Choirs and the Crown IV

Choirs and the Crown: Anglican Choral Music and the British Monarchy
IV: The Nineteenth Century

Coronations did not improve much at the beginning of the 19th century when there was a farce of an entirely different kind. King George IV, who succeeded his old, mad father George III in 1820, was estranged from his wife Caroline. Actually I'm not sure if you can be "estranged" from someone that you never liked to begin with. When George saw Caroline for the first time (it was of course an arranged marriage), the first thing he said was, "Pray, get me a glass of brandy." The marriage did not improve. So when it came time to be crowned, Caroline of course considered herself Queen, but George took the rather unusual step of barring Caroline from her own coronation. There was a supremely undignified scene in which Caroline was actually running around to the different doors of Westminster Abbey, banging on them as the guards kept her out. This did not do much for the dignity of her public image.

We’ll get back to coronations, but to set the stage for the glorious collaboration between Royal Ceremonial and Choral Music that characterised the 20th century, we need to step away from the royal court for a bit to answer the question: How did Anglican church music (which was completely transformed by the end of the Victorian era) recover the high standards we take for granted today?

When American Episcopalians who are accustomed to beautiful stone churches influenced by the 19th-century Gothic Revival visit the remaining colonial Anglican churches on the East Coast of this country, they're often surprised at how plain they are. They don't look like what you think of as an Episcopal church: much more Protestant and nothing echoing the Middle Ages. Of course in England Anglican churches usually are from the real Middle Ages, but in the 18th century they were kind of trying to avoid that. In parish churches, there would have been no organ, and no chancel choir, certainly no vestments like we have today. Instead of an organ and choir, there would be a band in the west gallery, at the back of the church. The writer George Eliot has left us a rather amusing description of what this was like:

The singing was no mechanical affair of official routine; it had a drama. … Then followed the migration of the clerk to the gallery, where, in company with a bassoon, two key-bugles, a carpenter understood to have an amazing power of singing “counter,” and two lesser musical stars, he formed the complement of a choir regarded…as one of distinguished attraction. The innovation of hymn-books was as yet undreamed of; the greatest triumphs were reserved for the Sundays when the slate announced an ANTHEM, in which the key-bugles always ran away at a great pace, while the bassoon every now and then boomed a flying shot after them.7

Now that may have been wonderful, I don't know, but it's not what we think of as traditional Anglican music. At the same time, while the cathedrals were obliged by their statutes to maintain choirs of gentlemen and boys, the standards were abysmal. Those of you who are at Incarnation may remember that earlier this month we sang a rather bizarre anthem--wonderful, but bizarre--by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, "Blessed be the Lord God and Father," which consists mostly of treble and bass solos. The reason it's like that is that the Sunday for which he wrote that anthem [at Hereford Cathedral], all he had was one bass and a few boys, hence the anthem. Men in the cathedral choirs at this time didn't really like to show up very much.

How did this change? One early person who saw that perhaps something should change was an Irish bishop by the name of John Jebb (1775-1833). All of us who love choral music in churches owe a great deal of debt to this rather obscure bishop. He was one of the first clergymen of the time to advocate that services should be sung by the choir at a high standard to ensure satisfactory music. Jebb died in 1833; he didn't live to see his dreams come to fruition. However, he did influence some younger clergymen, who brought about what became known as the Oxford Movement.

