Tom Sutcliffe considers the plight of Sheffield Cathedral Choir

In 1983 when Meredith and I moved with our children and her mother to Streatham, the new vicar of St Peter’s, Leigham Court Road had just sacked the organist and choirmaster. Sacking organists is not uncommon vicar behaviour – Sheffield Cathedral shows deans and sub-deans may do it too. Fr John Hall, later to be Dean of Westminster after taking various Church educational roles and ending up chief education officer, wanted to change the Sunday morning services. When he started, Sundays involved a well-attended mass with hymns at 10, and a lavish choral eucharist at 11 with all the trimmings but a tiny congregation (and the sacked organist would drive round south London collecting the boys needed). So I was drafted in to sing (by John Brierley who kept the music going). The new 10.30 mass had hymns and polyphony and still a few local lads in the choir, though that did not last.

I was a professional singer, really, from 1952 until 1970. Child labour, and it was wonderful: Chichester Cathedral, Hurstpierpoint College, Magdalen Oxford, Brompton Oratory, and Westminster Cathedral with almost no interruption. At Oxford and most of my 20s I was never a communicant, though after being confirmed by George Bell at 11 and at Hurst, where I liked the chaplain David Jenkins who had been Walter Hussey’s curate in Northampton, I had been quite devout. At the Prebendal in May 1952 when I started as a probationer there were 63 boys boarding, no day boys, and 19 in the choir. At Westminster Cathedral between December 1966 and July 1970 there were 30 choirboys all boarding, no other pupils. The Prebendal was refounded in the 1930s by Dean Duncan-Jones who had to be headmaster and teach during the war. Westminster Cathedral choirschool was set up when the place was built, following best Anglican practice under Richard Terry and George Malcolm. Brompton Oratory had boy choristers until the 1960s. The Woodard schools, created by an Anglican clergymen to educate clergy sons, all have choral traditions – and Hurst was outstanding under Canon Howard as head when I was there. But you can count Catholic choirschools in Europe now on the fingers of one hand, though there are indications in Bumpus’s Edwardian books about churches and cathedrals in Europe that in the late 19th century there was sometimes choral music to be found, thanks to long-term reaction against French revolutionary atheism.

Continental tone we used to call how the Westminster boys sounded under George, not woofy like Anglican choirboys but pointed, and colourful, more like recordings of the Regensburg Domspätzen. A friend at Magdalen introduced me to the 1959 Argo recording of Vittoria’s Tenebrae Responsories which George Malcolm made. The solos by the senior boys were exquisite – quite unlike King’s Cambridge creaminess, and conveyed the drama in the words. David Willcocks, Boris Ord’s better known successor at King’s, was forced to listen to it by one of his choral scholars and found fault with the intonation – he was famous for preferring his major thirds positively sharp. If George’s boys did err sometimes, the energy, tone, and commitment were ravishing.

So what has been happening at cathedrals with their choirschools? Well one thing that represents a very big change is girls. Anglican cathedrals  in the British Isles have women priests. And most people consider not giving girls the chance choirboys have to learn about and perform music to be unfair. They also think it ought to be easy to resolve. But there is a difficulty. Girls voices do not break; girls just grow up, and probably earlier than boys whose distinctive treble and alto voices have a definite sell-by date. In fact singing boys’ voices change interestingly in quality as the end of their career approaches. A men’s voice choir is a different creature from a mixed choir – though good singing women can sound almost exactly like boys if that is what the conductor wants. Like, but in a number of ways not the same – a different energy and objective. And another crucial problem is that boys’ choirs are at their best only because they do a lot of singing – just as ballet dancers have to keep dancing all the time if they are not going to lose their skill for all practical purposes.

Handing half the services over to a girls’ choir at a cathedral is going to mean the boys’ choir will never be as good as it would be doing the whole job. And I am not going to make any comment about what girls feel about singing – though without question as a boy singer one knows that the skill and physical capacity to make that noise which one is using is something that will not last unless one is castrated or given chemicals with a similar effect – whereas girls’ voices will go on developing as the case may be, according to what they each wish to do when adult. No doubt we all believe in sexual equality. But the experience of puberty for the two genders is dramatic in significantly different ways. And the fact that there is bitter controversy in relation to gender reassignment achieved by chemical means is an indication that the undercurrents relating to choirs and equality are more complex than they may initially seem.

