York, The Minster School
Origins of the school unclear
The origins of a song school at York are hidden in the mists of antiquity. There are two schools of thought as to how early in history a song school existed, the one claiming that James the Deacon founded it in AD 627 and the other giving it a considerably later date, probably some time during the twelfth century and well after the Norman Conquest of 1066, after which the French swept northwards. Even the early York Minster was razed to the ground.
The twelfth century
Hugh the Chanter arrived in York in 1125 to take up his position as precentor but all around him he saw chaos and confusion. He was soon joined by one of King William’s chaplains, Thomas, Treasurer of Bayeux, who was soon to be consecrated archbishop. Between them they set about organising the rebuilding of the church. The archbishop gathered together a number of canons and appointed a dean, treasurer and precentor, also a chancellor, with various archdeacons and a number of trustworthy clerks. Thus a conventional chapter was founded as at Lincoln and Salisbury. As yet there was no mention of singing boys but the time was ripe for the idea to be born.
Some time during the twelfth century a small number of boys was recruited and trained by a master of choristers. He had not only to teach them in song but in literacy and in reading from the primes; a more general education was given them at the grammar school later on. In addition to singing the choristers had to read some lessons, carry the cross and candles in procession, swing censers, see to the numerous changes of cope for the celebrant during the mass and hold the Book for the gospeller. There were three rows of seats or "forms" – hence the origin of our modern school forms (or classes), the choristers often being referred to as "boys of the third form" and the choristers occupied the lowest row normally standing for a large part of the service; at certain points they had to sing "Alleluia".
The thirteenth century
By the thirteenth century plainsong was being elaborated by "descant", an unwritten counterpoint sung by one or more boys according to certain rules which they had to learn and which was mostly in thirds or sixths above the plainsong; this was a step towards polyphony. However competent the master of the choristers was in his teaching of all these musical and ceremonial duties the ultimate responsibility for the choristers lay with the precentor. At least two senior boys had to attend every service but the juniors were allowed some free time except on Sundays and Holy Days. Naturally new choristers were chosen for their voices but it was expected that they would progress through all stages of qualification finally becoming vicars choral.
The fourteenth century
It is evident at this time, May 1307, that the boys were boarding with their master, Richard Craven, and that he received eight pence per week from the chapter for each boy’s board and lodging. Some years later, perhaps in 1346, Craven had died, for a new master, Canon Richard Woodhouse is now recorded as being their master, admonished to take them into his house and look after them.
As early as 1375 it is known that there was polyphony in the Minster and probably for this reason in 1425 the number of choristers was increased from seven to twelve. The more advanced boys having outgrown the somewhat elementary education of the song school were sent to the grammar school for their education.
The fifteenth century is rather bare of information concerning those twelve boys, but at the turn of the century it is recorded that they were taking part in an antiphon for which they were paid 6 shillings and 8 pence.
The sixteenth century
About this time lay singing men were introduced to the choir and immediately before the Reformation the Dean and Chapter appointed one, Thomas Kirkby, to be Master of the Music for his lifetime, with not more than eight weeks’ leave in a year. He was to teach the choristers in singing and also to educate the juniors in the school, and when a vacancy occurred among the boys, before the Dean and Chapter appointed a replacement any candidate must be tested by Kirkby. Sufficient money was to be paid to the latter for the choristers’ keep, and a house provided for them to live in, with twenty logs from Langworth Woods to keep them warm in winter.
In the early days of the Reformation there was very little change in the services, but the Minster had fallen into a state of great neglect both of the fabric and of the worship. The choristers wore whatever they liked and their albs were grimy.
The first outward signs of the Reformation were the changes in the Liturgy and the reading of the Bible in English by order of the Injunctions of Edward the Sixth in 1547. The further education of the choristers was mentioned at this point. If they had served at least five years in the choir and when their voices had broken they were to attend the grammar school and be given a small grant for five years.
