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.

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