When I was 10 my father was appointed as the Diocese of Leicester Industrial Chaplain, and a Senior Chaplain at Leicester Cathedral. At the same time I passed an audition for the Cathedral Choir.
I have always considered how fortunate I was to be in Leicester. The Cathedral was one of the few where there was no choir school, but all the choirboys went to local schools and lived at home. There have been television documentaries about these institutions where the boys seemed to lead privileged lives devoted to music, and occasionally I wonder if I might have enjoyed that, but always the idea of boarding school of any kind appalled me. My father had been to public school and clearly was not happy there, and did not want us to go through the same experience. But here in Leicester I was able to sing in a choir that was as good as most of them, and still lead a normal life.
Every Sunday there was Matins in the morning, Choral Evensong at 4pm, and Nave Evensong at 6.30. In addition there was Choral Eucharist on the first Sunday of the month. The boys were expected to do all 4 services on some Sundays, though the Nave Evensong was sometimes men only. On Mondays there was Evensong with boys only, with a very small, or sometimes non-existent, congregation. There was also a men only Evensong on Wednesday and full choir on Saturday. The main rehearsal for the whole choir was on Friday, with one for boys only on Thursday.
There were of course extra requirements, such as the Assize Services which were midweek and meant we had to get time off school. They were of course very popular. Sadly that cannot be said for the Ordination Services which came round three times a year. They would last about two hours, and our involvement was not great. The only redeeming feature was that instead of being in the choir stalls we were up in the gallery at the west end of the Cathedral so we were not in public view as much as normal.
I started as a probationer, but I was quite soon moved along the line as I had some experience from having sung in St Leonards choir. Pretty well all the music was new to me, but I found it easy to pick up the standard repertoire from the older boys to whom it was familiar.
The organist and choirmaster was George Gray who even decades after his death is still a revered figure. He was a pupil of Edward Bairstow and became his deputy at York Minster before moving to Leicester Cathedral. He was a really inspirational person, who combined strong musicianship and great teaching skills with a genuine interest in us as boys. He might get a bit ratty if we didn’t do what he asked, but that never lasted, and all he wanted to do was get the best out of us.
There was a typical incident not long after I joined. A boy who had left the choir recently turned up one Sunday morning to see him. He greeted the boy warmly, asked him all about what he was doing, showing a genuine interest, then thanked him for coming and said goodbye. The boy turned up again a week or two later and exactly the same thing happened. It was only after his third visit that the boy actually got a chance to say why he had come to see him, which was to ask if he could have organ lessons.
There was a significant difference at the Cathedral then from what is standard practice these days, in that George would conduct unaccompanied music, but if there was organ accompaniment there was no conductor. This sounds risky, but we were trained to look across at the other side. If an entry involved all parts starting together, we would look at the lead tenor on the opposite side, and those two would coordinate their entries. If it was trebles on their own, the boys would look across at the head boy on the other side. It became routine for us automatically to look across for all entries. When I told a cathedral organist recently about this, he was very dubious, but it worked, even for pieces like the Stanford Te Deum in C where the whole choir comes in forte a beat after the opening chord on the organ.
Because my father no longer had a parish and the vicarage that went with it, the diocese provided a house in Stoneygate, on the other side of Leicester. This meant I had to change schools, from Alderman Hallam Junior School to St John the Baptist Church School. A number of boys from that school sang in St John the Baptist Church Choir, including one who had a particularly striking voice. So a part was written for him in the school nativity play.
Unfortunately for him, about two weeks before the play was due to be performed, he went down with bronchitis, so they needed a replacement. A couple of the other boys from the church choir volunteered the information to the teacher that I was in the Cathedral Choir so I ought to do it. I’m sure I’d never suggested that I was any better than them, so I wasn’t expecting it, but I agreed to do it. All I had to do was walk down the aisle (it was in the Church), singing the last verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and kneel down in front of the crib. I really enjoyed doing it and was surprised at the respect I got.
My father’s post of Industrial Chaplain didn’t last much more than 18 months. Part of his job involved visiting factories, holding short acts of worship and meeting workers. People would come to him not to discuss aspects of religion but to complain about working conditions. He naturally tried to help them, but it was made clear to him that that was not what he was there for. So he resigned and was appointed Vicar of Earl Shilton and Rector of Elmesthorpe. However he could not take up the position straight away so he spent the summer as Padre at Butlins Holiday Camp at Filey. Part of the deal was that the whole family stayed there for four weeks in August.