Changes in the number and nature of the services stated that there was only to be one Communion service a day, at 9 am, while Matins, Evensong and Compline were to be the only other services; other offices were abandoned. Curiously the playing of the organ at Holy Communion, Matins and Evensong was forbidden. The task of teaching the boys the whole Liturgy in English must have been a daunting one, but the boys if they were anything like the boys of today would surely have risen to the occasion magnificently and in no time.
Plainsong only was to be used and then, only one note to a syllable. At the time of the Reformation, and up to 100 years after, there were two factions in the world of cathedral music, those who would reduce or indeed abolish music in cathedrals, which was described as "curious" singing, and those who championed it. The latter only won by one vote in convocation! One doubts that this injunction could ever have been taken very seriously for where would the inspiration of composers such as Tye, Taverner, Tallis, Morley, Byrd etc have originated?
The turbulence of the sixteenth century
Following the accession of Queen Mary, Archbishop Holgate was deprived, and worship once more became Catholic. However, not for long as Queen Elizabeth the First succeeded in 1568 and Edmund Grindal became archbishop. According to his Injunctions of 1572 it was stated that the precentor was to be in charge of the discipline of the choir and he and the master of the choristers were to teach the boys the scriptures and the Litany. It was fortunate that the aims of the Puritan Admonition to Parliament in 1572 were finally not fulfilled as it would have meant the end of all music in church. Vicars choral were phased out and their place taken by lay Songmen, and in 1573 the organ was reintroduced played by Henry Thorne who was also master of the choristers. His salary was twenty marks, and eighteen shillings and four pence for the choristers’ maintenance plus a "reward" of £16, 13 shillings and four pence. In 1575 there was a charge of four shillings for furring the choristers’ gowns, and in 1581, one Anthony Foster charged 44 shillings and four pence for two Geneva Psalters, and between 1583 and 1584 the Clerk of the Works charged eight shillings and four pence for making a pew for the choristers.
The first list of choristers’ names appeared in 1578. They were Henry Driffield, William Wilman, John Freeman, Thomas Lane, Matthew Hardy, Arthur Harison, Edward Giles, John Barnes, William Colyer and Henry Hudson.
The seventeenth century
In the early part of the seventeenth century the choir seems to have been in very good shape judging by some part books that exist, where there are services by Byrd, Parsons, Mundy, Sheppard and Morley. All this against a background of serious trouble with organists and choirmasters.
In 1605 Henry Farrande was appointed, but he quarrelled with the vicars and embezzled the boys’ money so was dismissed after two years. His successor was Thomas Kingston who had been organist at Lincoln from 1599 where he had beaten the boys, called the master of the choristers an “ass” and meddled with the teaching of the boys, and above all he was given to drink. Notwithstanding they appointed him to York! On 29 August 1629 he was so drunk at Evensong he was unable to play, so a Songman, Christopher Spensley, was appointed master of the choristers but Kingston remained as organist until 1633.
The Civil War
Archbishop Neile’s Enquiry at this time asked if the full number of choristers was being maintained and whether they were being taught grammar and the principals of religion; also if their diet was being properly supervised. However, all this was in vain as the Civil War descended on the country bringing to an end all services and choral foundations everywhere.
On 14 August 1660 Richard Marsh was installed as dean having waited 16 years to take up the position. It seems likely that "shadow choristers" had been attending the grammar school during The Civil War, taught music there by their master. But getting back to normal routine of services was a long drawn out affair. The adult choir of vicars and Songmen had been satisfactorily replaced, but there was a shortage of suitable boys, so that instruments were brought in to support the treble line, cornets, sackbutts and a double bassoon; these instruments were in use until 1742. We have the names of the choristers at this time; they were Thomas Wright, Richard Booth, William Storme, Thomas Nevile, John Jameson, John Potter and Edward Croft. But in 1667 there were only five; Richard Booth, William Gregg, Richard Wright, Joseph Jackson and Robert Potter. Six names appear in 1690; Robert Hall, Robert Newton, Hugo Shaw, James Hardwick, Thomas Tanker and John Mason.
