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Leader comment: Staying in tune: the challenge for cathedral music

07 October 2022

THE idea that English cathedral music is “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be” is not entertained by those who know about it. Its history has troughs and highs, times of widely varying standards, periods of threat or even suppression. Many of the viewers who appreciated the music at Her Late Majesty’s state funeral in Westminster Abbey and St George’s, Windsor, may not be aware how much English cathedrals owe to the royal patronage that fostered music through the worst of times in the Chapels Royal, where the writ of ecclesiastics with other priorities did not run. That the tradition had an impressive revival in the 19th and 20th centuries is thanks to the vision and effort of gifted individuals — S. S. Wesley, Maria Hackett (“the chorister’s friend”), Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, Sir John Stainer, Eric Milner-White, the musicians at King’s and other collegiate choirs, for example — some of whom contended with formidable challenges in pursuing excellence and choristers’ welfare.

Today’s threat to cathedral music is sui generis. Such music is, above all, as the Cathedral Music Trust’s report says, expensive. Excellence is rarely to be had on the cheap. The pandemic’s effect on visitor numbers has been a blow to the income that pays directors of music, assistant organists, precentors, and lay clerks. Yet the spikenard argument is not the only one for cathedral musicians. Numbers at choral services — notably evensong, with its strong appeal to souls who respond badly to overt religious salesmanship — suggest that it meets a widespread need in the life of the country, and is a vital part of the cathedrals’ attraction.

Today, there tends to be vocal opposition to anything viewed as elite beyond the fields of sport and science. The report emphasises wisely that cathedral music has to maintain its standards without offering hostages to those who regard it as out of date, or as a relic of sexist or class or racial distinctions. Here, its relationship with fee-paying education, a legacy of the time when free schooling was the exception, make it especially vulnerable; but, as is also pointed out, while much has been done to encourage the participation of girls, other questions of access have been less assiduously addressed, and research data on who exactly is participating are lacking. It is easy for such a discussion to sink into the airing of prejudices. With a coronation service on the horizon next year, however, there may be an unparalleled opportunity to rekindle the interest of the young in choral music that opens the way, not only to lifelong enjoyment and skills, but to the Church’s faith and sacraments — including holy orders. All of us have good reason to wish cathedral music well.

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