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Interview: Peter Toyne, chairman, Friends of Cathedral Music

28 March 2014

'Cathedral music comes at a high price: vigilance and financial support'

I read Geography at Bristol University, which was already gaining a reputation for being radical, and became widely known as the centre of the geographical revolution. It concentrated on the systematic analysis of location and mathematical modelling - a far cry from the traditional regional and, essentially, descriptive geography for which the subject was previously known.

I was a total convert,  and lectured on it when I was appointed Assistant Lecturer at Exeter University - much to the disdain of my head of department, who was a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist.

It was an enormous privilege to be a vice-chancellor in the 1980s and '90s,  when higher education was being expanded and more people could benefit from it. That meant a lot to me, since I had been the first person from the mining village where I was born in South Yorkshire to go to university. Seeing the pride of students and their parents when they crossed the stage and shook hands with me at their graduation ceremony in Liverpool Cathedral is something I'll never forget.

I'd change the way the Church of England takes decisions.  I think it's far too bureaucratic and cumbersome, and nowhere near sufficiently flexible to respond to the many challenges and opportunities it's facing in this secular generation. I was on the Archbishops' Council, and one thing I chaired was the Review of Dioceses and Pastoral Measures, and we made it much more fleet of foot. But generally things need slimming down and getting on with.

Now it's the women bishops.  I hope they get on with it and don't start delaying again. I'd also like to see far more enabling of priests, parishes, everybody, to get on with things. We're paralytically slow. Lighten everything!

I'm not a musician,  though I was a chorister at Ripon, can play the piano badly, and my son is: he's director of music at Tiffin School and Kingston Parish Church.

The Friends of Cathedral Music (FCM) is all about what we call "safeguarding this priceless heritage".  We do it by making financial grants to cathedrals and similar choirs. Last year, for example, we made 11 awards amounting to £250,000. We visit cathedrals regularly to hear their choirs and talk with their directors of music, and publish two magazines, Cathedral Music and Cathedral Voice. Occasionally, we sponsor special concerts aimed at taking cathedral music to new audiences, for example, The Sixteen's cathedrals tour in 2011, and the City of London Sinfonia's "Requiem" tour of ten cathedrals last year.

We now have 4000 members,  and we've set ourselves the target of growing to 6000 by the time of our diamond jubilee in 2016. Anyone who likes cathedral music can join, whether or not they're members of a cathedral congregation. In fact, most people aren't. There's an annual subscription, which is not fixed, but we ask UK members to contribute at least £20 per year.

It's not just that the music is of such a high standard in Britain,  compared with on the Continent: there's also far more of it. On almost any day, a choir will be singing at least one service in each of Britain's cathedrals, whereas on the Continent, it's now only occasionally, and mostly on Sundays only.

It was nearly lost in the early 1950s,  when choir recruitment sank dramatically, repertoires were being reduced, standards were falling asa consequence, and congregations were asking for more "participative" forms of worship. Things had reached such a low ebb by 1956 that the then Precentor at Truro, Ronald Sibthorp, wrote to The Times about it. The paper wrote a strong editorial on the subject under the headline "Cathedral music in crisis". As a result, a number of like-minded people got together to do something about the situation, and formed the Friends of Cathedral Music.

Very quickly, FCM groups were formed around the country,  and rekindling the musical tradition was begun.

Cathedral music is certainly a priceless heritage,  but it comes only at a high price: vigilance, and considerable financial support.

Standards have probably never been higher.  New music is being commissioned regularly; so the tradition is growing rather than simply being preserved in aspic; and girls' choirs have now been set up in most cathedrals. That said, choir recruitment is not always easy, the cost of running choirs is increasing, and there are occasional pressures to introduce more congregational singing. It's no longer in crisis, but it's definitely a potentially endangered species.

Why it's doing so well now  is that, throughout the land, we have got the most enthusiastic and dedicated directors of music and organists in our cathedrals, many of them quite young. They are unsung heroes: up in the organ loft, or with their backs to us, conducting - scarcely ever seen and recognised.

My favourite choral composers are Elgar,  Wesley, Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Dyson, Vierne, and Messiaen, and I'm a late convert to Howells, especially his Glorias. My favourite eucharist settings include Vaughan Williams in G, Schubert in G, and Vierne's Messe Solennelle. My favourite evensong canticles are Stanford in C and Dyson in D. Anthems? Wesley's "Ascribe unto the Lord", and Elgar's Ave Verum Corpus.

My funeral is going to be about six weeks long.  I've started writing it down already, and I'm definitely having a full requiem mass, the Vierne Messe Solennelle, and Messiaen's O sacrum convivium, which is stunning if it's taken at a very slow pace.

I'd like cathedral music to develop enthusiastically,  with new music being consistently introduced to the repertoire. Jonathan Dove is brilliant. Richard Allain is in Norwich, and he's a fantastic composer. Judith Bingham is another great composer: she somehow just gets the music right with the words - not over-fussy, but really good. James MacMillan is absolutely stunning. Another is Roxanna Panufnik. I love Francis Jackson, up in York: he's great. For FCM's diamond jubilee in a couple of years' time, we're going to have a competition for up-and-coming young composers.

I met my wife, Angela,  at the University of Exeter, through the chapel (she was reading theology). Our son, Simon, was born in Exeter, joined the cathedral choir, and ultimately became head chorister. After that, I moved first to Chichester as Head of Bishop Otter College, then to London, where I was Deputy Rector of North East London Polytechnic.

The students were revolting every five minutes  - but there was a real understanding of making higher education available to people in a very deprived area. I've been so lucky in life, to be able to do things passionately and to good effect. I went on to Liverpool as Rector of the Polytechnic, and ended up as founding Vice-Chancellor of John Moores University. I retired in 2000, and now live in London, where my wife and I are enjoying life to the full, thanks to the Freedom Pass, and endless special offers at the theatres and concert halls.

I love the sound of food being cooked  - my wife says I never stop thinking about food - or the sound of a steam locomotive. I confess to being a "gricer", and subscribing to two railway magazines.

I like holidays anywhere I've not been to already.  When I retired, I changed from being an armchair geographer to being an enthusiastic world traveller, and have now notched up my 187th country. It's about the excitement of seeing new things - being alive. Travel has never been so relatively inexpensive.

People of influence:  my parents made huge sacrifices to get me a good education, and my wife never fails to inspire me when the going gets tough. And keeps me out of mischief. Professor Harry Kay, who was Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, made me want to be a university leader. Professor Gerry Fowler, Rector of NE London Polytechnic, taught me how to deal with politics and student sit-ins. David Jennings, the Bishop of Warrington, and our parish priest at St Edward's, Romford, who showed me the light and told me why it would be right for me to go to Liverpool. He called it "the Blessed City".

The National Rail Timetable has always kept me on the right track;  Peter Haggett's Locational Analysis in Human Geography was my geographical Bible; and David Sheppard and Derek Worlock's Better Together is simply inspiring.

I'd choose to be locked in a cathedral  with an outstandingly good cathedral organist who likes pulling out all the stops, has a penchant for Messiaen and improvisation, but doesn't want to play Bach. Otherwise, I'd settle for Tracy Barlow of Coronation Street, who needs a strong lecture on morality; or David Hope, the former Archbishop of York, because he's a true Yorkshireman with a great sense of humour; or Ken Dodd, who would keep me convulsed in laughter for more than a few hours.

Professor Toyne was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. 


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