Their religious education, or lack of it, was giving Archbishop Dolben some concern and he suggested that the precentor must see that the boys were receiving the necessary training, and it was agreed that the archbishop should examine them in the catechism, every month. Matins and Evensong were now firmly established, but to our ears must have sounded strange and unbalanced with six choristers, various wind instruments and seven Songmen!
The eighteenth century
The number of choristers remained at six throughout the eighteenth century and their pay, £1 per quarter, stayed constant until the first decade of the next century. There is no mention of any education for the boys at this time apart from music, but apparently they had ceased to board with the master as there are no references to this.
The choirs’ repertoire was expanding for in 1736 a new anthem book was edited by one Thomas Ellway, containing works by Handel and six works by James Nares, a well known organist of the Minster, (1735 to 1756). Matthew Camidge was appointed in 1799 chiefly remembered for a well known chant. He was also remembered, it is said, for teaching the boys to read music. In 1807 the boys were paid an extra two shillings and sixpence as a reward for the improvement in their singing.
The nineteenth century
About this time Maria Hackett reported that there were now eight choristers and at last the Dean and Chapter had provided for their free education at the grammar school, now St Peter’s, in reading, writing, and Latin. In 1822 when Dean Markham arrived he found the singing so poor that the choristers could barely perform the simplest of choruses which therefore had to be left out. This was still the situation Dean Duncombe found when he was appointed in 1858. In 1842 the organist was asked to draw up a scheme of music, prepared in advance so that at service time the senior chorister did not waste time or cause an irreverent pause by ascending to the organ loft, discussing the matter with the organist, then coming down and passing on the information to the choir. Three years later the organist was asked to draw up a report on the boys’ conduct which resulted in a boy being dismissed.
At Christmas time it had been the custom among the choristers to tour the city soliciting gifts from householders, but a stop was put to this in the mid-1840s. In addition the Chapter had promised £1 to every boy who had done well, but had to withdraw this offer on account of continued bad behaviour. Only the arrival of Dean Duncombe and the appointment of the celebrated organist Dr Monk in 1859, in time remedied this shameful situation. Perhaps part of the trouble was due to the fact that, at this time the boys were being moved from school to school. They had been at the grammar school (either St Peter’s or Bishop Holgates, it is uncertain which) but were moved to the training school in Monkgate in 1844. Then to Mr Baronby for six months and from there to the Manor School, and in 1850 to Mr Ainsworth’s school. In 1858 they were being taught by a lay vicar, Thomas Falkener, in the Zouche chapel and vestry.
In 1863 the Education Committee of the Privy Council Office reported on their schooling and surprisingly, on the whole, the report was favourable. Two years later they were again visited by HM Inspector who was pleased with everything he saw and heard. Arthur Howard Ashworth, vicar choral, assisted Falkener towards the end of his time, and he was followed by the Reverend Edmond Lacon. When Dean Duncombe was appointed in 1858 a Songman called Lambert was teaching the boys, and after him four lay men, Brown, Matthew, Abbott, and Noble in succession, Abbott was said to be a fine teacher.
In 1861 the choristers exchanged their fur trimmed coats for cassocks and surplices. Between Dean Duncombe and Dr Monk things began to improve, for a while the dean devoted a great deal of his time to the bettering of the musical worship and in caring for the choristers. The stipends of the Songmen were raised and the number of the choristers increased to fourteen. Hymns Ancient and Modern was introduced, and maybe as a result of all these developments the attendance registers had never been higher.
A new choristers’ school and teachers’ residence
In February 1874 the dean put forward a splendid idea which was agreed by the Chapter. It was that a house in Minster Yard next door to the church of St Michael-le-Belfry should be used as a choristers’ school and teachers’ residence. By July of that year the Chapter was considering arrangements for advertising for, and appointing a master. There were a number of applicants and on 7 October 1874 it was announced that John Henry Taylor had been appointed. His sojourn was not to be for long as he resigned in 1877 and left for Calcutta.
