Wednesday, 22 February 2017

John Saville (1736-1803): An eighteenth century Lay Vicar Virtuoso

Of all our public singers, while many are masterly, many elegant, many astonishing, HE only is sublime

Thus in one of her many letters did Anna Seward - writing to Sir Walter Scott no less - attempt to describe the artistry of John Saville, probably the most notable of the Lay Vicars to grace the stalls of Lichfield Cathedral in the eighteenth century. Miss Seward’s intense though almost certainly platonic relationship with Saville has been explored in depth by others and was indubitably something of a cause célèbre in the society of eighteenth century Lichfield. Historians have focussed on the nature of their relationship and its impact on Anna Seward’s own reputation as well as her emotional attachment to the Lay Vicar, whilst Saville himself has tended to be somewhat overshadowed by his inamorata.

Saville’s memorial, sculpted by Sir Nigel Gresley, may be found on the west wall of the south transept; a handsome monument in the classical style and of a scale which both rivals and exceeds those of greater dignitaries. This provides some indication of the high regard and renown with which he was held in his lifetime. The fulsome verses inscribed on the memorial were composed by Anna Seward who paid not only for its construction but also for Saville’s funeral and the construction of his burial vault, which is located on the south side of the cathedral churchyard, adjacent to the nave aisle. Her own wish to be laid in the same vault as her dear friend, if the tomb of her late father Canon Seward could not be made to accommodate her remains, was overruled by the Dean and Chapter after her death in 1809, presumably on the grounds of propriety.

The singer himself had died aged 67 in August 1803, as his memorial records, having sung at two Cathedral services earlier in the same day, much as he had done for the previous 48 years of his tenure. He had been appointed to the choir as a young man of 19, installed as a Lay Vicar in 1755 upon his translation from Ely Cathedral where he had served as a probationary Lay Clerk, having been born in the nearby fen village of Haddenham in 1736. His long vicarship coincided with a turbulent time in the Lichfield choir’s musical history, during which for some years the Organist and Master of the Choristers was the talented though mercurial Dr John Alcock, who simultaneously held the post of Lay Vicar and made little secret of his contempt for the state of the musical resources, the behaviour of his fellow musicians (and indeed for the Dean and Chapter) many whom he subsequently satirised within a novel published under the pseudonym John Piper after resigning the post of Organist whilst still continuing as a member of the choir 

Saville was one of the Lay Vicar signatories to a petition sent to the Chapter at Michaelmas 1758 regarding Alcock’s own misdemeanours, but appears to have remained on good terms with his colleague and one suspects on account of his prowess, was able to surmount the criticisms which Alcock levelled against the other Lay Vicars. In the Georgian period, Lichfield Cathedral maintained the Opus Dei through daily choral offices of Matins and Evensong (choral celebrations of Holy Communion were rare) for 365 days per year. Lay Vicars took days off in rotation according to a strictly regulated pattern. This diurnal rhythm and routine formed the essential framework of John Saville’s musical life, though far from limiting his artistic horizons.

Cathedral music in this era was different to that in our own in two significant respects. The first concerns repertoire: morning and evening canticle settings tended to be somewhat foursquare, generally of a fairly undemanding style with minimal organ accompaniment, instruments being generally much smaller than those of today and without pedal stops. Anthems, however, were frequently very elaborate compositions and provided opportunities for quasi-virtuoso performances from the alto, tenor and bass singers. This was something of a golden age for the art form known as the ‘verse anthem’ where relatively short choruses for the full choir framed extended arias, duets and trios (verses) for skilled solo singers who were encouraged to embellish their performances with frequent ornamentation. Saville would have quickly become acquainted with, and doubtless adept in, performing the verse anthems of Purcell, Humfrey, Boyce, Greene, Wise, Blow and other composers of the restoration Chapel Royal school, whose works are frequently akin to miniature oratorios in scale.

The second significant difference concerns the practicalities of cathedral worship. Before the mid-19th century services were performed in a much more ad hoc basis than today. There were no formal processions: Lay Vicars entered the quire (wearing only long surplices, without cassocks) in a random fashion with no formality, often assembling indeed after the opening responses had been intoned. Their vestry was situated at the angle of the south quire aisle and south transept, hence the location of several musicians’ memorials in that area of the cathedral today. Formal rehearsals for the full choir were almost non-existent and the music for each service was not usually published in advance. The general rule appears to have been that the Canon in Residence selected the repertoire at the start of the service, informing choristers, lay vicars and Organist of his wishes by note or whispered word of mouth. The provision of leather bound music books – frequently in handwritten manuscript produced by copyists and in single voice parts, housed beneath the stalls, meant that repertoire was always at hand and facilitated this practice. The Cathedral Library has an extensive collection of these volumes and they make fascinating reading, not least for the for the graffiti accumulated in their margins over the centuries.

