In August this year, news broke that St Asaph’s Cathedral in Wales had made its Director and Assistant Director of Music redundant. The Dean and Chapter’s statement made it clear that the decision was due to ‘financial pressure’ resulting in a ‘reduction in the budget’. Supporters of cathedral music were understandably upset by this development. Reaction on social media saw the musicians being offered widespread support, and the cathedral’s decision condemned. One prominent musician commented:
‘dissolving these music posts should not be interpreted as some sort of ‘inevitable cathedral trend’… it has always been a challenge to maintain cathedral foundations, but previous generations HAVE managed for centuries to protect and develop music and liturgy as one of the most valuable vessels of ministry and evangelism, not to mention the huge educational and cultural significance of this work.’
This unfortunate news, while hopefully not part of an inexorable pattern, certainly has its precedents. 2018 marks fifty years since the choir school of All Saints’ Margaret Street closed forever. While not an exact parallel for the state of affairs at St Asaph’s, there are certainly similarities, both in the financial shortfall that lead to the closure and in the passionate and thoughtful response to the news.
All Saints’ choir school was founded in 1843, sixteen years before the current church, designed by William Butterfield, was completed. The choir of boys and men provided music for daily services for more than 125 years, and was called upon to sing at all four coronations in the 20th century. It enjoyed an international reputation. Suffice to say when the school closed, due to financial pressure, the loss was keenly felt.
A 40 minute radio programme, first broadcast by the BBC on November 5th 1968 and now available in full online, offers an insight into the reasons for the closure, and gives a voice to those most affected. We hear from the school’s teachers, the leading London church musicians of the day, and from the choirboys themselves.
This simultaneously feels like a story from the distant past and yet also very current. The school’s headmaster explains that ‘the finances available are just not sufficient’. A key reason for this seems to be ‘the new department of education and science regulations’ which require the school to expand and improve its facilities. A representative from the Arts Council is quizzed by the BBC presenter Leigh Crutchley on why the organisation is not stepping in to help the situation - perhaps not a conversation one might expect today! The Arts Council response is robust:
‘These are not concerts. They are an embellishment of the churches where they’re held and they are not therefore for support from taxpayers’ money in the way that music that is done only for art’s sake can be supported’.
It’s fascinating to hear from Christopher Dearnley (Organist and Master of the Choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral) and Colin Mawby (Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral), who speak eloquently about the benefits of a chorister education. The choristers come across as engaged and committed. Perhaps we can forgive some rather bitter comments from a departing All Saints’ chorister about the prospect of womens’ voices being introduced as a replacement as being ‘in the heat of the moment’. The programme also has a plentiful supply of musical performances from the All Saints’ Choir, recorded during the last year of its existence in its original form.
I think the message I’ve taken from listening to the programme is a point made explicit by the BBC presenter, who suggests that:
‘perhaps from this “death of a choir school” there is something to be learned, and those of us who love church music will perhaps attach more value to those choirs that are left’.