In the same year Alfred Henry Brendon Lees was appointed as master staying for 10 years, and in those years he altered the character of the school in many ways. Discipline was severe but there was more recreation in the form of cricket and football with matches against other schools and swimming in the open air baths, with an occasional visit to the theatre with Mr Lees. Wednesday’s choral Evensong was stopped, and a drama club was started. The school consisted of day boys and a few boarders, the latter housed in Minster Court.
As was the case in many other choir schools at this time, instead of choristers being paid for their singing, parents were asked to pay fees. At York the boarders were charged £20 per year and day boys were educated free. Numbers were again increased in 1878 and there were now 16 choristers and nine probationers.
The Duncombe Song School Fund
Dean Duncombe died in 1880 and a memorial fund was started part of which was used for exhibitions to attract boys with good voices to the choir. By 1882 six awards of £10 each were being given annually and six "Duncombe" badges were awarded to the most proficient choristers. Some years later part of the fund was given to help run the school named The Duncombe Song School Fund.
In the mid-1880s there were complaints that the boys were not receiving enough schooling time and too many holidays. So a new weekly timetable was drawn up ordering that they should attend practice from 9am to 9.45am with Matins at 10am, lessons from 11am to 12am and 1pm to 3.45pm followed by Evensong at 4pm. Holidays would be five weeks in the summer and three weeks after Christmas.
1887 – the closure of the song school
The Government Inspector of Schools would be asked to examine their work once a year. Mr Lees resigned in 1887 and owing to the fact that a replacement was impossible to find, the new dean was forced to close the song school and send the boys to Archbishop Holgate’s School. This school was in a very bad way and eventually the Minster boys were asked to leave as their singing duties could not be fitted into the timetable. However, a new and lasting foundation sprang from the ashes of the old.
The twentieth century
1903 – a new school is founded
In 1903 Dean Purey-Cust with Canon Watson and Canon Argyles made arrangements for a building in Minster Yard which had fallen vacant to be used as the new song school. It was a long two storey building and on the first floor to the right was the practice room with the large classroom below and to one side which could be divided into two by a partition when needed. The new headmaster, who stayed for 40 years, was George Scaife. The school settled down happily under him.
1907 – Old Choristers’ Association formed
Great progress was made during the early years of the century, and Dean Purey-Cust when he visited the school in 1903 was more than pleased with the way it was being run. During the summer term of 1907 by popular request an Old Choristers’ Association was formed.
The appointment of Sir Edward Bairstow
In 1913 Dr (later Sir) Edward Bairstow began his 33 year tenure of the organistship and rapidly created a first class choir. This was his life and soul, but he had many other interests and occupations, teaching, the professorship at Durham University, examining and adjudicating, conducting The Leeds Philharmonic Society, and composing services and anthems for his choir, and also organ music.
Mr Scaife continued to look after the school until 1957 caring for the boys’ welfare as well as their education. For many years he had rejected the idea of having an assistant teacher but in 1930 he accepted the appointment of a Miss EB Whyte who stayed for many years, in fact beyond Mr Scaife’s retirement. Dr Bairstow was knighted in 1932 and following his death in 1946, Dr Francis Jackson, who had been assistant organist and previously a chorister was appointed organist and choirmaster. Dr Jackson celebrated his eightieth birthday in 1997. His son, Edward was a chorister at St George’s, Windsor, and his grandchildren Samuel, Grace and Thomas were all (at the time of writing) in the York choir.
1949 – a satisfactory school inspection
In September 1949 the school was inspected under Provision 77 (2) of the Education Act. There were 29 boys aged nine to 15 years. The inspectors were pleased to find that elementary biology had been introduced and otherwise described the curriculum as "sound". They described the school as a "commendable attainment" and the building was found to be "well kept" and the cloakroom and lunch room were adequate. The curriculum which was presented to them consisted of spelling, grammar, and a little Latin, arithmetic, geography, history, elementary biology, no Greek and very little sport.
