Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Worcester, The King’s School

Origins in the fourteenth century?

Worcester Cathedral in the snow, February 2007
Photo by Andy Parton
Some rights rights

In the accounts for 1394 to 1395 "cloth for the boys of the chapel" first appears; there were probably not more than four of them, and their master was John Ylleway. By 1478 records show that they were singing daily in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary after vespers in the evening with special reference to the Respond O Maria et Joannas and the antiphon Stella Claritatis.

The fifteenth century

The first organist, Richard Greene, was appointed in 1467, remaining until 1486 when he was succeeded by John Hampton, referred to as "organist and instructor of the boys of the Chapel of the Blessed Mary". There were now eight boys and it was Hampton’s duty to teach them plainsong, pricksong and a requiem mass that was performed four times a year. Daniel Boyes took over from Hampton in 1522 and stayed until the dissolution of the monastery in 1542 when an inventory showed "surplices for the master and children, bedding, shoes, shirts and a quantity of music".

The King's School is founded

King Henry the Eighth now stipulated that there were to be 12 choristers with their master, Richard Fisher. He also founded the King’s School, which was to include a number of King’s Scholars and the choristers, whose names were as follows: James Russell, Robert Payne, Edward Blockley, John Redyng, Thomas Nolman, John Heaghes, Ralph Wyott, Robert Machyn, Richard Warold, Richard Dyle, John Tollye, Edgar Elston. Richard Fisher was their master until his death in 1569. The treasurer gave each chorister three shillings and four pence monthly for "table and commons", and 15 shillings salary. Every year at Christmas they received two and half yards of cloth each "for their outer garments".

In August 1575, Queen Elizabeth the First visited Worcester and at length arrived at the cathedral where a solemn service was held with singing by the choristers and the playing of sackbuts and cornets. The music was directed by John Colden who had succeeded Richard Fisher, and one of the choristers was Nathanial Gyles who later became master of the choristers. The Dean and Chapter appointed Nathanial Patrick as organist and master of the choristers, and he is still known for his Evening Canticles in G minor.

The seventeenth century

Stained glass window in
Worcester Cathedral
Photo by Tom Ritchie (Sr)
Some rights reserved

Six years later, he was followed by Thomas Tomkins junior who was only 24 years of age.  He was to see the complete disbanding of the choir and the services when Worcester fell to Cromwell in the Civil War.

But in June 1660, Richard Browne, who was a former chorister and lay clerk, was given the difficult task of recruiting and training 10 new choristers, who were not admitted until the following November. Giles Tomkins was brought from Salisbury in June 1661 to superintend the building of a new organ and, two months later was appointed organist and master of the choristers. However, all was not well after a time as Tomkins failed in his duties and was dismissed in 1662.

The origins of the Three Choirs' Festival

Richard Browne was brought back in April of that year and a "Musical Meeting" was born which, in 1724, became the Three Choirs' Festival sung by the choirs of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford in aid of charity and which today flourishes, alternating in the three venues.

Should you visit the cathedral library at Worcester, you will see by one of the windows, carved in the stone, "R Clark Feb 1st 1748". At that time the library was the song school and Clark was a chorister, then a King’s Scholar and finally chapter clerk.

The ninteenth century

The organist, William Kenge, deserves a mention even if only to show at how low an ebb were discipline and general deportment at that time. He took up his post in 1807 and neglected his duties so much that the choristers went for months without any singing instruction at all. Needless to say, after two warnings he was dismissed in 1812. The following year the Dean and Chapter approved a Mr Charles Clarke without as much as hearing the other candidates for the post, for Clarke had been a child prodigy in Worcester and an excellent chorister. The appointment was a great success and he remained until his death in 1844.

Maria Hackett

Maria Hackett paid Worcester a visit in 1818. She came away totally satisfied and added:

"The choristers are instructed in music by the organist and there are few cathedrals in the United Kingdom which can boast the rudiments of their musical education under the superintending care of the Dean and Chapter".

1851 — the choir breaks away…

Worcester Cathedral. The site has been a place
of worship since AD 680. The present
building originates from AD 1084.
Photo by "mezzapod"
Some rights reserved

In 1851, Dean Peel and his Chapter reorganised the education of the choristers. They were to break away from the King’s School and have their own master who should be one of the lay clerks. A Mr Thomas was chosen because of his good and responsible work in the choir, at an increased salary of £30 per year. He stayed for five years and was succeeded in 1857 by the Reverend RR Fowler, who had been a minor canon for two years.

…but later returns to the King's School

However, after a further three years the separate choir school was given up and the 16 choristers returned to the King’s School. In 1879 the first school concert took place with the choristers singing the treble parts and senior boys supplying the lower parts.