Saville appears to have possessed a particularly fine voice which he evidently used with both skill and grace. Seward’s letters make frequent reference to the sensitivity and artistic qualities of his performance. For example, she noted that
Other voices may be as fine, the skill and fancy of other singers as distinguished; but for all the graces and powers of touching expression, nor man nor woman ever sung as Saville sung.

Evidence suggests that he was a counter-tenor, possibly of the haute-contre type who could sing in both the tenor and male alto registers. Indeed, in 1785 he is recorded as having sung both the tenor and alto arias in a performance of Messiah at a major music festival held in Manchester. The counter-tenor voice was much in vogue by the mid eighteenth century, its distinctive timbre and range possibly rivalling the even more exotic vocal pyrotechnics exhibited by the Italian castrati such as Seneschino, Farinelli and Tenducci who caused such a musical sensation whenever they appeared on the London operatic stage. The operas of Handel after the Italian model were widely admired and many of his heroic roles were written with these particular voices in mind. It is interesting in this context to note how Anna Seward frequently refers in her correspondence to John Saville using the Italianate soubriquet ‘Giovanni’. Saville, however, was certainly no castrato, impregnating his wife before marriage and his appointment to Lichfield where she subsequently bore him two daughters.

He clearly had a particular affinity for Handel’s music and taught Seward to appreciate the composer’s works, both sacred and secular. In due course of time separated from his wife Mary, whom Seward describes as having a shrewish disposition, Saville moved from the residence in which he had previously lived with his family – 6, Vicars’ Close – into a smaller dwelling at 7, Vicars’ Close during 1772 . He appears to have spent increasing amounts of his time outside Cathedral duties organising and appearing in a range of musical soirees and concerts. Some of these were designated ‘Smoking Concerts’ and were convivial musical occasions held in Vicars’ Hall (now demolished) at the western end of Vicars’ Close. These events attracted cognoscenti from the city and featured both instrumental and vocal performances. At the other end of The Close, Anna Seward’s family home in The Palace became the venue for frequent musical parties at which John Saville’s talents were often showcased to a select audience from Close, city and county. Concert parties held to coincide with Lichfield Races were a particular feature of the mid-eighteenth century cultural life of the city.

His prowess as a singer and particularly as an interpreter of Handel’s music certainly brought him to the attention of concert promoters well beyond Lichfield. His name appears periodically in advertisements and concert programmes in Birmingham from the middle of the century and there is evidence to suggest that he was contracted to appear at what is now the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as well as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. More research remains to be done on the full scale of his solo career, but what is clear is that his heart (in more senses than one) remained in the City and Close of Lichfield.

Saville’s portrait of 1770 was painted in miniature by John Smart (1741-1811) and shows a sensitive face with heavy lidded eyes and a contemplative countenance. The painting was the gift of Anna Seward who made a specific bequest of it in her will to Saville’s grand-daughter Honora Jager who became the tenant of 6 Vicars’ Close some years after his death. This charming half -timbered residence located in the lower quadrangle, one of two which housed the college of Vicars Choral , was described by Anna Seward as ‘the pleasant little mansion in the Vicarage’ and became quite celebrated in Lichfield circles for the walled garden behind it in which Saville, a skilled amateur botanist, cultivated an extensive collection of rare plants rivalling that of his near neighbour Dr Darwin. The garden became known as ‘Damon’s Bower’ until Saville’s removal to the neighbouring property after his marital estrangement. He subsequently consoled himself by leasing a plot of land on the north bank of Stowe Pool, close to the famed Johnson’s willow and recreated his botanic garden still within sight of the cathedral spires.

By the time of his death, John Saville was evidently a notable Lichfeldian (albeit by adoption) who combined wide interests in the arts, a voice of rare quality, together with a sensitive disposition and a great capacity for friendship, most notably with Anna Seward. He succeeded in rising above the vicissitudes caused by Close gossip concerning the relationship he and ‘The Swan of Lichfield’ had forged over many years. His loyalty and personal qualities left a profound impression on the poet, perhaps best summarised in this extract from the obituary she penned for The Gentleman’s Magazine published in London, August 1803:
This melancholy announcement of the loss of an excellent man, very generally known and where known always beloved will excite the sympathy of Genius and the tear of friendship. Pre-eminent were his abilities as a vocal performer from the rare union of feeling with science, of expression with skill.

