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27 February 2015

Barry Williams writes:

THE death on 11 January of Charles Cleall, aged 87, has deprived the world of church music of one of its most able teachers and choir-trainers.

His career as a choirmaster started when he was just 15 years of age with the creation of a 40-voice choir in Ashford. Five years later, he was Command Music Adviser to the Royal Navy at Plymouth, and formed a choir that broadcast within a few months of its foundation.

He studied at Trinity College of Music, where his first harmony teacher was George Oldroyd, though he sought a move in his second year to a professor who was rather stricter. Within a year of graduating, he was the Professor of Solo Singing and Voice Production at Trinity College. Just three years later, he was conducting the huge Glasgow Choral Union, and then succeeded Imogen Holst as conductor of the Aldeburgh Festival Choir.

Charles always paid tribute to Charles Kennedy Scott of Trinity College, "who was to me such a master". Yet his own writings about the voice and choir-training (particularly for amateurs) went far beyond those of his master. His works in this field have never been surpassed.

His principal books were The Selection and Training of Mixed Choirs in Churches, Music and Holiness, and Voice Production in Choral Technique. The first of these started as three lectures given to the Royal School of Music in August 1957. Apart from a few articles in Church Music Quarterly, he was never asked to lecture there again. It may well have been that his deep understanding of the voice and the technique of singing was too radical for the RSCM at that time, though it was certainly part of the standard conservatoire training until the late 1960s.

The chapter in that book "An Interlude on Evangelism and Music" is about as hard-hitting as could be, though argued clearly, fairly, and logically. This brilliant critique of trivial church music is as relevant now as it was then, when Geoffrey Beaumont's Twentieth Century Folk Mass was all the rage. Stainer's Crucifixion did not escape his perceptive yet balanced criticism. (We always agreed to differ on this; for I like the work.)

He frequently quoted the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, thus giving his writings great breadth and depth. Rhetorically, he asked whether evangelism needed to be the enemy of music, and explained why it need not be (and, indeed, should never be).

Charles enriched the repertoire with his arrangements of Sixty Songs from Sankey, written while he was at Hersham, and then a schoolmaster. These breathe new life into old pieces, with inspiring harmony that underlines the words.

 His preface set the purpose of doing this in spiritual context, recognising that "These songs are the embodiment of that cry; they express a dual consciousness; of Christ, in rapture; of the self in humility; but we are not intended to stop there." It is the last eight words that, as always with Charles, set things in their proper context. The volume is worth buying for the preface alone.

To me the most striking feature of Charles's writing on choir-training was the explanations of sound methods, based on phonetics, vowel, and tone. So much of later choir teaching has been based on "See how I do it." Not with Charles. His techniques are still invaluable in training amateur singers, and have transformed the sound of many a choir.

Later in life, he arranged many worship songs with equal skill, but, alas, no publisher showed interest.

Like Eric Thiman, Charles spent much of his time working with the Free Churches, particularly the Methodist Church Music Society. He saw music more as a priestly ministry than a prophetic ministry, and expected high standards, while being willing to work with those of little natural ability.

He was very widely read, and thoroughly scholarly. In retirement, he widened his interests, writing church guidebooks and the like, and also becoming a popular Anglican Reader.

His wife, Mary, née Turner, died in 2005, but this did not inhibit his energetic and superb work, all from his home in Shaftesbury, and always delivered in a most majestic italic manuscript.

Charles is survived by his brother, Robin, and his two daughters, the Revd Anne Lindsay and Dr Alisoun Nicol.

My abiding memory of this truly great teacher and dear friend was of his telling me: "Barry, the real art of choir-training is not who you have in the choir. It is who you keep out." We will all miss his wisdom, his erudition and his scholarship.

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