Plans for a separate boarding school

The choristers’ return to the King’s School was not wholly a success. Parents were complaining that their sons were missing too much school by reason of their duties in the cathedral and practice room. Plans for a separate boarding school were afoot, and in 1881 the Chapter chose a new minor canon, the Reverend HH Woodward, to be the warden. He was to have an assistant master, a Mr Shuttleworth of Salisbury.

At first the school was a day school but in August 1882 Mr Woodward put forward proposals for a boarding school and these were readily accepted. There was a house that would shortly be coming into the possession of the Dean and Chapter which, it was agreed, would be admirable. Mr Woodward was to live there with the boys. Certain structural alterations would have to be made and the Dean and Chapter agreed to pay the cost out of various funds. A new prospectus was approved and all mention of the choristers was deleted from the King’s School Draft Scheme. On 19 June 1883 the choristers were given permission to use the area between the Guesten Hall and the Chapter House as a playground.

The boarding school becomes a reality

Until the new choir house was ready, the choristers were taught in a room at the Deanery; on 3 November 1887 the house was finished and they all became boarders. These foundation boys were educated and boarded free, but as new boys came along fees were payable and so the school became financially secure. The success of the school depended largely on the teaching genius of Mr Shuttleworth who had a flair for getting the most out of severely curtailed teaching hours.

It was assumed from the first that the choir school would act as a preparatory school for the King’s School, but when choristers began to move on to the latter, for some unaccountable reason they were one and all given a cool reception; so much so that Mr Woodward felt unable to recommend the King’s School to choristers’ parents.

He died in 1890 and was much mourned by all who knew him. His wardenship of the choir school had lasted 27 years. The Chapter wrote to his family speaking of "the wonderful and abiding spirited work he had carried on in the school". His successor was Mr EH Tupper, an old chorister, vigornian and minor canon.

The twentieth century

Worcester Cathedral by night
Photo by Mark Menzies
Some rights reserved

In June 1909 a number of well wishers gathered together to discuss a worthy memorial to Mr Woodward. It was finally decided to rebuild and extend the choir school, and an appeal for £2,000 was launched. The buildings between the almonry and choir house were to be demolished and a changing room with a dormitory and bathroom above were to replace them. The appeal was successful and the final cost was £2,250; by the spring of 1911 the building was complete.

Between 1927 and 1929 the choir school saw further changes as the Dean and Chapter had decided to take non-singing boys and expand on the lines of a modern preparatory school. It was planned to have 30 boarders and 20 day boys, and extra classrooms and more accommodation for the day boys was completed. This worked very well for a time but after some years it was realised that the school was losing money and, by 1942, the overdraft at the bank had become acute.

Reorganisation in the mid-1940s

So the headmaster of the choir school, Mr P Davis, and the King’s School governors with HM Inspector of Schools, met together to discuss the situation and try to find a solution. They finally agreed that the choir school should once more be amalgamated with the King’s School. There would be 10 choristers and 14 probationers, and those over 10 years’ must take an entrance examination; the upper age limit in the choir was to be 13 years. The boys must be available for practice and services as at present. Arrangements must be made for the choristers to stay over Christmas, Easter and for the Three Choirs' Festival. The King’s School would take over the choir school buildings, playing field and pavilion on a 21 year lease at a nominal rent, and the choir school overdraft would be paid off by liquidating investments. All this took until 1944 to complete – a very complicated organisation but one that proved successful.

The 13 year upper age limit for choristers was not achieved without its difficulty. Sir Ivor Atkins, who as organist retired in 1950 after 52 years in office, had often been keeping choristers until their sixteenth year, and was firmly against the new plan, stating that boys would now be leaving the choir just as they were becoming useful and experienced.

The eventual solution was as follows. All boys over 12 years of age, including the choristers, were to go to the King’s School. Choristers under the age of 12 at Choir House were to be joined by non-choristers under 12 years old from the King’s School. Mr CP Longland was made housemaster of Choir House. One case which justified the new arrangement almost at once was that of a boy of 13, Andrew Hambling, a former chorister who joined the middle fifth form at the King’s School and found himself in the lower sixth two years later; he would have still been at the choir school and in the choir under the old regime.

In 1951 the preparatory school, with the choristers, moved into a nearby property, St Albans, which the King’s School had bought from the Sisters of St Margaret who had run an orphanage there for many years.

Under the new regime school music as well as cathedral music flourished, every chorister learning two instruments; an orchestra was formed which gave concerts in the Chapter House at the end of the school year. There were many Associated Board successes, including a number of Grade 8s. In addition, there were twice-yearly choir trips abroad, regular broadcast Evensongs, recordings and television appearances.

UK and overseas tours and broadcasts

In 1985 the choir gave concerts at Keele University, at Kidderminster, Huddersfield, Leeds and Ripon, which were all well received. They also visited Germany, singing at Kleve, Xanten, Wegee, Goronow, Rhein and Bad Herfeld, and once again the reception was tumultuous. Back home they reached a wider audience through several broadcasts and television appearances. All this in addition to the daily services in the cathedral. Donald Hunt, their organist since 1978, felt he was due for a sabbatical term, which was granted.