The school fees at the Prebendal with about 150 pupils are now £22,950 a year for boarders, half that for choristers. The Prebendal is co-ed with a headmistress for the first time ever, and day pupils cost £15,960. The choir remains 18 as it was in my day. Westminster Cathedral might seem cheaper at only £20,338, but the only boarders are the 20 or so choristers – what dayboys at boys-only Westminster Cathedral School pay is over £4,000 more. It used to be a choir school when I sang there. It is now a fashionable Catholic prep school in the middle of London with a total of 265 pupils. Martin Baker who was director of music at the cathedral resigned over the recent changes which require the choristers to be weekly boarders, going home from when school finishes on Friday afternoons until Sunday morning in time for the 10.30 mass. This means the boys choir at Westminster Cathedral is no longer fulltime. The tradition created by Terry and Malcolm and continued by the late Colin Mawby is now at risk of deteriorating seriously. There are complaints expressed by members of the public at the loss of the boys singing the Saturday capitular mass. I would say this is a tragedy. It is also interesting that most of the pupils do not go on to Catholic public schools but to Eton, Dulwich, etc

The impression has been created that at Westminster Cathedral the prep school is profitable and capable of making a contribution to the costs of the cathedral. At Chichester the question must be whether the prep school, so much larger than it was, can make enough money to fund the education of the choirboys who only pay half fees and sometimes less. Each cathedral wanting to keep a full-time choral foundation ought to raise an endowment of over £5 million to help make it possible. But compared with the early 1950s when I was a Chichester chorister, the sung services are a lot less of the year than they were. Until the late 1950s Chichester choristers had only five weeks summer holiday from after the feast of the Transfiguration till about September 12th, plus two weeks from the Epiphany, and about 18 days from Low Sunday. We really did the job.

Sheffield, of course has no choir school. The Dean and Sub-dean created a public relations disaster when they simply sacked the whole existing choral establishment. There has been an awkward turnover of organists in charge of the music, and the sub-dean at least seems to think that the function of the music is to entertain the congregation – and the music they had was not drawing audiences as they felt it should. In my day as a professional church singer, the size of the congregation depended much more on the day or the season than on what we were doing. By and large most of my time on the job, we were performing for the Almighty and did not expect there to be anybody much actually coming to the service or appreciating it. We often had a wonderful time delivering the best possible performance we could ourselves. Which was what we thought we were there for.

The Sunday choral eucharist at Chichester in the 1950s had only one communicant from the congregation, a grubby and rather smelly old lady in a dirty mac and hat called Miss Bradford who was the only person permitted to make the trip up to the high altar to take communion. As choirboys if we wanted to receive we had to go to Holy Communion at 7.15am in the Lady Chapel or 8am at the High Altar. And in those days we went everywhere of course by ourselves – around the town, across the Westgate Fields, or in my case on the 31 Southdown bus back to my parents at Southbourne, Emsworth on dumb day (Thursday) in the choir hols when we kept singing with no school work to do and had our holidays in residence!

I fear that Sheffield has got itself into a terrible tangle. Why ever did they not explain a desire to change things gradually and experiment with different ways, rather than behaving like the dictator a dean in charge of a cathedral can always be? To do the Daily Offices which is what cathedrals are for on behalf of their whole diocese, there are not that many changes possible.

They might think of introducing plainchant for the psalms and in other ways which we had at Chichester when I was a boy (and of course at Westminster Cathedral) as a simple but amazingly beautiful way of altering the tradition slightly. Add to that some experiment with solo singers, and perhaps with a mixture of instruments they may be able to present a different face to the public. They surely cannot be thinking that guitars and current popular singing styles will work with so much need to project text and its meaning. Many Catholic churches have tried that path of modernising with mediocre results. But what about the extraordinary quality of the outstanding polyphonic and baroque and romantic music that a large choral establishment is capable of performing when well organised: a truly vast repertoire of established genius.  And Sheffield’s choir in the 100-year life so far of this cathedral has demonstrated in recent times a long tradition of loyal attendance and commitment which it will be almost impossible to do music at all without.

Public confession is not that common on the part of clergy. But what other way will there be of dealing with the open wounds created by the destruction and dismissal of what there was. Hard to imagine a worse way for the leaders of a Christian community to proceed.