For more than a century the liturgy in Westminster Cathedral has given inspiration and joy to hundreds of thousands of worshippers from all over the world. At its centre is the Cathedral Choir, one of the finest in existence. It was started in 1902 by the Cathedral’s founder, Cardinal Vaughan, who wanted the liturgy to be of the highest possible standard, an example to the country and the world. To achieve this he opened the residential Cathedral Choir School which he saw as the foundation stone of the Cathedral’s sung worship. Unfortunately, however, the musical quality of its boy choristers now faces a serious threat.
The school consists of day boys, nearly 200, and residential choristers. The school’s governors have proposed a change in the choristers’ timetable: it will become five-days-a-week boarding rather than seven. Parents will pick up their boys on Friday at 4pm and return them at 9am on Sunday morning to sing at the 10.30am Mass. The boys will cease to sing at Mass on Friday and Saturday and will lose approximately two hours a week rehearsal time. The governors assert that, proportionally, rehearsal time will remain the same as at present, but in real time it will be two hours less. This will gravely affect standards and repertoire. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster has approved these changes. The catchment area of the school will be altered. What is now an international institution will become localised.
I went to the school as a boy but under the new timetable this would be impossible. The extensive liturgical music I have composed would never have been written. David Bevan, my assistant, would have been similarly affected, as would Nicolas Kynaston, one of the Cathedral’s organists. Many of the excellent boy choristers I worked with as master of music would also have been excluded.
I understand that three boys in the current choir have already left. There is no way a family living well outside London could collect a boy at 4pm on Friday and return him for 9pm on Sunday. Many ex-choristers take their experiences back to their parishes: this will be much reduced. The new timetable will not only affect the Cathedral but also our national liturgical life – something we can ill afford.
I believe there was little consultation with the music department or parents. Martin Baker, the Cathedral’s master of music, has developed the choir’s repertoire, maintained its standards and made many internationally acclaimed CDs. He has dedicated himself to the Cathedral and its liturgy. He did manage to put his case to the cardinal but without effect. Out of the blue, parents received a letter informing them of the changes.
Put yourself in the position of Welsh families who have boys in the choir. They would have to drive their boys the 150 miles to Wales on Friday evening and then leave for London again on Sunday morning.
That the boys will no longer sing at Mass on Friday and Saturday will sadly diminish the Cathedral’s liturgical life. Many people come to these Masses to recover from a hard week’s work. They come to praise God and experience the Church’s glorious polyphony and Gregorian chant. The boys’ chant is a path to heaven and a glimpse of eternity’s beauty. This should not be denied to worshippers at these Masses. The worship of God must never be compromised.
The choir school has been advanced by four cardinals: first Vaughan; then Griffin, who reopened it after the war; Heenan, who found the money to extend the building; and Hume, who saved and reformed it. The school has always needed its cardinals to protect and develop it, particularly when faced with proposals to change its operating structures.
The governors will blame their decision on the difficulty of finding new choristers. The choir needs approximately five probationers a year and with the right marketing it should be possible to find them. Recruiting has never been easy but reducing the boarding element is not the way forward.
This decision needs to be revisited and genuine consultation between all concerned is vital. One fears that the intended changes could lead to an abandonment of boarding altogether.
It was not Cardinal Vaughan’s vision to turn the school into the most expensive prep school in London. I trust Cardinal Nichols will find a new way forward. Humorously purloining a word used by Pope St John XXIII: “Coraggio”, Your Eminence.
Colin Mawby was Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral from 1961 to 1981