Cathedral Choirs in Danger
Jones, Rick, Musical Opinion
Rick Jones draws attention to a threat to our unique musical tradition
Among the interviews with retiring organists and photographs of beaming choristers on cloistered greens in the current issue of Cathedral Music magazine, one item stands out as vulgarly as a ringtone at a prayer meeting. It is written by Frank Field MP and it concerns the imminent loss of cathedral choirs through bankruptcy.
Now this is a very serious matter. Cathedral choirs are one of this country's most important cultural exports, widely regarded as the best of their kind in the world. They tour internationally and make commercial, often prize-winning CDs. The singers operate in a competitive environment to the highest professional standards with no concessions made for the fact that they are mostly children. Their quality rubs off and the multi-ethnic cathedral schools which educate them produce top results in all academic areas. Cathedral choirs inspire new works by the greatest living composers, not just the pew-friendly patsies but the hard-core modernists who don't even believe in God. Indeed, choirs validate religion when so many people can't see the point of it. Why bother with abstract faith? If it yields a world class choir, you may as well stop there.
Cathedral choirs are living history. Many of them pre-date the Reformation, rendering those tiresome squabbles, and by extension all religious disagreements, petty. If these are not saleable commodities, then God is a banana.
Frank Field blames Carol Services. It's because they're so good, he says. Everyone wants to come, Cathedrals are being pressed to put on more each year but income never meets expenditure. After all, you can't charge entry for a Service. Would anyone come to Mass if you had to pay? That stranglehold on the populace went out with the aforementioned Reformation.
Malcolm Archer, retiring Organist of St Paul's is surprised. "Well yes, we are doing more. We did two Christmas Carol Services in 2006 and this year we're adding an Advent, but because we can fit in so many people, it's not a problem for us. I can see though that somewhere which only seats six or seven hundred might have difficulty. Of course, it also depends on what the choir's contractual obligations are. If Carol Services are written in, the income is all profit.
"The cost of music to St Paul's is £800,000 a year. This includes salaries for three organists, 18 altos, tenors and basses as well as Scholarships for the 40 boys, all of whom receive a free education at St Paul's School. This is exceptional of course and most cathedrals have expenditure more like Wells' where the bill is £300,000 but such sums are still enough to frighten squeamish clergy into drastic action. …