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Rochester Cathedral Choir: early live Columbia recording found from 1926

17 May 2024

A RECORDING of Rochester Cathedral Choir, made in 1926 and discovered by a member of the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society, is believed to be one of the earliest live recordings of a cathedral choir in situ, as opposed to in a studio.

The music on the record, conducted by the cathedral organist from 1916 to 1930, Charles Hylton Stewart, is Stanford’s Magnificat in B flat and the hymn “All people that on earth do dwell” (Old Hundredth). The organ is played by the then assistant organist, Percy Whitlock, better known as a composer, who had previously been a chorister at Rochester.

It was made by Columbia Records, which had begun recording with electronic microphones in 1925. The recording was transferred live, by GPO telephone lines, to Columbia Studios in Westminster, and cut into a 12-inch, 8rpm shellac record.

The very first electrical recording was from Westminster Abbey, at the burial of the Unknown Soldier, on 11 November 1920. Six years later, on 1 November 1926, the Abbey’s Special Choir and the Chapel Royal, directed by Sydney Nicholson, recorded Parry’s “Never Weather Beaten Sail”, on side 1, and Weelkes’s Gloria in Excelsis Deo, on side 2. It was released commercially by Columbia in February 1927.

The Rochester recording has impressed those who have listened to it. Glyn Paflin, this paper’s arts editor, describes the diction and intonation as excellent. “Each beat is emphasised very firmly, perhaps more so than you would now,” he says.

“That may be because the fairly primitive technology meant that they needed to be slightly more emphatic than they normally would be, though it could also have been the contemporary performance practice at Rochester.”

The man to find the recording, Michael Curling, has given it to the cathedral, to the delight of James Strike, the archivist of the Rochester Cathedral Old Choristers’ Association. It has been converted on to CD, and will be played during this Sunday’s choral evensong at the cathedral, which will celebrate the Old Choristers Association

The present director of music, Adrian Bawtree, said: “We are delighted to be sharing this historic recording with you all. To hear the choir in such good heart back in 1926, and to hear the famous Percy Whitlock at the organ, is just simply fantastic. We will do our best to continue to sing with the Spirit when we combine with our Old Choristers on 19 May.”

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