Disharmony at Westminster Cathedral Choir School

“An act of cultural vandalism to the Catholic Church in this country is taking place before our eyes,” The Tablet reports out of London.

It concerns the plan for the world-famous, highly renowned choir of men and boys at Westminster Cathedral to sing four days a week rather than six. The boy choir program will shift from full-boarding to weekly boarding, with the boys going home on Friday and being brought back by their parents for Sunday singing.

This will mean that recruitment of boys will necessarily be limited to the local area, to the exclusion of boys who live father away (in Wales, for example) and until now could board the entire week.

It is disturbing to hear that the change was announced by the school management without a proper process of open consultation with parents or choir staff. Cardinal Vincent Nichols endorses the planned change.

The rationale put forth by the school is that recruiting choir boys – which is certainly a formidable challenge – will be enhanced if local parents are able to have their children at home every weekend.

The musical price is high – hence the charge of “cultural vandalism.” The quality of music from Westminster Cathedral Choir has soared to the heights it does because the choristers sing together six days a week. With the shift to four days a week, it is likely that WCC will no longer be at the level of the Anglican establishments at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral which still have full-boarding.

The Telegraph reports that parents have written to the Cardinal to protest the plan. It would strike “a critical blow to an important part of our national, international and Catholic heritage and tradition,” they write. It will “not only fail to support, but will actively damage the world-class standing of the choir.”

This story will be worth watching. The hope in some quarters is that the plan can still be stopped and proper consultation carried out between school, choristers, parents, cathedral musicians, and the master of music.

8 comments

  1. Quite a one-sided article. The proposed change has the aim of increasing access to the choir, rather than reducing it, as the author suggests. Very few parents in 2019 are happy with the idea of consigning an 8-year old child to full-time boarding, that is, having the child live at school on a quasi-permanent basis outside of vacation time. This has led to difficulties in recruiting new choristers. The new arrangements may provide a larger pool of potential choristers, since they reduce the amount of time the child spends away from the family home. The most vociferous objections to these new arrangements seem to have come from existing parents of choristers, i.e. from the exceptional minority willing to support full-time boarding. Time will tell whether the change leads to an upturn in the choir’s fortunes.

    1. Yes, the piece in the Tablet is really an editorial. I tried to express in my piece both the limitations on the choir by the plan, and the possibilities of greater local recruitment even though national recruitment will be lessened.
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    2. It may have the effect of increasing access to the choir, but only within the local area. The advantage of a boarding school is that it provides opportunities to interested boys across a large geographical area. It would be one thing if choir schools were common, but they are not. I wonder if they have done a study on the financial impact to prospective choristers. If this gives access to a wider pool of choristers, will this mean that they will reduce the amount of scholarship money available and rely on full-tuition paying families? Also, will eligible boys farther away from Westminster Cathedral gravitate toward the more widespread high-quality Anglican programs? I understand the challenges, but this move could have a major impact, and not just in the quality of the singing and the liturgies offered, as important as that is.

    3. Martin Barry is right that the article is one-sided. This arrangement is modeled on a similar policy in place now at the much older, and just as important, choir school of the Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia. Those in charge of important choirs of boys around the world have looked on with amazement and envy at the change that has occurred there with just such a policy that has resulted in a choir of around fifty boys (instead of the twenty or so that is more common), and the quality has not suffered, to say the least. The fact mentioned above that parents of many of the most-qualified young singers often no longer want to relinquish having their children in their homes is hurting boy choirs around the world. When a former Montserrat escolan (as the boy choristers are called there) became the first lay choirmaster of the school a few years ago, I’m told that his wife would not even allow their sons to go to the boarding school. By all accounts the school is a happier place, and the monastic community seems very content with the arrangement. (It means not having the trebles present on Saturdays, since they are allowed to go home from Friday evening to Sunday morning.)

      Incidentally, as I understand it, the new regime at Montserrat doesn’t mean that only local boys can belong, since boys who, for example, come from abroad can stay in the school on weekends if their parents prefer.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOewuXonhZI

  2. Whether the proposed change would or would not garner more choristers remains to be seen, but what is definite with this new plan is that there would be a one third reduction in choral services in the cathedral and the choristers will not be singing (and rehearsing, and working, and learning, and living, and eating, and playing) together as much. A loss indeed.

  3. Have you ever attended the Saturday morning Mass at Westminster Cathedral? It’s like the world outside doesn’t exist. There are several good Catholic Choirs in London, for Londoners, Westminster Cathedral was here for Londoners and especially for those Catholic parents who live in places where such luxuries don’t exist. As of October 2019, there will no longer be a full choir singing morning Mass at Westminster Cathedral, not because chorister recruitment is complicated but because, a group of people have lost their vision. Wonder what Cardinal Hume would think…

  4. I have just seen this thread. A few comments:

    1. My involvement with the Cathedral and the choir is simply as a regular attender at the weekday evening masses (particularly the 5.30pm Friday mass). I have some concerns.

    2. The first is about process. The Master of Music was presented with this change as a fait accompli, decided by the choir school governors, with (apparently) the backing of the Cardinal Archbishop. None of the music staff was involved in any discussions before the decision was taken.

    3. The second is about timing – the decision was announced in May, with the changes taking effect in September. This has led to the departure of at least three choristers (three brothers, who live outside the new catchment area). Their schooling has been abruptly interrupted, and the effect on the choir will be considerable. In fact the Catholic church’s loss is the Anglican church’s gain, as all three have won scholarships to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where they will be full boarders!

    4. Whether the rationale for the change is well-founded or not, nothing would have been lost by a proper, open, consultation followed (if changes were agreed) by a more humane implementation plan over a longer period.

    5. Although the rationale for the change is said to be to allow greater time with families, in practice this will lead to a great deal of stress on choristers and their families. If the catchment area is now to be greater London, families will now need to plan for a very early start to deliver their children for (say) a 9am rehearsal. Parents and siblings will then have to hang around London for an hour and a half before the start of the main Mass. I can’t see this change as an improvement. In order to get to a rehearsal on time, parents will have to build in extra time to allow for roadworks, road closures, public transport failures etc (all of which are regrettably common in London). The choristers will be stressed and tired by all of this.

    (I seem to be word-limited. More to follow).

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