The Oxford Movement was an attempt (sort of like the Stuarts who I was talking about two centuries earlier) to emphasize the Catholic continuity of the Church of England, to recover Beauty in Worship, to insist on the dignity of the liturgical ceremonies, and that included a new emphasis on musical quality. One of these younger clergymen was a visionary vicar named Walter Farquhar Hook (1798-1875). He became the vicar of Leeds Parish Church in 1837, and hired in 1842 a man by the name of Samuel Sebastian Wesley. (The Methodists here tonight will be pleased to know that Samuel Sebastian was the grandson of Charles Wesley, composer of many of Methodism's most beloved hymns.) Samuel Sebastian Wesley was one of the first to argue that "members of a congregation freed of the need to concentrate on singing themselves would be able to cultivate a deeper attitude of genuinely spiritual worship."8

Rev Hook and Mr Wesley had one of the great clergy/musician partnerships of all time. They trusted each other completely (those of you involved in church music may know that this is not always the way things are between clergy and musicians). Rev Hook allowed Wesley to pretty much do what he wanted, and what he wanted to do was create a tradition of choral standards. It's ironic that the revival of what we think of as cathedral worship actually began in this Leeds parish church, and today, Leeds Parish Church remains the only parish church in England to maintain daily choral services. So that was what Rev Hook and Samuel Sebastian Wesley started, and this gradually influenced other places. All Saints Margaret Street in London was another church that began choral services. A musical visionary by the name of Dr Frederick Ouseley founded a wonderful institution called St Michael's College, Tenbury, which was created specifically for the purpose of training boys to sing church music at a high standard.

Another thing that needed to happen (and it's wonderful that we have two young men approximately the same age [as cathedral choristers] here listening to this) was an improvement in the living conditions of the choristers, which had been rather abysmal. The choristers were required to do a lot of menial jobs that had nothing to do with singing, and they weren't treated very well. Now, in the 19th century, Britain had a lot of reformers; that was sort of what the Victorians did, was they reformed things. Our choir's wonderful friend, the verger at Westminster Abbey Ben Sheward (who you may have seen doing cartwheels after the royal wedding), when he gave us our private tour of Westminster Abbey he said about the gaudy blue and gold choir stalls, "if you stood still for five minutes, the Victorians would decorate you." That could also be said about reforming: if you stood still for five minutes, the Victorians would reform you. And Maria Hackett, who was blessed with a long life, made it her mission to improve the lot of the choristers. I think you can get an idea of the force of her personality from this excerpt from a letter of hers to the Bishop of London:

The children reside at a considerable distance from the church and from their singing master, and a great proportion of the day is spent in loitering about the streets.

To remunerate the master for his trouble the choristers are hired out to evening concerts and are exposed unprotected to the contagion of any society they may meet with in these nocturnal assemblies. After the conclusion of the concert these poor children are committed to their own discretion, are left to walk the streets alone at midnight, and to find their way home as they can.

What effect this vagabond life, at so early an age, is likely to have on their morals in most instances may be easily imagined.9

By the end of her long life Maria Hackett had had a considerable influence, and being a chorister became the relatively privileged existence that it is today.

Now, I mentioned Samuel Sebastian Wesley earlier, and I would like to play an anthem of his. It's a little bit out of order in terms of coronations [having been sung at the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II], because with Queen Victoria's reign being so long there were no coronations yet. But this is Wesley's anthem, "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace."

Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876)
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace

John Williams/The Choir of the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula within The Tower of London
Jubilate: Music for the Kings and Queens of England (Chandos, 1991)

So this is the work of the man who did more than anyone else of his generation to revitalize the standards of English choral music.

Now presiding at the apex of Victorian society was of course Queen Victoria, who was fortified in the early years of her reign by her husband Prince Albert, who was probably one of the most gifted individuals ever to marry a British monarch. One of his many talents was as a composer, and nothing could be more appropriate for a talk on "Choirs and the Crown" than an example of his writing. This is Prince Albert's Jubilate, a canticle for Morning Prayer.

Albert, Prince Consort (1819-1861)

Jubilate: Music for the Kings and Queens of England

So there we have Prince Albert himself demonstrating his talents, which I think would be a worthy addition to any choir's library.

