LEARNED WITH SADNESS last Sunday that Colin Mawby (Nov. 24) and Stephen Cleobury (Nov. 22), both former directors of music at Westminster Cathedral, London, had passed away—a great loss to the world of sacred music. While Cleobury, who went on to direct the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, is undoubtedly the more well known of the two men, I want to pay particular tribute today to Colin Mawby and his particular services to the Church.
Mawby began his music career as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral under the great George Malcolm, the man responsible for introducing the “continental sound” to Westminster, making it unique in the world of English Cathedral Choirs. Mawby assisted Malcolm at the organ from the age of twelve.
In 1961 he ascended to the post of Organist and Choir Master at Westminster Cathedral and it was because of his work there that I first came into contact with him. As I was finishing a chapter in my dissertation about the cathedral’s Choir School, I contacted Martin Baker to inquire about the turbulent times of the 60s and 70s and how the choir had managed to survive the upheaval. Baker put me in contact with Mr. Mawby, for which I am forever grateful. I will never forget sitting down to supper with Mawby one evening in Rome and asking him what Westminster was like during the days of the great Cardinal Heenan. He laughed and said that modern child labor laws would never allow the choir master at Westminster to work the boys the way he had been worked as a chorister and the way he had worked the boys in his early days at the helm of the choir. I share this completely from memory, so my apologies if it is not 100% accurate, but I remember him saying the boys sang roughly 15 services weekly, including the capitular High Mass, Vespers and Compline on most days.
He told me of marching the boys into the cathedral on Christmas Eve to chant the entire office of Matins, after which the boys launched right into Midnight Mass. If that wasn’t enough, and because Westminster was a cathedral and it was the bounden duty of the cathedral’s chapter to offer to God the worship of the Divine Office, the boys sang the office of Lauds immediately after Midnight Mass. Because the mystery of the Incarnation is so great that the Church gives us three very distinct Masses on Christmas Day to celebrate different aspects of Our Lord’s birth, the boys still had two more Masses to sing. They were back in the apse of the cathedral to sing for Mass at Dawn and again for Mass during the Day. They still couldn’t officially begin Christmas break, though, until they had sung Solemn Vespers on Christmas Day in the afternoon. The choir’s heaviest workload occurred in the spring during the Holy Triduum, when Mawby said they might spend up to eight hours a day singing in the Cathedral.
All of his efforts to that point paled in comparison to how hard he had to work following the Second Vatican Council to keep the choir going and the school open (more about that here). He fought for the choir and school even to the end of his life. He also battled for quality sacred music all throughout the church. I think I speak for many church musicians today when I say how grateful we are for his work at Westminster Cathedral.
Mr. Mawby also deserves recognition for his work as a composer. Probably his most well known work is his Ave verum corpus, one which has already entered the current canon of sacred works and which (I believe) has the power of endurance.
Other works include Haec dies…
…and his Tu es Petrus.
Finally, I would like to add an Ave Maria I am happy to say I had a part in. In January 2016 our Schola Cantorum traveled to Rome and Mawby composed this work for the choir to premiere at the Basilica of St. Ignatius (it begins around 30 seconds).
Mawby was gracious enough to fly to Rome and have supper with the choir and listen to them sing. It was a time that many of our choristers and their families will never forget.
We give thanks today for the great work Colin Mawby undertook for the good of our Holy Mother, the Church, but even more importantly, we commend his soul to the mercy of our Heavenly Father.
Requiem aeternam, dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.