Mr Scaife retired in 1951 owing to ill heath and the new headmaster was the Reverend DV Hewitt who had been a chorister at York and also a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, so that he was very much fitted for the job. He had the firm backing of the management committee, which consisted of several Chapter and two co-opted members. One of his first moves was to admit some non-chorister pupils curiously known as "scholars".
Another favourable report
In May 1965 the school was again visited by HM Inspectors who were favourably impressed especially at seeing how 20 choristers, seven probationers and 24 non-singing boys had been fitted into a timetable which included the needs of both Minster and school. Books and visual aids were commended although some text books were in need of repair or replacement. On the minus side the small size of the building came in for criticism and was a fire hazard, also the grounds were restricted in size, but the playing fields at Clifton were praised.
Three areas of the curriculum also came in for criticism – the lack of general music and instrumental music teaching, the absence of a proper science course and the materials for art, craft, and science, and the fact that those teaching French were not qualified to do so. The inspectors approved Hewitt’s creation of a Court of Monitors which met once a week and who organised everything outside academic work and choir music. Hewitt had also divided the school into two "houses", St Nicholas and St Cecilia. When he left in 1967 he left behind him certain urgent issues – ie, the curriculum, staffing, discipline, and the expansion of the management committee.
Further improvements in the mid-1970s
When his successor, the Reverend Bevan Wardrobe, arrived he was immediately struck by the inadequacy of the accommodation and the hand to mouth existence of visiting teachers. He immediately set about solving both these problems so that in 1974 when the inspectors returned they were enthusiastic about the way the accommodation had been extended, partitioning off some larger rooms to make more classrooms. Lockers, toilet facilities, and changing arrangements had all been improved, and music, particularly instrumental tuition earned high marks and the orchestra of 21 players under a director of music was highly commended.
As a result of this report, in 1977, part of the Minster Yard was taken over for two classrooms, a library and an art room. School meals and kitchen facilities, and a laboratory, with the equipment given by Rowntrees, were achieved. Wednesday was no longer a half-holiday but was exchanged with Saturday. There were now four forms and four "houses" were created, Gibbons, Purcell, Stanford and Bairstow, out of school activities were expanded, plays and concerts were given and membership of the IAPS (Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools) was gained.
Francis Jackson retired in 1983 and the new organist and choirmaster was Philip Moore. Dr Jackson had maintained a high standard of singing and his successor was to do the same. On 18 November 1983 the choir sang at the enthronement of Dr John Habgood, ninety-fifth Archbishop of York. The following year was a busy and exciting one for the choir with live broadcasts, recordings and foreign visits. From the fourth to the eighth of May they travelled to Belgium and gave concerts and sang services in Antwerp and Malines (Brussels) and on 6 August they gave the Monteverdi Vespers in Quimper, Normandy.
The South Transept fire
However, stamina of a different kind was required of them when on the morning of 9 July the South Transept caught fire. Although undamaged, the practice room was virtually cut off so a temporary room had to be found, music and books transported all in the space of a very few hours if practice was to take place. Take place it did; and the church of St Michael-le-Belfry was used for weekday worship. On the following Sunday it was possible to hold services in the Minster. Everybody, including the choristers, had to work tirelessly to help get things back to normal as far as possible. In 1985 the hour of Evensong was changed from 4pm to 5pm in order to give the men repairing the South Transept more time.
There was also a change of headmaster in that year. Reverend Bevan Wardrobe left for an appointment in Rome and his place was taken by Richard Shephard, an old chorister of Gloucester, lay clerk and staff member of Salisbury Cathedral School, also prolific composer of both sacred and secular music. In the same year the choir enjoyed a trip to London to sing at a concert at St Michael’s, Cornhill; two choral Evensongs were broadcast, also a record Christmas at York Minster was made.
