The good news is that Cardinal Nichols has been supportive of most of the conclusions of the report he commissioned into music at Westminster cathedral. The choir at the Cathedral has a reputation comparable with that of the great Anglican cathedral and college choirs; it has, moreover, its own distinctive tone and style. The less good news is that he has not followed one of the most important of the recommendations.
The choir’s work and reputation was jeopardised some time ago by a decision made by the headmaster of the Choir School to allow choristers to become weekly borders, an odd decision given that in the nature of things the greater part of their work is focused on the Sunday liturgy, which inevitably means practising on a Saturday and singing on the Sunday. The head says that recruitment to the choir has become easier with the move to weekly boarding; those choristers who come from far flung parts of the country begged to differ. Formerly choristers did indeed have a day off, between Tuesdays and Thursdays; the change to free time at weekends seemed perverse.
The commission on music at the Cathedral was made up of experts who drew on a variety of sources, including Anglican experience, in making their recommendations. And the main one has been accepted by the Cardinal, namely, that he “should establish a charter, locating sacred music in the mission of the Cathedral, amongst the Cathedral’s governing documents”. Music at the cathedral had been very much dependent on the goodwill of the archbishop of the day; this change would make music independent of his taste and priorities and set it on a stable footing.
Other recommendations included setting out clear responsibilities for music on the part of the administrators and clergy of the cathedral and of the choir school, and establishing a secure financial basis, specifically an endowment, for it.
As Cardinal Vincent said in his response: “Westminster Cathedral is not a concert hall. Its Music Department is not a branch of ‘the music industry’. Sacred music is an intrinsic part of the liturgy of the Church and is to be sustained and developed according to the living tradition of the Catholic Church. This is the reason for our striving for excellence: that we offer only our best endeavours in praise of God.”
These are admirable sentiments. But on the practicalities, the panel specifically recommended that the home-school balance of the choristers should reflect the requirements of the cathedral. So, “adjustments should be made to the boarding arrangements, so as to find a different balance between the number of times the choristers sing at Mass, the amount of rehearsal time available, and the benefits gained from weekly time in the family home. Specifically, choristers should sing Mass before leaving for home on Friday and should return to the Choir School on Saturday evening.”
This, it was felt, would enable the choir to hold its own with other choirs with similar challenges when it came to safeguarding the needs of the boys in their care. But the cardinal has rejected the proposals to require the boys to return on the Saturday evening. He says instead:
“The proposal removes the ‘day of rest’ each week that young voices need. It involves the choristers singing seven days a week. In the traditions of the Cathedral Choir, there has consistently been a day of rest from singing. It has to be maintained.
The Report makes clear that its proposed timetable has been formed on the basis of musical opinion (para 108, 111, 112 and 113). In my judgement insufficient weight has been given to the parental and educational points of view which stress the importance of family time in the life of young boys. No consultation took place with the parents or the School in the fashioning of this proposed timetable. The evidence is that the School has had a happier and more relaxed atmosphere since these changes to boarding arrangements were made. Current parents express their satisfaction.
The proposal gives too little weight to the reality of recruitment. A recent public comment by a current parent is revealing: ‘The change to weekly boarding was necessary for recruitment. Most parents (us included) will not consider full boarding for their eight-year-old sons: a significantly larger number will consider weekly boarding.’ I am sure that the minimal home visit of less than 24 hours that has been proposed will not meet these family expectations.”
This may seem like a matter of minor importance. Does it actually matter if the choristers turn up for practice on the Saturday night or the Sunday morning – especially if the solemn mass is shifted to noon, with vespers at 4.30pm? I think it does. The panel was emphatic that providing proper time for practice at the right time made a difference between a choir that is good and one that is excellent. A later solemn mass is moreover less convenient for the congregation. The cardinal is right to talk about the pressures of recruitment…but the truth is that membership of the cathedral choir provides the single best education that is possible within the Catholic Church – the same can be said of the Anglican college and cathedral choirs. If there is a problem with recruitment it should be solved, not by making rehearsal times convenient for choristers’ weekends, but by spreading the net wider. Bluntly, parents with an eye to their sons’ education should be made aware that an education of similar calibre in the private sector would cost tens of thousands of pounds a year. As a means of upward mobility for boys with musical ability, a chorister’s education cannot be bettered.
The Cardinal was not obliged to accept all the recommendations of his panel and he should be applauded for accepting most of them. But on this crucial practical recommendation, he should go with the best advice of the experts that he took the trouble to commission.