Performance Standards at Westminster Abbey in 1919

[It is helpful to be reminded of how precarious things have been, at various moments in history, for the Anglican choral heritage. High compositional and performance standards take commitment not only by musicians but also by clergy and the faithful. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the reminiscences of Sir Sydney Nicholson about the performance forces as he found them at Westminster Abbey when he arrived there in 1919 as the new Organist and Master of the Choristers. Lest it be thought this situation was due to the ravages of the Great War, a footnote documents pretty much the same situation having prevailed in 1875 when Frederick Bridge arrived at Westminster Abbey.]

“There were twelve regular ‘Lay-Vicars’ and six ‘Assistants’. The former were only required to attend for half the year, in alternate months, both morning and evening services; so that there would be six of them at each service, augmented by the six Assistants in the afternoons. This meant that the personnel of the choir was constantly changing, and by interchange of duty a man could be absent for several months on end: as the deputy system was also rife and the men were allowed to make their own arrangements provided the requisite number were present, it followed that one never knew what sort of a choir one would have on any occasion. This might conceivably have worked pretty well except in the matter of rehearsals; but these were not provided for in the Lay Vicars’ duties and were in fact only occasionally called, a special fee of 10/- [ten shillings] being pad for each occasion. Naturally my first requirement was that there should be at least one full rehearsal each week; but the sort of thing that would happen would be that, say at the end of the month, music would be rehearsed by one choir and performed by quite a different one. Or if a man could not conveniently come to a rehearsal in person he would send a deputy (probably paying him about 5/-) [five shillings] and the deputy would rehearse for him and then he himself would sing at the service!” (p. 105)

“[T]hings like responses or psalms were never rehearsed, and so I suggested to the Precentor that on one Friday (unaccompanied day) we should call a rehearsal before Evensong and devote the whole of it to the details of the particular service. All went well, and we rehearsed everything, including the ‘verses’ in the Anthem and Service: when we had finished I was full of hope that we should at last have one decently rendered service. Imagine my feelings when, after the rehearsal 6 or 7 of the men walked out and another lot came to sing instead!” (p. 105)

Henderson, John and Trevor Jarvis, Sydney Nicholson and His Musings of a Musician (Wakefield: Charlesworth Press, 2013).

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