Readers of this post may glean further similar sentiments from closer inspection of the text of his memorial inscription alluded to above:
Once in the heart, cold in yon narrow cell,
Did each mild grace, each ardent virtue dwell;
Kind aid, kind tears, for others’ want and woe,
For others’ joy, the gratulating glow;
And skill to mark, and eloquence to claim
For genius in each art, the palm of fame.
Ye choral walls, ye lost the matchless song
When the last silence stiffen’d on that tongue,
Ah! Who may now your pealing anthems raise
In soul-pour’d tones of fervent prayer and praise?
Saville, thy lips twice on thy final day,
Here breath’d, in health and hope, the sacred lay;
Short pangs, ere night, their fatal signal gave,
Quench’d the bright sun for thee – and op’d the grave!
Now from that graceful form and beaming face,
Insatiate worms the lingering likeness chase;
To sinless – changeless – everlasting spheres.
Sleep then, pale mortal frame, in yon low shrine,
“Till Angels wake thee with a note like thine”

This article was written by Michael Guest, Senior Lay Vicar, in 2013 for the Cathedral Friends' Annual Report and is reproduced with permission.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Ambrose Porter's Saturday Organ Recitals

The Radio Times archive shows that between 1934 and 1938, alongside regular broadcasts of services from Lichfield Cathedral, there were broadcasts of Ambrose Porter's organ recitals; dates of the broadcasts are listed on the radio page of our website.

In the Lay Vicars' vestry there is still a poster, albeit somewhat the worse for wear, exhorting us to attend his Saturday recital in July 1930.

However, this was clearly not a new thing. I recently rediscovered two handwritten programmes from my organ-playing grandfather's papers of Porter's Saturday recitals he attended as a 20-21 year old in the summer of 1926:

The programme for the June recital is written out in ink with what I believe is Porter's signature, having seen his writing previously; but the fading purple of the July programme makes it look as if it is just a printed duplicate.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

A local response to the 1894 Review of Lichfield Cathedral Choir - The Mercury

In response to yesterday's review first published to the day in 1894, the local newspaper, The Mercury, published the following piece on February 2, 1894;

Lichfield Cathedral Choir 
It would be very interesting to learn what local hand has guided the judgement of the writer of a notice of our Cathedral Choir, which appears in Musical Opinion for the current month of February. Some of his conclusions are sound enough, but the paper discloses the fact of the writer has been prompted by purpose; that the details have not being acquired by casual and unpremeditated visit. The outline of his paper is that the Cathedral Choir is not enough; the boys and the tenors are good; the basses so, so; altos not equal to the tenors. The organ playing is that of a man of marked ability, who lacks enthusiasm; the choirboys are cherubs; and the Reverend GTG Hayward “the right man in the right place”. The position of the singers should be changed; the boys should be provided with the more liberal supply of books; the statutes require alteration; the foundation number of men and boys should be increased. It is unfortunate, and some will think is unjust, the local hand did not direct his critic to ascribe every good word he has written to the general excellent of the voices and the painstaking ability and hard work of Mr Lott, the Cathedral organist. Some further details might have been given him, such, for instance, as the fact that the principal boys are now imported and that the total cost of the choir probably exceeds £2,000 per annum. The critic falls foul of the City Churches, at the largest of which – Saint Mary’s – he says there is pretentious but rather unsatisfactory service. The local hand should have informed that the choir masters (having regard to a limited population) have, of necessity, to keep the boys much longer than would otherwise be the case. He does not seem to have afforded any information of the almost purely voluntary character of such services; and, in all probability, he based his opinion on a single visit, when climatic conditions may have been dead against satisfactory singing. May be, however, he took his text from his local guide. If he did not, then his conclusion is the more untenable. 
To return to the Cathedral Choir. It would be an easy matter, but it would be unjust, to single out points in detail peculiar to certain conditions and circumstances which no one would admit come up to a cathedral standard; but we are delighted to add our testimony to the general efficiency of the choral part of the Lichfield Cathedral services, and also to the organ playing. These results (outside the vocalists themselves) have to do, however, with one gentleman only and that is Mr Lott, for whom the Dean and Chapter should strictly maintain a free hand, without interference from those who know but little of the Art of which is he is so distinguished a professor.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

An 1894 Review of Lichfield Cathedral Choir - Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review