1986 was another active year both for the choir and the school. In August and September the choir visited Denmark and gave concerts in Haderslev, Horbeak, Copenhagen, and Randers. Meanwhile the Dean and Chapter were making plans for extending the school buildings. Numbers 8, 9, and 10 Minster Yard were made available to the school, hopefully for class teaching, leaving the Dean Gate free for music, lunches and rehearsals, science, a library and changing rooms.
1987 – the school becomes co–educational
The most important move of 1987 was when the school became co-educational in September. Also, a pre-prep department was started making 150 pupils in all. The choir travelled to the USA giving 15 concerts in 18 days. Back home they took part in a special service in the Minster in July when the Duke and Duchess of York were given the Freedom of the City. In addition there were several broadcast choral Evensongs. But the highlight of 1988 was the service of the reopening of the South Transept on 4 November after the disastrous fire of 1984. HM The Queen unveiled a memorial plaque, the archbishop and the dean dedicated the roof and vault, and the choir sang Philip Moore’s fine Benedicite for choir, organ, brass and tympani. The Northern Cathedrals' Festival was held in Durham that year and the Minster choir travelled north to participate in it.
So popular had been the last tour of the USA in 1987 that a further tour was undertaken in 1991.
1992 – visit to Poland
The University of Lodz in Poland and that of York had for sometime enjoyed a link with each other. This link had been expanded to include Prima, a language school in Lodz and the Minster school. Early in 1992 the Minster choir and the school’s drama group paid a visit to Lodz. Richard Shephard described the trip as having its problems, in "communication, travel, rehearsal, plumbing and general exhaustion. A strange mixture of choir, dramatists, clergy and others". However on the plus side, there was a warm welcome for everybody and a wonderful educational experience for adults and children alike.
There were quite a number of "extra" events in the Michaelmas term 1995 over and above the daily services. It was the tercentenary of the death of Henry Purcell and a candle lit service was held in the Minster. As it went on the term grew busier. In December there were four evenings of recording for ITV which went out on Christmas Eve. But the highlight of the term was the enthronement of Dr David Hope as Archbishop of York. The very next day, in complete contrast, the choir attended a silver wedding party at a country house, decorated in great splendour, to sing carols; unfortunately little was heard of the singing so loud was conversation of the guests. On a different note before the end of term a memorial service for James Herriot (James Alfred Wight) was held in the Minster where many well known TV personalities had gathered as well as relatives of the author and vet.
Soon after the start of the Lent term 1996 the choir made a CD of Evening Canticles. Later in the term the boys sang the Ripieno chorus from the St Matthew Passion with particular success. Two Songs of Praise programmes were recorded when some little known (to the choir) hymns were included; nevertheless, they rose to the occasion although the sessions were rather long and arduous. Afterwards the cameras stayed where they were, as very soon a recording of choral Evensong was to be made to celebrate 70 years of broadcasting BBC choral Evensong. Perhaps the highlight of the term was the choir’s performance of Messiah on Tuesday in Holy Week, accompanied by an excellent young orchestra from Manchester and with four splendid soloists. There was a capacity audience for this event.
The fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir Edward Bairstow
At the beginning of the summer term the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir Edward Bairstow was remembered by a combined Evensong with the choirs of Wigan Parish Church and Leeds Parish Church joining the Minster choir. Sir Edward had been organist of both Wigan and Leeds parish churches before his appointment to York. Dr Jackson conducted Bairstow’s anthem from Psalm 90 – Lord thou hast been our refuge.
Shortly after this, in May, the choir made a recording of 20 best loved hymns for Music for Pleasure. In June the choristers sang the small but important semi-chorus towards the end of Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony with the York Musical Society. Another secular performance was that of The Hag subtitled The Witch when the Duchess of Kent visited the school, (as Philip Moore said, "there was absolutely no connection between the title and our distinguished guest"). He thinks that this secular music is quite good for the boys, used only to sacred works. Also during the term some younger choristers took part in the York Mystery Plays at the Theatre Royal.