There were all sorts of entertainments and activities, including a talent competition. My mother suggested I enter, which I was happy to do. I had no music but there were a few things I could sing from memory. I turned up for the auditions which were held in a hall with a stage and a piano. There was a master of ceremonies who introduced us in a supportive manner, and a woman at the piano who was clearly a real pro. She could play all the current pop songs from memory and keep up with the variable nature and musicality of the singers. “Do you know Come Unto Him from the Messiah?” I asked. “Certainly” was her reply, and she accompanied me as ably as she had all the other performers. There were about 20 acts, and seven of us were selected for the final.
This took place in the theatre in front of a large audience. The only other acts I can remember were four sisters who sang (and danced to) “Smile though your heart is breaking”, and a boy who sang “I remember my September love”. He had a strong voice and was fine once he had found the right note. I think he sang first and at the end was greeted with applause, cheers and whistles. There was then another pop song which got the same appreciation. Then it was my turn. I can’t remember being nervous, but a bit concerned that my contribution was different to all the others. But I need not have worried as my singing was also greeted with applause, cheers and whistles. I didn’t win, but I enjoyed being on stage.
Though we were now living 10 miles outside Leicester, I was able to continue in the Cathedral Choir. After a year at St John the Baptist Junior School I had moved on to Wyggeston Boys Grammar School. I joined the school choir, and in my second year we sang the Fauré Requiem, with Armstrong of 3A playing the organ. At that age you take things like that for granted, but my mother was astonished to see a 13-year-old play with such accomplishment. It was no surprise that he went on the make a name for himself. 30 years or so later I was singing the Britten War Requiem under his baton. He had extensive spells as director first of Welsh National Opera, then of Scottish National Opera. In 2004 he became Sir Richard Armstrong.
Back at the Cathedral, because of the distance I had to travel I was now excused the Thursday rehearsal and the 6.30 Sunday Evensong, but this still involved long bus rides on Saturday and twice on Sunday. However I continued because I enjoyed it and worked my way up the choir until I became Head Boy on Decani.
My favourite anthems were “Blessed Jesu, Fount of Mercy” by Dvorak (Eia Mater from the Stabat Mater), “O Sing unto the Lord” by Purcell, “How Lovely are Thy Dwellings” by Brahms (from the German Requiem), “Blessed be the God and Father” by Wesley, and “Glory and Honour and Laud” by Charles Wood. This last one I had never heard since I left, until I started writing this. I would love to be able to sing it as a bass sometime. I don’t think I was particularly keen on modern music until later, and it certainly took me a little while to appreciate Herbert Howells.
At that time Leicester Bach Choir, which was also directed by George Gray, used to perform Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the Cathedral every year during the weekend before Easter, Part One on the Saturday evening, and Part Two on Palm Sunday afternoon. The choirboys would sing the ripieno choir part in the opening chorus, and also join the sopranos in the final chorale of the first part. The first year I sang it, I’m not sure I enjoyed sitting for over an hour listening to music that was completely new to me, but it didn’t take long for me to grow very fond of it. A few years later I was attending the second part just to be able to hear the whole work. If I had to choose a favourite work, this would be it. And I worked out I have sung it (not always the complete work) with seven different choirs.
A few years ago the Cathedral Choir went on a trip to Japan. I can’t remember us going any further afield than Derby. There were several regular engagements in the city, such as Christmas Carols at the Town Hall followed by tea and cakes in one of the ceremonial rooms. It was the refreshments afterwards that made these trips worthwhile. I remember one occasion when the hosts underestimated the appetites of choirboys, and by the time the adults arrived there were just a few crumbs.
It was probably quite early in my time at the Cathedral, that a special service took place in the De Montfort Hall. I think it was the climax of a series of events as part of a mission of some kind, but it was clearly very important as the preacher was Michael Ramsey, then Archbishop of York. I can’t remember why we were there, or what we sang, but we were sitting on the wooden floor of the stage, most uncomfortable and in full view of the congregation. When the Archbishop got up to preach he gave what seemed like an excessively long introduction, then he explained “I want to make six points”. Then after another interminable length of time he said “and the second point is this”. The adults said afterwards what a fine sermon it was, but for a young choirboy it was rather mind-numbing.
Two friends I particularly remember were David Bish and Malcolm Gregory. David’s two older brothers had passed through the choir. He was head boy on Cantoris when I was head boy on Decani, and when his voice broke, Malcolm replaced him. He was the middle of three brothers. His older brother, Howard, had also passed through the choir and had won an organ scholarship to Cambridge. His younger brother had by then also joined the choir, and returned to the Cathedral in 1994 as Organist. Others I remember are Roger Bowerman, who preceded me as head boy of Decani, Ronnie Guest, Alan Blandon, Granville and Roger Kestrel, Howard Mason, Richard Belton, David Bishop and Rupert Morris, who acquired the nickname Squeaker.
My voice didn’t break till I was 15, at which point I started singing alto. This meant that I could stay in the choir till I went to university, and while my alto voice never really developed, mainly because I was probably too self-conscious to practice, I enjoyed exploring the music from a different angle.
