Sunday, 16 July 2017

Cathedral Choir Concert: Summer 1979

Beyond the cassette label 'Summer 1979', specific details about this private recording of a concert in the Cathedral are sparse. However, local recollections suggest that it was a concert to showcase the first year's achievements of Jonathan Rees-Williams who had taken on the role of Organist and Master of the Choristers at the start of April 1978 and was installed on 16 July, 1978.

The inclusion of the entirety of Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor (including the Credo), which was a new addition to the choir's repertoire under Rees-Williams, is a clear indication of what he had achieved in a short space of time, after Richard Greening's eighteen years at the helm.


Thursday, 13 July 2017

'One equal music': a homily for the end of the choir year

This is the text of the homily given by Canon Andrew Stead, our Precentor, at Evensong on Sunday 9 June, 2017, the last service at which departing members of the choral foundation sang. It is reproduced here with permission.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven. And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity. 

John Donne concluded a sermon given at Whitehall on February 29 1627 with these words referencing the story of Jacob’s Dream of the angels ascending and descending from heaven on the ladder resting between earth and heaven. Donne was speaking about the Christian hope and his conviction that Christians would achieve the beatific vision, the ultimate communion with God. In Donne’s wonderfully chosen and crafted words there is a recurrent construction: one equal light; one equal music; one equal possession; one equal communion; one equal eternity.

What drew me to that extract from Donne’s sermon were the words, ‘one equal music’ words that informed the title of one of one of my favourite novels by Vikram Seth: An Equal Music. An Equal Music is a book about love, about the love of a woman lost and found and lost again; it is a book about music and how the love of music can run like a passionate fugue through a life. In one passage in the book there is a description of a string quartet and the relationships between the individual musicians and how in the moment of playing a scale all of the individuality, differences and tensions dissipated as seemingly without prompt they play the perfect scale together. In the simplicity of that a sort of perfection is achieved, a synergy between the musicians playing; and there is something profoundly spiritual about that moment as if it were making connections that tapping into the very order of creation.

Donne’s words, ‘one equal music’, resonate in passages like this and speak of a power that goes way beyond individual talent and musicianship, or indeed the achievement of the individuals coming together. There is a sophistication and a sense of connection springing from a common humanity that can be so much more than just a sum of the parts.

Our anthem, Blest pair of sirens, this afternoon helps us consider this in another way as it points us towards considering, through Milton’s words, the relationship between voice and verse; words and music; rhythm, metre and harmony. The direction of this interplay points very much in the same way to eternity and to the courts of heaven, as do John Donne’s words – words and music, voice and verse, the individuals (and the collective) transporting humanity through a God given creativity to the union with our creator Himself. Music has this ability to serve as a vehicle enabling the worship of God in so many ways, whether as an expression of devotion and worship by the composer and musicians themselves, or carrying a congregation in hymnody or psalmody to engage with words and meaning through bringing them together with one voice; or enabling worshippers to have a sense of awe and wonder, of beauty and truth at the deepest level of their being through listening and mediating upon what they are listening to. It is not a thing of the moment either as, in every sense, communion takes place and something is taken away. It is often that this taking away, this glimpse of truth, of beauty and the divine, that occurs in the relationship of voice and verse, the carrying the other, that important moments are captured and later through the singing of the tune, that a word, phrase, idea or glimpse of the divine is made alive again.

St Augustine in his Confessions, often deeply concerned about the worldly nature of music, was forced to concede of music’s ability to touch the soul and tap into a world beyond itself as he said,

How I wept to hear your hymns and songs, deeply moved by the voices of your sweet singing in church. Their voices penetrated my ears, and with them truth found its way into my heart; my frozen feeling for God began to thaw, tears flowed and I experienced joy and relief. 

At the end of an academic year our Choral Foundation are also coming to the end of their choir year. We are grateful to them as individuals and as a choir for all that they do through their musicianship to enable not only their own worship of God but that of our collective worship and our mission in this place. They help us in maintaining the opus dei in this place; the daily round of the offices, and they are an important part of our missional offering as a cathedral bringing, as they do, many to have their frozen feelings for God to thaw and to convey the reality of the love of God through an encounter with truth and beauty.

In a few minutes time after the offertory hymn we will be saying thank you and farewell to members of the foundation who are leaving us and we will be praying for them God’s blessing and we do that with love and gratitude for all that they have done to support and be part of the mission and worship of this Cathedral Church through their music making, discipline and hard work. We hope that along the road they too have grown in faith, in their humanity and as musicians, and that whatever is next in their lives that they will still look back on their time in the Choral Foundation as a blessed and special time.

Our anthem, and the quotation I read from John Donne, point beyond the immediate and into eternity. Our music making here is always by definition going to be full of imperfection but we are reminded of a greater reality and the hope of eternity where we will be, ‘in tune with heaven’: one equal light; one equal music; one equal possession; one equal communion; one equal eternity. And, as Milton puts it, in words concluding this evening’s anthem:

O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light. Amen.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Choristers' Recital at St Peter's Church, Edgmond (10 June, 1987)

As well as singing the regular services at the Cathedral, the choir has always been involved in concerts both within the Cathedral and in the diocese. This is a copy of a private recording made of a recital given at St Peter's Church in Edgmond as part of their seemingly now defunct annual music festival.