Now as wonderful as these achievements in rural areas and parish churches were, Anglican choral music could not have embarked on its third "Golden Age" without things being turned around in London, the capital. The man who did more than anyone else to bring this about was John Stainer (1840-1901), who became the organist of St Paul's Cathedral in 1872. Once again, he had a good relationship with the clergy of his time, and he was able to turn things around. He transformed the choir from the days when choirboys couldn’t read music and men were usually absent to a scene in which “the discipline is perfect; the boys work with a will….they seldom try a new piece more than three times before it is heard at the cathedral…The men belonging to the choir, 18 in number, attend a rehearsal with the boys once a week.”10 That sounds pretty standard today but this was really quite a revolutionary development for the 1870s. With Stainer's influence, Anglican church music was launched on its third Golden Age and reached unheard-of heights.

Another member of Stainer's generation was Sir Walter Parratt (1841-1924). He was the organist at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, where I'm proud to say the Incarnation choir will be singing this summer. Most of what I know about this gentleman is thanks to Mary Ann Livengood, who's here with us tonight and who introduced me to this wonderful book. These are the memoirs of a Windsor Castle choirboy, Russell Thorndike, who later became well known as an author and actor, although not as famous as his sister Dame Sybil Thorndike. He was a chorister at Windsor Castle at the very end of the reign of Queen Victoria, and here you can see the pictures of little Russell and Sir Walter. He says,

My sister Sybil reminds me that I described Sir Walter to her as "the most musiciany-looking person imaginable." His chief characteristic was his hair, which he wore long. But it never hid his fine, deep forehead, because it stood straight up on end, each hair seeming to bristle with excitable music. What Chorister serving under him has not seen him tear at it in rage should any note untunable offend his sensitive ear? Alas! I fear that most of us caused him many a painful tugging.11
When Thorndike was welcomed to the choir by the older boys (as an illustration of what life was like), they said to him,
See that window up there with a light in it—the one jutting out? Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn used to make eyes at each other through that. We sang his Anthem tonight, and we walk over him in Chapel; but she walks about here still. Lots of people have seen her. You may; and if you do you’ll think at first that she’s just one of the castle cleaners, because she carries a bundle under her arm. But it’s really her head all wrapped up.12
You can imagine the impact on a nervous young boy arriving for his first night at Windsor Castle. They also told him that at the end of his first Evensong he would be obliged to make a speech in Latin. He quickly went to the library and surprised the headmaster by asking for a Latin-English dictionary, and spent all night on his Latin speech before discovering that there was, in fact, no such requirement.

As an illustration of what a close relationship this choir in particular enjoyed with the royal family, at special times during the year they would perform large-scale choral works such as the Bach St Matthew Passion, at which time it was considered desirable to have a choir of larger size than the normal St George's Chapel choir of men and boys, and the choir would be augmented by adults from the community, including members of the royal family: Queen Victoria's daughters Princesses Helena, Beatrice, and Victoria. Imagine these little choristers singing Bach St Matthew Passion side by side with these women who were the daughters of the most powerful woman in the world. As Thorndike says,

We got to know these three Princesses better than any other members of the Royal Family, because they sang with us so often…They always went out of their way to be kind and friendly with us….Besides our boyish affection for them, we had another bond in common, for during singing hours we felt that they were just as frightened of Sir Walter as we were. I am sure they loved him as much as we did too.13
(The book does not get any less sentimental.) Thorndike graduated at Christmas 1900, not because his voice had changed, but because he was simply too old. However, in January 1901 Queen Victoria died, and he was recalled for one last, final duty, which was the singing of her funeral.

7quoted in Gerald Parsons, Religion in Victorian Britain, Vol V: Culture & Empire.
9Of Choristers: Maria Hackett--the choristers' friend
10 quoted in Parsons.
11 Russell Thorndike, Children of the Garter: Being the Memoirs of a Windsor Castle Choir-boy, during the last years of Queen Victoria (London: Rich & Cowan, 1937), 4.
12 Ibid., 11-12.
13 Ibid., 70.

Choirs and the Crown V: The Twentieth Century and Beyond

Choirs and the Crown