On the Patronal Festival of St Peter the choristers sang Britten’s Missa Brevis at the mid-day Eucharist conducted by Jonathan Wainwright who had joined the music staff of the Minster to help with the planned girls' choir. In the same year the Minster saw something new and different; an opera by Richard Shephard on Bede’s story of Caedmon the Cowman for the York Early Music Festival. The libretto was by Mary Holtby and Richard Shephard supplied the music, some plainsong, and folk song, The Agincourt Song and Summer is I-comen in also Te Lucis Ante Terminum and some music of his own. Twelve schools supplied a total chorus of 350 children including four choristers from the Minster representing angels, Stephen Varcoe was Caedmon, Yvonne Seymour was the Abbess Hilda and Richard Ireland, Edwin. The whole production was a resounding success and it was hoped that it would not be the last of its kind. Lastly, the summer term ended with a broadcast of choral evensong.
After the holidays the boys and men recorded 10 carols for the Scottish magazine called The People’s Friend and although it was very early in the new school year it was remarkably good. The boys went on two excursions during the term, one to St Columba’s church, Drypool, Hull where they took part in a Sung Eucharist to mark the fortieth year in office of the organist and choirmaster, Mr Keith Thompson; and at half-term they visited Mechelen and Tienen in Belgium, partly to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the start of the the Malines Conversations. At Tienen there was a short recital after the mass accompanied by the organ which is the oldest in Belgium.
1996 – the Life and Works of Sir Edward Bairstow published
The eighteenth of October saw the long-awaited launching of Dr Jackson’s book on the Life and Works of Sir Edward Bairstow. Many of the cathedral world were present also some of Sir Edward’s relatives. During the early part of the Lent term illness struck the choir on all sides, nevertheless, the boys and men recorded two CDs, one of Christmas carols and the other of a complete Evensong. Altogether three boys had to step down owing to prematurely broken voices.
1997 – the girls' choir is becoming established
Meanwhile the girls’ choir was making good progress in its training and made its first public appearance at the Advent procession service on 1 December, leading to its first Evensong with the Songmen on 19 January 1997. During the second half of the term epidemics had abated allowing the choir to concentrate on the great music of Holy Week and Easter. The girls by now were taking their turn with the boys and singing some of the daily services with the Songmen, who with the boys gave concert performances of Liszt’s Via Crucis and Duruflés’ Requiem. Once again the boys sang the Ripieno chorus in the St Matthew Passion with the York Musical Society.
The girls' choir establishes a regular service pattern
The girls were now ready to establish a regular service pattern; with the Songmen they sing regularly on Thursdays and either Tuesdays or at one of the Sunday services. Their chief difficulty was learning to "point" the psalms but this has been overcome. Their repertoire has steadily grown and as far as possible they are learning different music from the boys, who with the Songmen were busy recording a CD of the choral music of Dr Jackson.
During May some of the boys with the Songmen gave a short recital to a delegation from Washington Cathedral, and the first half of the summer term ended with performances of Beethoven’s Mass in C and Bach’s Magnificat sung by the boys and men with the university orchestra.
The girls had an opportunity to sing Evensong quite on their own, when, later in June, the boys and men gave a concert in Bridlington Priory, part of the Bridlington Choral Festival; and again in July the girls sang Evensong alone in Goathland. Both groups of trebles went their own way at the end of term, contributing to the York Early Music Festival. The girls took part in Historia Sancti Eadmundi which is a drama about Eadmund Wyfling, last Saxon king of East Anglia. An Italian group, La Reverdie joined them. They sang with confidence and dignity. Meanwhile the boys and men gave a concert entitled Palestrina and his Circle which meant learning quite a lot of new music, all admirably achieved.
