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In a man’s world

02 November 2006

ANY cathedral organist whose choir has been privileged to take part in Radio 3’s weekly Choral Evensong will be familiar with the army of enthusiasts who write to the BBC. The tuning of the trebles, the tempo of the organ voluntary, the pointing of the psalms — all are analysed in detail, and compared with an almanac of previous performances.

It is fair to say that this merry band of choral devotees tends to be male. So it was both disarming and refreshing to hear that one of the pioneers of the organ-bore brigade was a woman — Maria Hackett, described in The Scourge of St Paul’s (Thursday of last week, R4) as the “Mary Whitehouse of choristers’ rights”.

Hackett would not shrink from upbraiding a choirmaster for insensitivity in psalm-singing, and it is clear that the male clergy who had to deal with her found her attacks distinctly unsettling.

A good thing, too; for Hackett was about far more than good choral husbandry. When she began her campaigning on behalf of choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1811, the care of the few boys attached to the institution was shockingly neglectful. Music was taught for two hours per week, and little else. When not in the schoolroom, the boys were allowed to wander the streets of London. In the evenings, they were hired out to perform at concerts, and then left to find their own way back to their digs.

In describing the background to this situation, the programme — narrated by Emma Kirkby — managed successfully to sketch an evocative account of 19th-century cathedral life. In many institutions, bequests originally intended for chorister education had been diverted to augment the salaries of canons, many of whom were largely absentee. (A story is told of a Canon Bailey at St Paul’s who was turned away from the chapter because no one recognised him.)

The notion of music ennobling divine worship was regarded as theologically suspect, and the expense of maintaining a choir was considered wasteful. “Singing is a very subordinate consideration,” said Sydney Smith, canon of St Paul’s in the 1830s.

The impoverishment of choirs affected the quality of the adult singers as well — most had other jobs that took priority, and S S Wesley at Hereford Cathedral famously had to make do on occasion with only the choristers and one adult singer, the Dean’s butler.

In these circumstances, Maria Hackett’s life-long campaign is remarkable. In what would now remind us of the practices of Ofsted, she made an annual tour of cathedrals, bullying the authorities into better practice, and at the same time providing informal scholarships to talented boys of limited means. By the end of her life, the investment had paid off. With the wind of the Oxford Movement now at her back, reform had even affected her own, beloved St Paul’s where John Stainer — one of her protégés — was taking the reins.       

There was much to reflect on here, not least the slow decline of choir schools today. With boarding schools (for children of chorister age) less popular, choral institutions must adapt or die, as fewer and fewer parents are prepared to spend their Christmas and Easter Days picnicking in the car between eucharist and evensong.

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