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Westminster Cathedral’s musical heritage is under threat

29 January 2020

5:15 PM

29 January 2020

5:15 PM

The Catholic diocese of Westminster announced last week that it is holding ‘a strategic review of the role of sacred music in the mission of Westminster Cathedral’. It didn’t add: ‘because our master of music has walked out in despair, after warning that recent changes to the choir will ruin its sound’.

But that is the situation and I suspect the purpose of the review is to extract Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, from the hole he has helped dig for himself. It’s a nightmare for Nichols because Westminster owns what you might call the Berlin Philharmonic of Catholic choirs. And even that doesn’t do its reputation justice, because there are many orchestras that can claim to be as fine as the Berlin Phil, but very few choirs that can compete with Westminster Cathedral’s.

The Anglican choirs of Westminster Abbey, English cathedrals, and Oxford and Cambridge chapels sing different music, so one can’t compare them. Westminster Cathedral choristers also produce a different sound: their voices are bright and penetrating, ideally suited to complex Latin chants and multi-layered polyphony.

Until recently, it was also the only cathedral choir in the world that sang Mass every day. But no longer.

On the last day of 2019, Martin Baker, master of music for nearly 20 years, resigned suddenly. The cathedral authorities waited a week before breaking the news. They claimed to be shocked – but, as Norman Lebrecht reported on his Slipped Disc blog, ‘Baker had not been seen at the Cathedral since mid-October. He missed all the choir’s liturgies, as well as joint Evensong at Westminster Abbey and a Christmas concert at Cadogan Hall.’

Last September, Westminster Cathedral Choir School ended weekend boarding for its 21 choristers; the rest of the 250 pupils are day boys. As a result, the boys no longer sing on Fridays, when they go home, or on Saturdays.

The school made the change at short notice and in the face of furious opposition from Baker, who insisted that the boys must rehearse on Saturdays in order to meet the virtuoso demands of Sunday’s Solemn Mass.

The school’s headmaster, Neil McLaughlan, disagreed and Cardinal Nichols seemed to back him all the way. When Britain’s two leading Catholic composers, Lord Berkeley and Sir James MacMillan, asked the cardinal to reconsider they got nowhere. The changes went ahead and three choristers who lived far from London had to leave. Then Baker disappeared.

The school argues that these days few parents are prepared to hand over their eight-year-old sons to a boarding school for months at a time. This makes it difficult to recruit choristers. There have also been occasional rows behind the scenes about the intensity of the musical demands that Baker made on his young students.

The school’s critics point out that both Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral require choristers to be full boarders in order to sing at weekend services. They agree that Baker is a perfectionist – but say you can hear the results. And they wonder whether there is any connection between the school’s money-saving move and the finances of Westminster diocese.

Westminster Cathedral’s boy choristers display phenomenal skill in mastering the most complex Gregorian chants, in which a single syllable can stretch over a dozen notes. But for how much longer? One church musician told me he could already hear little slips that wouldn’t have happened before the changes.

The choir wasn’t expecting this sudden move, which has brought to a head years of tension between Westminster Cathedral’s choir, school and clerical hierarchy.

We are dealing, in effect, with the clash of three cultures. The first is that of the choir. Its ethos was set out by the late Colin Mawby, master of music from 1961 to 1981, in an article last year. He described the boys’ chant as ‘a path to heaven and a glimpse of eternity’s beauty’. He begged Cardinal Nichols to veto plans that would ‘gravely affect standards and repertoire’, He added that Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, who founded the choir and its school in 1902, had not intended to create ‘the most expensive prep school in London’.

The culture of the school is indeed hard to distinguish from that of its top rivals. McLaughlan has raised academic standards impressively. The school’s home page lists the number of boys accepted by schools like Winchester, Eton and St Paul’s. It carries a carousel of 19 photographs of school life, but barely features the choir itself. Nor is it heard on this rather odd promotional video for the school.

The culture of the cathedral is dominated by its liturgy. Although the preaching is often dull, the ceremonies are grander and more disciplined than those of any other Catholic cathedral. The choir is crucial to the liturgy – but how much it is valued depends on the archbishop. (There is no equivalent of an independent Anglican dean.)

Peter Allwood, chairman of the Friends of Cathedral Music (FCM), issued a statement praising Baker for maintaining the cathedral as ‘a beacon of musical excellence’. He added pointedly:

‘We urge the cathedral to reconsider their recent decision to reduce the number of sung services, a move that is likely to lead over time to a diminishing of the choir’s fine reputation.’

That was quite a rebuke, given that one of the patrons of FCM is Cardinal Nichols.

In theory, the strategic review offers the cardinal a face-saving way of reinstating daily sung Masses. But supporters of the choir suspect that he wants a rubber stamp for his decision. If so, it will take courage for the panel to contradict him. One thing Nichols cannot abide is challenges to his authority.

The four members include the ‘Director of Strategy, Social Mobility and Disadvantage’ and the ‘Director of Secure Income’ at the Real Estate Investment Trust – the sort of bureaucratic job titles in which Nichols revels. (Incidentally, one wonders how helping a posh prep school get even more boys into Eton will contribute to social mobility.) More predictably, there’s a former director of the Royal School of Church Music and a former administrator of Westminster Cathedral. The latter, Mgr Mark Langham, ran the cathedral skilfully under the late Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor but also fell out with him; it’s hard to know which way he will jump.

There is one mystery the panel must clear up. A wealthy donor is rumoured to have offered to meet the cost of full boarding for the choristers. It seems inconceivable that such an offer was turned down.

In November Cardinal Nichols turns 75 and must submit his resignation to the Pope. He has been Archbishop of Westminster for nearly 11 years, during which time many Catholics have grown weary of his jargon-heavy platitudes.

Last year the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) heard claims that he has presided over ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘unsafe’ safeguarding procedures in Westminster diocese. He must be nervous about its final report, due this year.

If the strategic review backs the effective downgrading of the choir, the row will continue. Campaigners will beg the next archbishop to reinstate the weekend boarding that St Paul’s and the Abbey consider essential to their own standards.

So perhaps Cardinal Nichols should ask himself: does he really want to leave office fighting battles on two fronts?


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