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
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.