In the following year the choir sang at the Nantes Festival in France and shortly before Christmas they visited Haarlem in Holland. Over this period they lost six senior choristers, but the more junior choristers slipped quietly into the breach and, when St Michael’s College, Tenbury closed down, they were fortunate to obtain Tobi Edwards whom after a short while made a first rate head chorister.

1988 — tours of France and the USA

The Crypt at Worcester Cathedral
Photo by Tom Ritchie (Sr)
Some rights reserved

Early in 1988 the choir toured the south of France, visiting Grasser, Salon-sur-Provence, Marseille, and the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Later in the year they sang in Burton-on-Trent, Birmingham and Kidderminster.  The following year it was the turn of Worcester to host the Three Choirs' Festival and shortly after, in the autumn, they undertook an extensive tour of America. When home again, they were in the thick of fund raising to save the cathedral tower from collapse; there was a Music Day which raised over £2,000, and in November the singing for the Queen’s visit, the radio recording of Voices for Today for the BBC, local concerts and TV programmes for both the BBC and Harlech TV.

In 1990, there were BBC Evensong recordings, music for ITV’s Highway, and the singing of Britten’s The Golden Vanity prior to a strenuous tour of Belgium and Germany, culminating in a recital at Aachen Cathedral.

At the beginning of the school year the choristers found themselves depleted of nearly a quarter of their strength, so many senior boys having left in the summer. However, before the end of term recovery was complete enough for six concerts to be given in eight days round the county and elsewhere.

1991 — the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of King’s Schools

The start of 1991 was very much the same as that of 1990. Tom Blunt led a very young set of choristers admirably and even won the Choristers’ Composition Competition for the second year running. The four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Henry the Eighth founding his King’s Schools was celebrated at the Royal Albert Hall under the title A Celebration of King’s and incorporating contingents from all of them. Worcester sent her choristers also. The concert was attended by HM The Queen and afterwards the youngest chorister, Sebastian Pearce, was presented to her.

1992 — tour to South Africa

 Early in the new year the choir set off for a 15 day tour of South Africa. They sang concerts and services in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Kimberley. New Brighton Township gave them a particularly warm welcome and they, in turn, were deeply impressed with the singing of the choir of St Paul’s, Jaboun in Soweto. They even had time to see the animals in the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve as well as the panoramic view from Table Mountain.

August 1992 saw a highly successful Three Choirs' Festival and shortly after, in September, the new practice room was ready. Having used the Chapter House as a practice room for about 300 years, every one was delighted to see the new one, made possible by the generosity of Mr Paul Judge in memory of his father who had a special interest in church music. The large house, with access to both the cloisters and College Green, was converted for this purpose and is known as The Judge Choir School.

1993 — a trip to Holland

Worcester Cathedral
Photo courtesy of the Chapter

During 1993 the Choir Association had been fund raising so that the choir could sing in Holland early in 1994 and in March and April go on a 12 day trip to America. Before and after this the Purcell tercentenary celebrations were taking place.

1996 saw a change of organists. After conducting the Three Choirs' Festival and 21 years as organist and choirmaster, Donald Hunt retired from office. His place was taken by Adrian Lucas who led a tour of Normandy in the autumn. In 1998 the choir was busy as usual with concerts, also taking part in a video for the European television network.

The Worcester Cathedral Choir Association was busy as usual in 1999 organising fund raising events for overseas tours for the choir, some of which resulted in a tour of the Republic of Ireland in the Whitsun break of that year in which the choir sang in Wexford, Kilkenny and Dublin, and on the way back in Chester. At the time of writing (1999), the WCCA was working to fund a tour to the USA for October 2000.

Back in Worcester, they joined their neighbours, Gloucester and Hereford, in some recording sessions which included Duruflé’s Requiem, and at the end of August, Worcester hosted the Three Choirs' Festival under their organist, Adrian Lucas, which was, as ever, a resounding success.

In order to demonstrate what rich rewards can be reaped from being a chorister, Adrian Partington was a chorister at Worcester Cathedral and then organ scholar first at St George’s, Windsor and later at King’s College, Cambridge. After completing his studies at Cambridge, he returned to Worcester as assistant organist. At the time of writing (1999), he was associate conductor of the CBSO Chorus, conductor of the CBSO Youth Chorus and acting director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales. He also works with the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Philharmonic Chorus, the English String Orchestra, the RPA Concert Orchestra, plays continuo for the Bach Choir, is a lecturer in academic music studies for the University of Wales and records regularly for Priory Records for whom he has made eight CDs. He attributes much of his success to his chorister upbringing.