The songmen (as they were called) were all amateurs, but the standard was high. They were very supportive and made me feel an important part of the choir, even though to start with I couldn’t really contribute much. Malcolm Gregory’s voice broke shortly after mine and he also joined the altos.
I was still singing the Saturday Evensong and Sunday Matins, and also the 6.30 Evensong. The boys would, I think, do alternate Sundays for that service, and the men were generally ones for whom this was their only service; you might call them the second team, but they were still all good singers. The canticles would be sung to chants, and the anthems were generally quite straightforward, though not always. George Gray would sometimes direct the choir, but he would leave after the anthem, his reasonable excuse being that he had already done at least two services. On one occasion he tried to leave as discretely as possible while the choir and congregation were singing:
The ancient law departsIf George wasn’t there, the deputy organist, Sidney Rudge took us. He was a well-liked man, a bit unimaginative and predictable, but a brilliant organist. On one occasion the anthem to be sung was Purcell’s Bell Anthem, but it was men only, so some altos would have to sing the treble part. To make it easier he agreed to transpose it down a semitone. For those who do not know the piece, it is called the Bell Anthem because the introduction has a series of C major downward scales in the left hand to give the impression of a peel of bells. So to play it instead in B major is quite a feat and he pulled it off without batting an eyelid. Not long after I left he died suddenly of a brain tumour while on holiday in Scotland, and the choir were devastated.
And all its terrors cease.
In time Malcolm and I started going to the pub favoured by the songmen – the Rutland and Derby Arms. To get there you went along New Street, the road opposite the main door to the Cathedral, and turned right at the end, if I remember correctly. On one occasion we were driving down New Street when the driver said “Do you realise that Richard III is buried over there?”, pointing to a piece of waste land that was being used as a car park. He was wrong. It was on the opposite side of the road!
Like many choirs, beer was a significant part of the culture. Various hymns and anthems had alternative words to go with the subject. However this lot went as far as rewriting the entire text of an anthem by William Boyce. I never heard the whole of the amended version, but the opening words
“The Lord is King, be the people never so impatient”became
“Our beer is best, be the wine list ever so inviting”Later on came
“Some put their trust in whisky, some put their trust in vodka,For those who don’t know the work, the words replaced were “chariot”, “horses” and “the Name of the Lord our God”. The final bars should have been “Alleluia, Alleluia”, but adapted a well-known advertising slogan of the time
But we will remember the name of the ale we drink”
“Double Diamond worketh wonders”
I was also singing alto in the school choir; in fact that started well before my voice broke. The music master would recruit trebles who could hold a line, as there were no countertenors among the staff, though there were enough tenors and basses from their number to support the boys whose voices had broken. So the programme was fairly ambitious. I remember doing the Easter Hymn from Cavaliera Rusticana, the first part of Haydn’s Seasons, and two Stanford cantatas, The Revenge and Phaudrig Crohore.
But the most ambitious was the St Matthew Passion; however it was a special arrangement. The more complicated choruses and a number of recitatives and arias were omitted, and the whole thing was transposed down a tone. The most disappointing aspect was that the grand opening chorus was replaced with a harmonisation of the ripieno soprano tune. Nevertheless there was enough left to make it a really enjoyable experience. This didn’t prevent the sixth former who was delegated to write a review for the school magazine from stating “This was not an arrangement that would make Bach turn in his grave, as he would be unlikely to recognise it as his own work”.
My mother would attend every school concert that she was able to, and appreciated what she heard, though she was prepared to pass criticisms if necessary. On the occasion of the St Matthew concert she met a friend in the audience who was also a mother of a choir member. During the interval this lady said that she actually preferred Stainer’s Crucifixion as it had such nice tunes. My mother was speechless!
I continued singing alto at the Cathedral until shortly after my 19th birthday when I started at Nottingham University, and never sang alto again, because I was much happier singing bass.
One of the altos at the time was Tom Belton, whose son Richard was a choirboy. He took it upon himself to start an Old Choristers Association, so I did not lose touch with the Cathedral. This was a successful move as the association has grown over the years, and Richard has been actively involved with the Federation of Old Choristers Associations, which is represented at many Cathedrals and large churches. They hold conventions every year in different locations, and in 2004 it was Leicester, so I decided to attend. It was an enjoyable event, though there were few people there that I knew. One person was Jonathan Gregory, and it was strange that someone I remembered as a probationer was now the highly respected organist. The anthem at Evensong was The Lord is King by Boyce, but it seemed the alternative words had passed from the collective memory.
In 2015 Leicester Cathedral made the news with the re-interment of Richard III. I watched the service on television and felt immensely proud that I had once been part of the choir that sang so brilliantly that day.
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