Saturday, 3 June 2017

BBC Songs of Praise: Saints and Angels (3 June 2007)

The discovery of the Lichfield Angel during the installation of the Nave platform in 2003 and its public unveiling in 2006 provides the backdrop for this edition of the BBC's Songs of Praise hosted by Aled Jones and recorded in Lichfield Cathedral, featuring both the Cathedral Choir and the Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir (along with a performance by OperaBabes). This episode also features an interview with Jill Saward who died earlier this year.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Royal Maundy from Lichfield Cathedral (31 March, 1988)

The Royal Maundy service happens annually on Maundy Thursday and is held in a different cathedral each year, and details of its history are best found elsewhere online such as the official home of the Royal family or Wikipedia.

In 1988 the service took place at Lichfield Cathedral and there is a variety of media coverage of the event.

The hour long service was broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 and that can be heard in this recording; annoyingly, from a choral perspective, the excellent commentary is frequently given over the music.



Lichfield District Council released an Official Souvenir Video which, its commentary tells the viewer, cannot contain the choir singing. While the music can be heard and much of the service is included, this video is potentially of more interest to local historians.


The event also received local news coverage on Central News


 and BBC's Midlands Today


Wednesday, 8 March 2017

John Harrison: Lay Vicar 1836-1848

Last year, we received an enquiry requesting any information about John Harrison who was a tenor Lay Vicar from 1836 until his death in 1848. Beyond this, the inquirer knew they he was buried in the Cathedral Close and had married at St Chad's Church.

Michael Guest, Senior Lay Vicar, was able to provide some further information about John Harrison and the nineteenth century appointment process:

John Harrison came from Gloucester where he had been a tenor lay clerk at the cathedral there from 1834. In January 1836 the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield advertised for an Alto Lay Vicar and Tenor Lay Vicar. Such was the rarity of posts becoming vacant here, and also the lucrative nature of the post, that they shortlisted 23 candidates to come for audition, mostly drawn from singers who had served their apprenticeship in other cathedral or collegiate choirs.

The posts carried a salary of 'Upwards of £90.0.0pa, together with a small house, free of rent'.

The advert was placed in London newspapers and some regional papers during five days in January 1836 and contained the following caveat that "None need apply but such as can bring with them satisfactory testimonials of excellent moral character and a musical science to be approved by the Dean and Chapter and can show themselves upon trial to be well versed in cathedral service".

John Harrison attended the audition on 26/27 January and, having been appointed after the existing Vicars Choral had submitted their recommendation to the Chapter, he returned to Lichfield the following month to undergo a second stage trial in which a solo was assigned to him within the music specifically appointed to be sung at each of the fourteen services (Matins and Evensong) in what was traditionally recorded as 'trial week'. Having successfully completed this period, he was subsequently installed formally into the Lay Vicar's stall of Tachbrook..

It may also be of interest that the £90.0.0pa salary was derived from the corporate lands and properties which the Vicars Choral owned in and around the city. Their income was derived from lease renewals and ground rents and they were very significant landlords in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The yields from this property portfolio made them extremely well resourced and probably the highest paid cathedral singers in the country. In addition to their independent income source they also received a daily living allowance, called Commons, worth 3d per day from the Dean and Chapter. Given that their individual incomes were worth far in excess of the average working man's wages for a full working week and that their duties amounted to no more than two hours per day, leaving them free to augment their salary by pursuing other employment, this explains the attractions of the post. When the additional rights to a house in the Close, free of charge and the fact that as the post was freehold (meaning that they would be paid for life, even if they could no longer fulfil their duties and had to be represented by a deputy singer who was paid considerably less) are taken into account, this was a truly gold plated package!

I do have a note that in 1848 the Lay Vicars appointed John to conduct a survey of all their lands and properties for valuation purposes, which suggests he was rising in seniority and authority within the hierarchy. I have also recorded that in April 1857 a boy chorister named William Harrison was given a leaving pension by the cathedral to be apprenticed to an organ builder. William could have been as old as 15 or 16, so perhaps born in 1840 or thereabouts. It might well be that he was John's son as the choristers were sometimes the sons of lay vicars. Another long serving and very distinguished Lay Vicar was the bass Daniel Harrison who was a member of the choir in the second half of the nineteenth century and who became Mayor of Lichfield: another relation, possibly?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Allegri's Miserere Mei (Psalm 51): Ash Wednesday 1990

Professional recordings and broadcasts of cathedral choirs abound, and there is some excellent work being done by The Archive of Recorded Church Music to preserve historic recordings, especially the BBC broadcasts of Choral Evensong. Some record labels have also taken to re-releasing older recordings which they either own, or to which they have bought the rights. In our case, all of these are listed in our discography.

However, alongside the official recordings, over the years individuals have been known to smuggle tape, minidisc and digital recorders into services, whether to capture a son or daughter's first or last solo, a premiere performance, a final service, or for a variety of other reasons. Such recordings are not always flawless, but they serve to offer an true representation of what happens on a daily basis.

Allegri's Misereri mei, a setting of psalm 51, is widely known in choral music circles because of the top Cs demanded of one of the treble soloists and the myths surrounding its early performances in the Sistine Chapel (a fascinating account by Ben Byram-Wigfield of many of the historical details can be found here). It is the set psalm for Ash Wednesday, and Allegri's setting is frequently reserved for this annual occasion.

This recording was made by the parent of one of the soloists (presumably the top C singing treble) during Evensong on Ash Wednesday (28 February), 1990. To remind us that the choristers exist outside the cathedral, please remember that the solo is being sung by a boy aged somewhere between 11 and 13 after early morning instrumental and choir practices, a full day at school and - as it was a Wednesday - at the time, double games, or sporting fixtures during the afternoon.