Last spring many of us learned with sadness that Westminster Cathedral Choir School made the decision to reduce its boarding schedule from full-time to 5 days a week. Jeff’s recent post made me think that perhaps a recap of all the events so far would be helpful to readers.
To begin with, the school reduced its boarding schedule in an effort to attract more young boys wishing to join the choir. The idea was that parents would be more open to sending their sons off to boarding school if the boys could return home on the weekends (see flyer).
Opponents felt this would strike a death blow to the choir’s professionalism. I think there is truth in this, but not so much because rehearsal time would be reduced (although that would have an effect). The bigger reason is that currently choristers are recruited from all over the nation, creating not just a pool of possible applicants, but an ocean of boys to choose from. If the boys have to return home every weekend then that ocean is effectively drained because only boys within short driving distance of London would ever think to apply. I find it hard to imagine that in a nation of 65 million people a choir school struggles to find 4-6 suitable applicants each year. Westminster needs the best and brightest boys to make the choir work.
Perhaps more importantly and for the glory of God, a cathedral should have the sung liturgy on a daily basis, and there are some cathedrals in the world in possession of the resources to offer our Lord the apex of what we call the Church’s treasury of sacred music. Westminster Cathedral is one of them. As I am sure Westminster realizes, such a gift comes with great responsibilities, not only to the Catholics of London, but to Catholics and men and women of good will all over the world. As I currently understand it, the men of the choir do continue to sing on days when the boys are absent, however, this greatly reduces the available repertoire. Cleansing Westminster’s temple of even a couple of days of such a treasury would be a travesty, akin to chopping off the feet of Michelangelo’s David and trying to convince the world that the statue hadn’t really been tampered with.
Regardless, the schools decision has stirred up more than a bit of controversy. Last May I sent the school’s headmaster (as well as others, including Cardinal Nichols) the a letter and received the following reply:
Dear Dr Tappan,
Thank you for your letter of 7th May.
The daily sung liturgy at Westminster Cathedral continues; the Friday evening and Saturday morning Masses will just be men’s voices only.
Recruiting eight-year-old practising Catholic boys, who can also sing, into a 24/7 boarding environment, against all the trends for both choir and preparatory schools in the UK, has been proving exceptionally difficult. Families want their children home at the weekends.
Our earnest hope is that these modest changes will strengthen and renew the chorister tradition, whose future is jeopardised by the status quo.
Thank you for taking the trouble to write to me, and every good wish,
Westminster Cathedral Choir School
The late Colin Mawby, former choir master who saved the school during the turbulent 60s, also weighed in on the matter in an article to the Catholic Herald. At the time I was curious to find out what Martin Baker, then current choir master, would do in response. Of course, we have since learned of his resignation at the end of last year, although it is my understanding he had not been seen at the cathedral for some time before this.
As matters currently stand, the diocese plans a review of the mission of the music program at Westminster Cathedral. I was happy to note that Andrew Reid, former Director of the Royal School of Church Music as well as former Assistant Master of Music at Westminster, will be on the review panel. According to the diocese, they are accepting “written comments and submissions from any interested parties” until February 17.
Please keep all involved in your prayers.