Picture credit: Paul Kubalek
Artillery Row

What future for Winchester Cathedral Choir?

The choral tradition in the cathedral must be enlivened rather than diluted

The late Dean of Winchester, Trevor Beeson, lamented in his published diaries that “although Winchester Cathedral and Close look very prosperous… unlike many other ancient cathedrals we have next to no income from property. The place was truly fleeced by the nineteenth-century Acts of Parliament”. Beeson’s diaries reveal him to have been a CEO as much as a straightforward cathedral Dean and clergyman, constantly wrestling with financial matters of one sort or another concerning his ancient building (and its lack of sufficient funds): here dredging up money to upgrade the stonework, there battling with recurring floods in the crypt. 

The jewel in the Cathedral’s crown in Beeson’s time, as (just about) still today, was its choir. For the choir few expenses were spared. Beeson recognised investment in the choir as investment in the key means available to him of maintaining contact with an increasingly secular age. The beauty of the Anglican choral tradition would be recognised by all and sundry, regardless of their faith commitments — and it was essential to keep it alive and kicking, indeed actively leading the way, in the cathedral’s engagement with life beyond the Cathedral Close. For its part, through performances on TV and radio, and through recordings, concerts and foreign tours, the choir would bring renown to the cathedral for all the right reasons: for its musical excellence, for its continuance of a great tradition, for its articulation of Christian culture. It would ensure Winchester would be known, at home and abroad, as a haven of timeless music and worship.

That was the Winchester of the 1990s. Today, alas, a somewhat different tune is being hummed amongst the ranks of the cathedral’s Dean and Chapter. The talk is of funds being diverted away from the choir and into other areas of cathedral life, including other start-up choral groups within the cathedral. Rumours that the whole choral foundation in the cathedral is under threat have abounded. It is not difficult to see why: the ranks of the lay clerks (who stood at a full complement of 12 in Beeson’s day) have shrunk to a minimal level (now just 7, perhaps soon 6); boy choristers are also numerically down. The choir looks threadbare — and communication about why this is so, and how the problem will be solved, has been non-existent.

Then there is the treatment of the current Director of Music, Dr Andrew Lumsden, who recently announced he will be leaving his role after 22 years in post, this summer. Sources in the Cathedral Close paint a picture of bullying, micro-management and control-freakery gone wild, with Lumsden the most recent victim. The musical life of the cathedral is being abrasively dictated not by the Director of Music himself (a surprise, given his job title), but by managerially-minded clergy who are keen to pursue their own ideas for musical innovation at the cathedral. Staff reportedly run scared of the Canon Precentor, who takes his role to involve direct and uncompromising oversight of all members of the choir, including the choirmaster.

If the treatment of Lumsden has reportedly been a matter for cathedral lawyers, so too has the treatment of the cathedral lay clerks, professional and highly skilled singers who have recently been informed that they are now categorised as “worship leaders” (rather than professional musicians) who do not qualify for additional pay in the event of public broadcasts of their singing. Other cathedrals make no such insistence. At Winchester, the desire to cut costs in this way understandably leaves the noses of a generous, though not exactly generously remunerated, community of choral singers a fair distance out of joint.

The major worry in the Close is that musical talent of the sort valued by the choral foundation, it seems, no longer really talks

Parents of the choristers have demanded answers about the evident strife surrounding the choir, but have received little by way of genuine reassurance. The major worry in the Close is that musical talent of the sort valued by the choral foundation, it seems, no longer really talks. Instead, it needs to be tightly managed, or indeed, “managed out”. Meanwhile, a job advert for an interim Director of Music, to commence in September, recently went up. Interviews are apparently over already. The life of the choir hinges on finding a candidate who can keep the show on the road, which — alas — seems to hinge a good deal on staying sufficiently in tow to the shifting sand politics of the place. Watch this space, I suppose.

Beneath their picturesque facades, of course, Cathedral Closes have never been entirely straightforward places. Flying cannonballs and murderous intrigue motivated by theological disagreement may be things of the past, but recall the evocation of a Cathedral Close in Joanna Trollope’s The Choir, memorably brought to life in a mid-90s TV series. A cathedral close can function as a novelist’s playground precisely because the problems and entanglements which afflict all human communities, in one way or another, are apt to take root among their uncommonly beautiful manicured lawns and ancient buildings. The Winchester I knew in the 90s, as a chorister there myself, had its own controversies — most significantly among them, girl choristers (or, rather, the lack of them). There were some bumps in the road back then, but the problem was in the end well addressed — and the girl choristers have been a regular fixture in the cathedral each week for over twenty years now. Along with the 100 or so other old choristers who signed a letter days ago to the Dean and Chapter of the cathedral, I hope that simple, commonsense reassurances, and effective solutions which will enliven and enable (rather than further dilute and dismantle) the choral tradition in the cathedral and address some very evident problems, will soon be found. 

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