Westminster Cathedral Master of Music resigns

The Archdiocese of Westminster announced that Martin Baker had resigned, effective 31 December 2019. Further details can be found at https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2020/01/07/westminster-cathedrals-master-of-music-resigns/

The choir is the premier Roman Catholic choir in the country, with a boarding school from which boy choristers are drawn. Recently the school announced it was changing from a 7-days-a-week boarding policy to 5 days a week. This caused a furore (as reported at https://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2019/05/20/disharmony-at-westminster-cathedral-choir-school/ ), effectively limiting choristers to those living in the London area. The full choir no longer sings on Fridays and Saturdays.

Three of the best trebles left and are now at Christchurch, Oxford, and elsewhere, and other singers are said to have left in addition. It also appears that Baker was not consulted ahead of the decision to change the boarding policy.

The grapevine says that Baker had not been seen at the Cathedral since mid-October, missing liturgies including a joint Evensong with Westminster Abbey, although his resignation on 31 December was only announced today, 7 January. The loss of this gifted musician, well known as an organist and brilliant improviser as well as a choral director, will be keenly felt.

Others have said that a boarding school is an anachronism in today’s day and age, and some have crticised Baker for maintaining a full choral Eucharist that excludes the assembly from the Sanctus, etc, despite the statement in the 1967 Vatican document Musicam Sacram, para 16c, that ” the usage of entrusting to the choir alone the entire singing of the whole Proper and of the whole Ordinary, to the complete exclusion of the people’s participation in the singing, is to be deprecated. “

13 comments

  1. Dear Mr Inwood,

    Many thanks for this update.

    If I may add to your comment about the Sanctus, as a parishioner of Westminster Cathedral, I am not aware that the Cathedral Choir often sang a Sanctus that excluded participation of the assembly. Certainly, on most Sundays at the 10.30 am Masses sung by the Full Choir, the Sanctus is a chant Sanctus (Mass I, VIII, IX, XI, XVII or XVIII depending on season / feast) with notation provided in the people’s music sheet and an appropriate organ accompaniment.

    It is otherwise true that occasionally a polyphonic Sanctus is sung, and sometimes it is just the choir singing the chant Sanctus during the week.

    Other element of the Ordinary and Propers are obviously (and uniquely) focused on polyphony and chant. As you must be aware, there are many other services at Westminster Cathedral with more provision for singing by the assembly.

    Hope that helps the discussion.

    1. Thank you, Alexander.

      I should perhaps clarify that I am simply reporting what others are saying in various online forums. And yes, I am aware that the assembly sings at a number of Westminster Cathedral liturgies.

      I hope you will continue to contribute to this thread as others join in.

    2. Involve a congregation in Britain and worse in Ireland, and the level of the music goes plummeting down! But there are other Masses in the Cathedral and most churches whereby the congregation can sing along as much as they like. Perhaps more hymns is a possibility in that Mass. Singing along to Latin plainchant at the Cathedral for the sake of a Sanctus badly sung, and complying with VCII rules is hardly the answer, and neither being ‘entertained’ and passive is the answer either. I am all for Vatican Council in any double figure but not singing an inferior Sanctus!

  2. St. Thomas, NYC considers their mission as a choir boarding school to be crucial in today’s society, hardly a relic of history. While we may associate boarding schools in America with the elite, St. Thomas is not like that, because financial aid is such that any willing and capable boy is able to attend. There are benefits to living in a community with teachers, tutors, clergy, etc. as well that a day school cannot match.

    Regarding the Sanctus, it’s a sticky wicket, but I am of the mind that polyphonic choral Ordinaries (including the Sanctus, which is the most contentious of them) ought to be preserved in select institutions capable of doing them well, and Westminster Cathedral is one of them. Anyhow, that instruction cited simply says that the choir should not do the entire Ordinary AND the entire Propers. Give the congregation one thing to do, and you are compliant. For more, see this: https://media.musicasacra.com/pdf/choralsanctus.pdf

    1. Doug,

      We’ve had this discussion before. The canonical opinion you link to is 20 years old now. In the meantime, GIRM 79b seems pretty clear:

      This acclamation, which constitutes part of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, is pronounced by all the people with the Priest.

      1. And checking the Westminster Cathedral music lists for December, the Sanctus was Gregorian every day, and the Credo when sung.

      2. I forgot about that one – thanks; the Madeleine in Salt Lake used to do choral settings of the Sanctus but moved away from it for that reason. It appears as if that has been Westminster’s custom as well.

      3. Since we are talking about Gregorian chant settings of the Sanctus (not the original purpose of this thread at all), it might be worth pointing out that simply putting on one of these will not necessarily guarantee participation by the assembly. Alex Worthington lists Mass I, VIII, IX, XI, XVII or XVIII as being the staple repertoire at Westminster, but not all of these are assembly-friendly. Many assemblies know XVIII and remember VIII, but I, IX, XI and XVII are asking a lot. V and X would be more manageable for the average congregation.

    2. Respectfully, Mr Inwood, if you had asked me for a list of staple congregation-friendly Gregorian Ordinaries, it would have been i, viii, ix, xi, xvii, xviii.

      I have worked and worshipped in multiple assemblies that sang all of these. Maybe a function of what the school sisters of yore taught on this side of the Pond?

  3. The Telegraph and Slipped Disc have more on this developing story, which is a little more serious than the Sanctus issue at the present time I hope we can all agree (important though that assuredly is)!

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/01/09/westminster-cathedral-choir-row-deepens-head-music-quits-boarding/

    https://slippedisc.com/2020/01/breaking-westminster-cathedrals-music-chief-walks-out/

    I have made comments on Slipped Disc so shall not repeat those here

  4. I am reminded of the actions of the diocese and Cardinal in the Cardinal Vaughan school case. In both cases this has been the opposite of leaving well alone. In this case the diocese wished to alter the admissions policy in a school that had many more applicants than places to offer.

    1. They seem to be directing their focus on music alone rather than the liturgy and the place of music within it. It seems to me there are wider questions to be asked than just the role of the choir.

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