The Early Music Week was brought to a close on the Sunday by the Sung Eucharist in the Minster and attended by the members of the general Synod, boys, girls and Songmen sang at different points in the service and for the girls it was the first time of singing at a service so full of church representatives from all parts of the country. However, they came away with flying colours. Their last service of the term was on Saturday 19 July when Catherine Bush and Polly Lees were “read-out”. Next day saw the end of term for the boys and men when Paul Wilson and the three already broken-voiced boys were "read-out".
Onwards to the Michaelmas term and a great occasion for those having any connection with the Minster’s music and indeed for all church musicians – the eightieth birthday of Dr Francis Jackson early in October. There was a live broadcast of choral Evensong by the boys and Songmen and at a concert next day a great deal of his music was sung; also some music by Sir Edward Bairstow and by current Minster musicians who composed music specially for the occasion. Dr Jackson himself played, from memory, a Fantasia by Bairstow on the organ as a surprise item. On St Cecilia’s day, 22 November the boys and men sang Evensong in Ripon Cathedral.
December saw some singing for charity when the differing sections of the choir sang for Children in Need. The girls sang in the Midland Bank and the boys at the Barbican, while a group of boys and men made their annual pilgrimage to the Woodland Day Care Centre to sing carols. There was an innovation at the Christmas carol service when the choir was divided into sections which sang in different parts of the Minster.
The girls now began to undertake engagements outside York; in November they sang Evensong in Barlby church and in February 1988, with a group of men they gave a concert in Hovingham Parish Church. Throughout the Lent term 1998 the choir put in extra rehearsal time in preparation for a performance of Bach’s St John Passion which was given early in Holy Week. The orchestra and soloists also were first class and the choir had the satisfaction of knowing that this was the first time the work had been given in the Minster without the help of an outside choir.
The usually busy summer term was even busier than ever and early in the term there were no less than two festivals with other choirs and one concert in the Minster. Early in May the girls travelled to Wakefield Cathedral and sang Evensong with the girls of Wakefield, Sheffield and Ripon, conducted by Miss Louise Marsh, assistant organist of Wakefield Cathedral. Back in York on 20 May another highlight in the Minster was a concert by James Bowman and the choir with the girls and men. Mr Bowman gave his services free of charge and so did the other professional performers so that a considerable sum was able to be sent to the Hospices of St Leonards and Martin House. The boys and men gave an uplifting performance of Handel’s coronation anthem My heart is inditing. The orchestra, the two soprano soloists and Mr John Scott Whitley’s playing of Handel’s Organ Concerto in F all added to the great success of this concert.
Immediately after the half-term break the boys and men sang at a joint service with the choirs of Durham and Ripon in the Minster. Stanford’s Latin Magnificat for unaccompanied double choir, a rarely heard work but well worth the hearing, was given at a concert in the Minster at this time. On Sunday 7 June the girls went to Acaster Malbis; this was a successful service but not without its confusions. Firstly entrance to the church was difficult; next, the whereabouts of the organ key and blower switch proved elusive and when found revealed an excessively high-pitched instrument. The best (or worst) was yet to come. The precentor had been asked to take the service and naturally assumed that he would give out the psalm. The rector for some reason thought that it fell to him; the result, as Philip Moore put it "an announcement perfectly in unison was magnificent"! Shortly after this the boys gave a concert in Boltby where one poor chorister was taken ill in a particularly quiet moment! There was a festive occasion on Sunday 5 July when the boys, girls, and men joined in a Sung Eucharist attended by members of the General Synod when Mozart’s Coronation Mass was performed. The larger than usual treble line was said to be most impressive.
I conclude with some thoughts of Philip Moore on choosing the right children at voice trials.
"It is an art, or an instinct acquired over the years. Not only must the candidate have an alert manner, a promising voice, a good ear and an ability to reach high notes – all these are taken for granted; but there are other traits more subtle and difficult to guess at – ie, whether the child will make a good team member or whether a poorish educational test will necessarily mean a lack of intelligence etc. It is a really important attainment and one whereby the reputation of the choir ultimately stands or falls".