The national journal Musical Opinion & Music Trade Review made its seventh review of church choirs an assessment of Lichfield Cathedral. First published on February 1, 1894 (in Volume 17, Issue 197, pp298-299), the piece in its entirely follows:

Among the Church Choirs

VII Lichfield Cathedral
When a cathedral choir takes its turn in these papers, it can hardly be necessary to use up space by an attempt at a description of the edifice itself. Any such information might be deemed “common property”.
In rendering the church services in the most dignified and impressive manner, cathedrals and kindred foundations have obviously very important advantages. On the other hand, these same advantages, while running their course, present difficulties with which the ordinary parish church is quite unacquainted. To illustrate this position of affairs more clearly, let us take one point. A church like St Andrew’s, Wells Street, with full cathedral services daily, engages a competent singer. If for any reason he becomes unsatisfactory, notice is given, and a better man takes his place. But unless a cathedral vicar-choral elects to “break the bond”, the foundation is responsible for his emoluments so long as he lives. We do not for a moment urge that this is not all correct and proper, only we fail to see how under such a scheme a choir could always maintain a certain average efficiency, unless indeed the funds available were of an elastic character. To the outsider, it might seem that the “statutes” could be altered – or, as it were, “relaxed” – with possible advantage. Such a one would have to learn that a suggestion to this effect tendered to the cathedral official, from the presiding genius downward, would be received in much the same spirit as a similar communication might have been by a Medo-Persian if some ancient utilitarian had propounded the manifest benefits to be derived from some relaxation in the stringency of the celebrated laws at that time forming the penal code of the kingdom. 
The members of the choir on the foundation, the lay vicars, are nine in number. How strange it seems! Even in the days of olden time they must have realised that each side ought to form a complete and efficient choir in itself. Six would have been an intelligible number. It would have given one voice to each part; and if somewhat weak they would have been evenly balanced. But nine is a soul disturbing number, each of the three parts suggesting “jagged edges”. It is true that in almost all cathedrals supplementary aid is called in for the Sunday services; nevertheless, we staunchly maintain that every cathedral ought to have a full and well balanced choir, Sundays and week days alike. In the case of more than one church we have pointed out that wherever a part – decani or cantoris, or both – is taken by a single voice, however good, the choir is making an approach to the standard of a “double quartet”. The tenors – Messrs Fredericks, Kemp, and Mason – are all of admirable quality and merit high praise. Indeed, so good are they that one feels it to be a sort of grievance that there are not four, or at least that the principles embodied in King Solomon’s celebrated judgment could be made applicable to the case. It would not be easy to find a provincial cathedral better off in this important department, and in each case the pension period may be looked to as at the end of a long vista. One of the trio is, of course a well known name to concert audiences. It is to be wished that equal praise could be awarded to the basses collectively: unfortunately, this is hardly possible. Fresh blood is somewhat needed. as no doubt the authorities fully recognise. With respect to the altos, we almost wish that choirs could be discussed without reference to their existence. It is an uncomfortable duty. We believe the quality of the three counter tenors to be good; but without hearing solos – the only real test – it is impossible to say more. Amid organ, treble, tenor, and bass, the counter tenor has small chance of making his voice known. We have before commented on the singular arrangement by which altos are placed so that both tenor and bass intervene between them and the congregation. Be the counter tenors as good as you please, the quality of tone must be of a refined and delicate order, admitting of no strain, and we may safely say that they would very largely increase their efficiency by standing nearest to the nave. With boy altos, of course, all would be changed; the powerful, sonorous, and fine toned voices would make themselves felt from any position. In our continuous crusade in favour of the universal adoption of boy altos in our choirs, cathedrals have been carefully omitted. This was mainly on the principle of not attempting too much at a time. We really think that cathedrals would gain by the change not less than parochial choirs. It has been asserted more than once that the supply of good counters tenors is barely sufficient for the cathedrals alone. Here is something to the point. Lichfield was fortunate enough to obtain the services of a very superior alto, and paid the usual penalty: he left on obtaining a better post at one of our metropolitan cathedrals. Lichfield advertised for a successor, offering a hundred pounds per annum; a few weeks elapsed, and the advertisement reappeared offering one hundred and fifty pounds. What a proof of the correctness of our views. Without being certain (for the reason assigned), we do not think that the choir possesses an alto equal to the high standard of the tenors. 
