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Admission of Choristers

The Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 9th September 2007

During his early career, he lost a fortune in the popular entertainment world of his day, running the Marylebone Garden. Then he recovered his fortune, writing more than sixty stage musicals, many of them, we are told, with magnificent overtures. Cross-over is not modern.

Samuel Arnold is buried in musician’s aisle, where his sorrowing wife worded a sententious memorial, the final message of which is that, at his death, harmony died – a bold claim. This is strangely reminiscent of the nearby memorial to his far more illustrious predecessor by a century, Henry Purcell, organist from the age of 20 in 1679 until his early death in 1695. Purcell’s more elegantly worded memorial also refers to harmony: Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq. Who left this life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded. Whilst Arnold’s widow could see nothing beyond her own grief and her husband’s remarkable achievements, Purcell’s memorialisers, happy to claim for him the highest place on earth, recognised something greater, the harmony of heaven.

That directs our thoughts aright as today we welcome back the full Abbey choir from their summer break, admit five new choristers and welcome nine singing boys who joined our Choir School here in Dean’s Yard as probationers within the last year. The terminology of choristers, singing boys and probationers is strange but quite easily explained. There have been boys educated at the Abbey probably from the earliest days in 960, but it was only after four hundred years that a role was found for some of them in singing the liturgy. In the 1380s an experimental choir of men and four boys was formed for the Lady Chapel. It proved successful and was expanded and continued to sing in the Lady Chapel for another two hundred years or so. When King Henry VIII dissolved the monastery, the Lady Chapel choir began to sing the daily offices in the Quire of the Abbey Church. There were ten boy choristers. They were found to be so important for the worshipping life of the community that, when the Collegiate Church of St Peter Westminster replaced the Benedictine monastery in 1560, the first Queen Elizabeth stipulated that the ten choristers should be members of the Abbey foundation, the College. Thus it has been for the past 447 years – and so I imagine it will continue for hundreds of years to come. So, a boy arrives at the Choir School at the age of eight as a probationer and begins in time to sit in on choral services. At nine, he becomes a member of the choir as a singing boy. It is only in his last year or two, before leaving the choir at the age of 13, that a singing boy becomes one of the ten choristers. The choristers’ school uniform red tie distinguishes them from the others with their blue ties, though, in the quire, the distinction is invisible.

This afternoon we welcome, as singing boys, Jordan Balawi, Theo Beeny, Augustus Bell, Charles Cooper, Timothy Fairbairn, Thomas Featherstonehaugh, Timi Otudeko, Dewi Rees and Luke Leonard Rush and, as choristers and members of the Abbey collegiate body, William Kitchen, Maxim del Mar, Daniel Parr, Nicholas Trapp and Shaun Wood. Benedict Kearns is senior chorister this year and Ashley Waters second chorister. Shaun Wood is head boy. We assure all of them, together with all the other boys in the choir, of our congratulations and best wishes for what is both a demanding life and a rare and remarkable privilege. They sing in harmony with the Abbey’s lay vicars, a name that first implied deputies to the monks or clergy, under the direction of James O’Donnell, the Abbey’s 29th Organist since 1559, and also Master of the Choristers, a post first held by William Cornyshe in 1479.

They sing in harmony. Their harmony is only exceeded by the harmony of “that blessed place”, the harmony of heaven. Of course, the choir sings plainsong, sings modally and polyphonically, sings much ancient as well as modern music that is far from conventionally harmonious. Sometimes the choir sings in unison. But mostly, the four, six, eight or more different lines of music interact to create harmony, unity in diversity. If one voice prevails over the others, it is a passing feature, quickly giving way to another and yet another. Even soloists have only brief moments of glory. Their individual gifts are part of a greater contribution. The whole prevails over its parts but would be nothing without its separate constituent elements.

This is of course a wonderful thing in itself but it is also a sign of how people should live together and co-operate in society. One of the marks of strength in British society, especially in London, is its great diversity but the greatest societal weakness derives from the constituent parts not inter-relating or working together for the greater good. So life in a choir is a wonderful preparation for life in society, a life of unity in diversity, lived in harmony.

There are of course many other ways in which life in the Abbey choir prepares people for life beyond. A few months ago, we invited back to the Abbey, amongst many other old choristers, all those who had joined the Choir School when it reopened after the war sixty years ago. Most of the generation joined us here, some coming from far countries. Several of these men in their late 60s and early 70s spoke of their advantage in life through the discipline instilled in them by combining all the demands of their general and musical education with duties in the choir. But if I were to seek to enumerate all the advantages gained through life in the choir, you might suspect me of drafting the school prospectus or even of anxiety over recruitment, which remains strong.

Let me finish instead at the heart of the matter. We heard in the first lesson tonight from the prophet Isaiah the Lord addressing his chosen people, ‘the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise’: a people whose purpose is the praise of the Lord.

God’s chosen people praise the Lord, the very purpose of the worship to which the Abbey choir contributes so much. That is a preparation not only for this life but for the eternal life.

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