought that this upheaval was no way to embark on a choristers life. In 1995 the choir went to Germany, and in 1997 to North America. In Toronto they sang at St Paul’s Anglican Church where, exactly 70 years before the abbey choristers with the gentlemen of St George’s Chapel Windsor had sung on the very first overseas tour made by a cathedral or collegiate church.

The choristers had been recalled earlier in their holidays to sing at two Promenade concerts. In the same year there was a short trip to Norway to sing at the invitation of Oslo in celebration of the three hundredth anniversary of the cathedral. They sang in St Edmund’s church and other venues.

1997 — the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales

In 1997 Mr Overend had just taken up his position as headmaster before the boys came back from their holidays, when the news came through of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was decided that the funeral should take place at the abbey on the following Saturday, 6 September. Everyone concerned had to work fast, chiefly Mr Overend and Mr Neary the organist. The boys were called back from their holidays to prepare for the service in a few days’ time. By the Wednesday evening they were all present and ready to rehearse, although, unfortunately one boy, Sebastian, was unable to sing at the service owing to a dreadful cough. However, it was a lucky day for the next in order probationer who replaced him.

More rehearsals followed each day. Everything had to be timed minutely especially The Croft Sentences and May flights of Angels by Tavener. In between rehearsals the boys were given free time which included swimming, football, table tennis, snooker and, of course, television. Come the Saturday, the day of the funeral, everything went splendidly and afterwards the boys completed their holiday plus an extra day granted by Mr Overend.

It seems sad to have to end on an unhappy note, but just before Easter 1998 Martin Neary was perfunctorily dismissed from his post as organist and master of the choristers by the dean concerning an issue many have said could have been sorted out happily over a cup of tea. The sub-organist and assistant organist took over most admirably and in June 1999 the appointment of Mr James O’Donnell, organist of Westminster Cathedral, was announced as the new organist of Westminster Abbey starting in January 2000.

Westminster Abbey Choir School has the distinction of being the only choir school left to take singing boys only and which has not become part of a larger establishment.