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Interview: Elizabeth Stratford, director of music

28 April 2023

‘When I was 16, a friend of the family gave me a piano and that was it. I never stopped playing it’

I was the first woman in the country to be given a cathedral music department to run, and 20 years on there are only about five of us. Now I’m the Organist and Master of the Choristers of Arundel Cathedral.

I train and direct the probationers, boy and girl choristers, choral scholars, and voluntary adults for services, but I also take care of recruitment, fund-raising, advertising, marketing, commissioning new works for the choir — and I play the organ for services some of the time.

We sing everything from chant through to pieces written for us by living composers. One minute I might be coaching a chorister for their first psalm in the cathedral, the next rehearsing for a community opera. No two days are the same.

I’ve also been appointed director of Salisbury Cathedral Chamber Choir, having started on 18 April: training and directing the Cathedral’s voluntary adult choir to sing the eucharist and evensong. We’re also singing for the late opening of the Cathedral in December, which I’m looking forward to — providing music for those who may not have experienced the Cathedral before, and recruiting new members.

Worship has been offered in Salisbury [Cathedral] in an unbroken cycle for hundreds of years, and the space is quite unlike any other. Standing at the base of the spire, it’s almost as if the building (and therefore you, because you’re in it) touches heaven.

I really enjoy bringing new people into the fold of the choir. It’s fostering a love of sacred choral music, in a unique setting where singers of all ages can also build a relationship with God through faith. I see all stages of this journey, from the very beginnings to the end of life. I love the “high” after a piece has gone well, particular harmonic progressions, hearing someone singing their first solo, having the ability to nurture and guide. . . The job brings huge responsibilities, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

The most difficult part of my work? Loss. On 23 December, I sat by the hospital bed of one of my basses as he was dying. Loss never gets easier. A choir is very much a family — we cheer each other on, celebrate each other’s successes, commiserate in disappointments. When someone leaves that family, it’s very hard.

Music continues to be immeasurably powerful. We’ve all heard that “music speaks where words fail” quotation, but it really does. It’s transformative, inclusive, crucial. My surprise might sound odd, since I’m a musician, but my surprise is discovering the level at which music speaks, and how regularly.

I became a chorister at Leeds Cathedral, one of the first girl choristers in the country. I lived to sing. I loved it so much, and just wanted to be at choir all the time. When I was 16, a friend of the family gave me a piano, and that was it. I never stopped playing it. It’s a miracle my brother still speaks to me.

I quickly realised that, if I wanted to work in cathedral music, I’d have to play the organ. I had a few lessons on and off with Julie Tanner, and tried Liverpool Cathedral’s five-manual, with Ian Tracey helping me. I was excited by the palette of sound and colour, and it still excites me now. The sound is never just one thing to one person, and the range of sounds available are extensive.

Everyone (though not Julie) told me I’d never have a career in cathedral music — even some of the people who subsequently taught me the organ. I was fortunate to be given Gordon Stewart as my organ teacher for postgrad. studies, and he sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do. I said: “Be a cathedral organist.” And he said: “OK, so you’ll never have weekends off to see your friends; you’ll never be home to put the children to bed because you’ll be playing for evensong; your husband will be fed up because holidays will be few and far between; and you’ll work a six- or seven-day week every week for most of the year. Still want to do it?” And I said: “Absolutely, still want to do it.” And he said “OK, then, that’s what we’ll do.”

He taught me so much: Dupré for legato technique, Bach for fugues and voices, early organ music, English organ music, French classics. Simon Lindley taught me before that. He’d wander round Leeds Parish Church during our lessons, then appear behind me and give instructions and I’d nearly jump out of my skin. But there’s something very atmospheric about being locked in a church or cathedral at night, practising away.

No two organs are ever completely the same, even when they were built in the same period by the same organ builder, and this adds to the possibilities. I love the Hill organ at Arundel, and I was fortunate to play the organ in Duruflé’s church in Paris, which was incredible — the thought of sitting where he had. And I have a soft spot for Salisbury’s magnificent Father Willis organ, which I also encountered as a teenager.

There are so many amazing instruments, and not enough time. The instrument in each of these spaces makes each experience of playing significant and memorable. I’ve played at St Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster, Bradford Cathedral, Wakefield, Leeds, Durham, Newcastle, Liverpool Met., Southwell Minster, Wells, Salisbury, Oxbridge colleges, Notre Dame, in Paris. . .

I’d like to have a go on the organs of Westminster Abbey, Truro Cathedral, and the Royal Albert Hall one day.

Harris’s “Bring us, O Lord God” is my favourite anthem, but I also love Howells’s settings of the canticles, especially Gloucester and St Paul’s; Stanford in G (and A); Parry’s “My soul there is a country”; Gowers’s “Viri Galilaei”; Caroline Shaw’s “And the swallow”. . . Duruflé’s Requiem is a standout work for me. “Litanies”, [an organ piece] by Alain, takes a simple chant as theme, repeated again and again, which I find moving.

My parents separated when I was five, and my brother and I grew up in Bradford with our mum, seeing our father in the school holidays. We brought everything to the dinner table at home — tears, joy, laughter — and church was at the heart of our family. My mum and aunt had sung in their parish choir as teenagers, and my grandfather had been churchwarden. We went to church every Sunday, and as small children were involved in Sunday school. We were financially poor, but never went without things we needed.

Home life now still has church and music at the centre. The dog has been to Arundel Cathedral and enjoyed greeting people over the Carpet of Flowers at Corpus Christi. When I’m not planning, prepping, practising, or otherwise engaged with the cathedral or music, I’m walking the dog or reading, or catching up with friends. I love photography, concerts, listening to broadcasts I miss during working hours, and going to the opera.

My mum, my brother, and I initially worshipped at Minster Abbey, on the Isle of Sheppey, and there was a Christingle service each year. I remember my first experience of God, staring at my orange, the lighted candle, the band of red ribbon pinned around it. I’d have been three, maybe four.

I’ve learned that God never answers prayers in the way we think he will, and generally not on our time, either. When I look back, I see situations where I hoped for something and it didn’t happen — but then more things have come to light which have affirmed that it wouldn’t have been right for me.

My dog’s snoring is really comforting and makes me feel safe.

I pray for my family, my dog, those I work with, particularly the children; that there will be an end to conflict in the world; for myself, that God will keep me well enough to do my work, and that he’ll send me a husband. Hope is wearing thin on this one. . .

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Jesus’s mother, Mary. She experienced every human emotion — joy through to despair and everything in between — but the focus is on Christ’s life and ministry. I’d love to know she kept going through difficult times, and whether she had any idea of what her life would be.

Dr Elizabeth Stratford was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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