The foundation number of boys is sixteen, but on an average eighteen are in training. This number is inadequate. Out of eighteen boys, not more than twelve can be counted on as really efficient. It would be safer to say ten: and this is a vast cathedral. The minimum number ought to be twenty-four: far better thirty, of whom twenty would form the regular choir. It would naturally be asserted that the funds available are not sufficient for the increased outlay. Into this question we cannot enter. Our task is simply to point out that a cathedral ought to have a more powerful choir than any church, while in fact there are church choirs (e.g. Holy Trinity, Chelsea) with double this number. The voices at Lichfield are of admirable quality, and in all respects most satisfactory. Four of the band – Ashover, Salt, Heath, and Russell – are the “genuine metal”, such as the voice trainer loves. Ashover has a beautiful voice, but his strongest point is his excellent reading. Salt has by far the finest voice among the boys, and one that would obtain recognition anywhere. It is of fine tone, with great power, and his solo performances are a credit to the choir. Russell, with a lovely voice, is the most finished singer of the four.
 The rendering of the services at Lichfield deserves high commendation. In a general sense, everything is well done and tells of assiduous care bestowed on the singing. Whether the congregation be large or practically invisible, carelessness and indifference are distinguished by their absence. The boys, too, are models of good conduct and might convert Mr Haweis (of “angelic choir” renown) from his rooted conviction of the inherent depravity of their tribe. Our sole criticism is the oft repeated one of deficient expression in psalms and hymns. The removal of this defect really involves little extra work or trouble: Hymns A and M are ready marked (perhaps a little more than necessary, but that is easily remedied), and the psalms ought to be. This done, what more is required than to insist that a well trained body of singers should attend to plain directions? 
There is a custom prevailing at Lichfield which urgently calls for reform. The supply of music for the boys is quite insufficient. Sometimes absolutely all the boys on a side sing from two copies! Thus grouped, they suggest sheep huddled together for protection in a storm. How the high clerical dignitaries who habitually attend the services can endure seeing the orderly ranks of their choir constantly broken as it were into “ fragments “ is, to the writer, perfectly inexplicable. It is a sort of axiom with careful organists that every member of a choir, small or great, should have a copy to himself. This rule need naturally not be carried out too rigorously, nor indeed is it essential with large copies; but not under any circumstances should more than two look over the same copy. While decorum calls for a change, the disadvantages from a musical point of view should also be considered. 
The organist, Mr J B Lott, Mus.B. Oxon., is, it need hardly be stated, a man of marked ability, and a fine player. We think, however, that a vein of enthusiasm might be cultivated with advantage. Mr Lott can lay claim to one virtue which is by no means common even with the most distinguished of his compeers: he never overpowers his choir. On the other hand, it might justly be said that the virtue is sometimes carried to excess: this applies mainly to the psalms. Still, his accompaniments are most tasteful and mark the musician. But when throughout a long and festive psalm the grander side of the mighty instrument remains untouched, we can scarcely be accused of a carping spirit. There are certain verses – e.g. “He gave them hailstones”, “The voice of the Lord”, “The Lord thundered out of Heaven” &c. – where one instinctively looks for the organ to assert itself; and even if it be a little stronger than the choir, the error, such as it is, would be freely forgiven. It is on this point that Mr Lott sometimes fails to impress his hearers. If without abandoning his refined style he would in jubilant passages elucidate the text by giving voice to the pipes awaiting his commands, the innovation would, we feel sure, be duly appreciated. 
It is a sort of unwritten law that the decani takes the lead, or in other words sings the unequal verses of the psalms. At Lichfield the cantoris leads as often as the decani; and, though there may be method in the matter, to a stranger it seems quite haphazard as to which side is to the fore. Except to puzzle the congregation in the nave, we fail to see any purpose in this departure from the usual course. 
Apart from their musical life, the choir boys are much indebted to the unflagging interest in their welfare taken by the precentor’s vicar, the Reverend G T G Hayward, who, so far at least as this portion of his duties is concerned, is decidedly the right man in the right place. 
The organ is a fine modern instrument, with four manuals, by Messrs. Hill & Son. 
The city churches at Lichfield cannot be said to shine in respect to their choirs. So far as all the boys are concerned, voice training may be likened to the snakes in Ireland. At the largest, St. Mary’s, there is a pretentious but rather unsatisfactory service. The boys seem untrained, and the loud strain maintained throughout is almost painful. At Christ Church – a small outlying parish – a laudable attempt is made for due expression: but, alas! this desideratum cannot precede the knowledge of how to use the voice. 

The local Mercury published a short piece the following day, responding to this. It will duly be published in the archives tomorrow.