Wednesday, 8 March 2017

John Harrison: Lay Vicar 1836-1848

Last year, we received an enquiry requesting any information about John Harrison who was a tenor Lay Vicar from 1836 until his death in 1848. Beyond this, the inquirer knew they he was buried in the Cathedral Close and had married at St Chad's Church.

Michael Guest, Senior Lay Vicar, was able to provide some further information about John Harrison and the nineteenth century appointment process:

John Harrison came from Gloucester where he had been a tenor lay clerk at the cathedral there from 1834. In January 1836 the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield advertised for an Alto Lay Vicar and Tenor Lay Vicar. Such was the rarity of posts becoming vacant here, and also the lucrative nature of the post, that they shortlisted 23 candidates to come for audition, mostly drawn from singers who had served their apprenticeship in other cathedral or collegiate choirs.

The posts carried a salary of 'Upwards of £90.0.0pa, together with a small house, free of rent'.

The advert was placed in London newspapers and some regional papers during five days in January 1836 and contained the following caveat that "None need apply but such as can bring with them satisfactory testimonials of excellent moral character and a musical science to be approved by the Dean and Chapter and can show themselves upon trial to be well versed in cathedral service".

John Harrison attended the audition on 26/27 January and, having been appointed after the existing Vicars Choral had submitted their recommendation to the Chapter, he returned to Lichfield the following month to undergo a second stage trial in which a solo was assigned to him within the music specifically appointed to be sung at each of the fourteen services (Matins and Evensong) in what was traditionally recorded as 'trial week'. Having successfully completed this period, he was subsequently installed formally into the Lay Vicar's stall of Tachbrook..

It may also be of interest that the £90.0.0pa salary was derived from the corporate lands and properties which the Vicars Choral owned in and around the city. Their income was derived from lease renewals and ground rents and they were very significant landlords in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The yields from this property portfolio made them extremely well resourced and probably the highest paid cathedral singers in the country. In addition to their independent income source they also received a daily living allowance, called Commons, worth 3d per day from the Dean and Chapter. Given that their individual incomes were worth far in excess of the average working man's wages for a full working week and that their duties amounted to no more than two hours per day, leaving them free to augment their salary by pursuing other employment, this explains the attractions of the post. When the additional rights to a house in the Close, free of charge and the fact that as the post was freehold (meaning that they would be paid for life, even if they could no longer fulfil their duties and had to be represented by a deputy singer who was paid considerably less) are taken into account, this was a truly gold plated package!

I do have a note that in 1848 the Lay Vicars appointed John to conduct a survey of all their lands and properties for valuation purposes, which suggests he was rising in seniority and authority within the hierarchy. I have also recorded that in April 1857 a boy chorister named William Harrison was given a leaving pension by the cathedral to be apprenticed to an organ builder. William could have been as old as 15 or 16, so perhaps born in 1840 or thereabouts. It might well be that he was John's son as the choristers were sometimes the sons of lay vicars. Another long serving and very distinguished Lay Vicar was the bass Daniel Harrison who was a member of the choir in the second half of the nineteenth century and who became Mayor of Lichfield: another relation, possibly?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Allegri's Miserere Mei (Psalm 51): Ash Wednesday 1990

Professional recordings and broadcasts of cathedral choirs abound, and there is some excellent work being done by The Archive of Recorded Church Music to preserve historic recordings, especially the BBC broadcasts of Choral Evensong. Some record labels have also taken to re-releasing older recordings which they either own, or to which they have bought the rights. In our case, all of these are listed in our discography.

However, alongside the official recordings, over the years individuals have been known to smuggle tape, minidisc and digital recorders into services, whether to capture a son or daughter's first or last solo, a premiere performance, a final service, or for a variety of other reasons. Such recordings are not always flawless, but they serve to offer an true representation of what happens on a daily basis.

Allegri's Misereri mei, a setting of psalm 51, is widely known in choral music circles because of the top Cs demanded of one of the treble soloists and the myths surrounding its early performances in the Sistine Chapel (a fascinating account by Ben Byram-Wigfield of many of the historical details can be found here). It is the set psalm for Ash Wednesday, and Allegri's setting is frequently reserved for this annual occasion.

This recording was made by the parent of one of the soloists (presumably the top C singing treble) during Evensong on Ash Wednesday (28 February), 1990. To remind us that the choristers exist outside the cathedral, please remember that the solo is being sung by a boy aged somewhere between 11 and 13 after early morning instrumental and choir practices, a full day at school and - as it was a Wednesday - at the time, double games, or sporting fixtures during the afternoon.