Note: This is an archive of the old unofficial website of 2001. These pages are for historical interest only - please visit the official website for up to date information. Some corrections have been noted and are in maroon.
        GCCGuildford Cathedral Choir
"The Beat is Irrelevant" - excerpts

CoverThe story of the early days of the cathedral choir, Simon Carpenter's book is full of official and unofficial evidence from a variety of highly (un)reliable sources.

The book is partly anecdotal, partly historical and gives some insight into how the Guildford choir built up such a fine reputation in such a short period of time.

So here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite...

Excerpt no. 1Barry Rose applies for the job. . .
    Despite a promising start, Barry's audition did not go well. “I don't think I played the organ that badly; I had already passed the BBC solo audition so I had some pieces up my sleeve. Then I had to improvise, which I didn't do terribly well, and later on there was a disagreement over the Royal Grammar School post that was advertised with the job and provided the main portion of the salary. It wasn't a private school in those days and I wasn't entitled to teach in a state school because I wasn't qualified, so I probably wouldn't have got the job anyway. But I didn't want it, and I told Sir Ernest Bullock that the two jobs couldn't be done successfully together. He insisted that they could, and I simply contradicted him; it would be a full time job to build up a choir and to be there all the time while the organ was being installed. And even when that is done, it would not be possible to combine both jobs”.
    One reason why Barry did not believe the plan was going to work was that, unlike the auditioning panel, he believed that the new cathedral should have daily sung services. “I stuck my neck out and said, ‘Look, if you don't have a daily sung service you'll find it becomes a place that only comes alive once or twice a week. And although you'll be inundated with visitors to start with, when the cathedral becomes a part of its surroundings, it will need some activity each day to bring the building to life.'
    “Finally, I crossed swords with Dr. Andrews very badly. He was asking me questions about how I would interpret a piece of Palestrina (he was a well-known Palestrina scholar) and I got very cross and said, ‘Shouldn't we be talking about how you're going to get a choir going within a few months? You won't have anybody at Guildford until September, and the Consecration is already fixed for May next year, and you've got to have the whole thing set up, the organ installed and everything.' In the end frustration took over. I said, “We're wasting each other's time,' and I went off and left them to it.”
    He had however impressed Walter Boulton.
The men of the choir at Barry Rose's wedding in 1965

The men of the choir at Barry Rose's wedding in 1965
Excerpt no. 2The choir hits the charts
    By the end of November [1966], ‘Christmas Carols from Guildford Cathedral' was reported to be selling over 10,000 copies a week. This sent it to number 24 in the Album Charts where it joined the soundtrack of The Sound of Music which was number one at the time, and records by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Frank Sinatra. As Barry recalls, “we had no idea that it was going to do so well. At Christmas we couldn't believe our eyes. It went up and up. I had to go to the W.H. Smith's in Weybridge to get a copy because no shops in Guildford had any left. At Weybridge there was a full window display of it; when I told them I had made the record, such was the reaction that you'd have thought The Almighty himself had walked in!”.
    Barry was to follow this success in his later time at St. Paul's both with the Cathedral Choir and the treble Paul Phoenix as soloist; the sound of Winchester Cathedral Choir was to influence Andrew Lloyd-Webber in the composition and performance of his Requiem, with the Pie Jesu sung by Paul Miles-Kingston reaching the charts; following a dramatisation on television of Joanna Trollope's The Choir, musical extracts and the treble solos of Anthony Way were to soar into the top ten within a week of the launch; however, to have a classical album featuring in the charts was almost unprecedented in the 60s, and the appearance of the Guildford Cathedral Choir provoked much interest. It is perhaps no small credit to the quality of the singing and musical arrangements that this album was awarded its Gold and Platinum Discs, and was to remain available in its original form for over 25 years.
The Altos shall sit for the plainsong Psalms
Excerpt no. 3The first official choir tour
    At the end of the Summer Term in 1962, the choir embarked on its first tour – to Switzerland. It was decided to drive across France to get there and stay mainly in youth hostels. Michael Barry had the job of fixing up the hostel places, but unfortunately he sent off the pre-paid reservation forms folded the wrong way round and they all arrived back at the Cottage just before departure.The choir were therefore to set off without being entirely certain where their next meal, or bed, was going to come from.
    The night before departure there was also panic in the Cottage over the Green Card insurance needed for continental driving. Eventually it was traced, and the residents, and extras sleeping on the living room floor, settled down to an early night. They were woken by one of Michael Barry's friends ringing up. “It was Dave (Chick) Henderson who rang, and desperate to keep the conversation to a minimum, I held the phone out of the window and muttered things like ‘What, Chick? Really, Chick? Yes, Chick?' – cryptic enough to ensure waking everyone with curiosity.”
    A few hours later the small convoy of the cathedral minibus, Peter Chapman's minibus and two of the choirmen's cars left Guildford. With a pause for the ferry, they made straight for Geneva.
    [...] When the choir arrived in Geneva it was very hot and sunny. The first singing engagement was to be at the tiny French village of Montfleur in the Jura – an old holiday haunt of Barry's with a few houses, a chateau, a bar, and an old church. The event caused quite a stir as the villagers probably had not seen or heard the likes of a cathedral choir before. The only trouble was that on the choir's arrival it was discovered that the church was lacking an organ. During the concert therefore the choir had to hum its own accompaniments. Barry particularly remembers Richard Fawcett singing Wesley's Lead me, Lord accompanied by the rest of the choir imitating the organ part. The following day, evensong was to be sung in the elegant English church on Rue de Mont-Blanc in Geneva. Vestry facilities were not designed for such a large choir, however, and – following church custom – once they were robed the choir could not leave the vestry and cool down in the road outside. Barry remembers the occasion because “Colin Wykes was in one of his most outspoken and impatients moods that evening. Unfortunately, the priest-in-charge seemed to be a little late in arriving for the vestry prayer and Colin said at the top of his voice: ‘Where on earth is the wretched vicar?' A quiet voice by his side said ‘I'm so sorry, the wretched vicar's here now' — and so began Evensong.”
Except for the last Gloria, when they shall stand
Excerpt no. 4The confidence crisis
    So the choir was already beginning to reach the high standards set by its Director, but Barry also remembers that “the blend was achieved by some very breathy sounds – anyone with vocal clarity would stand out. We had yet to acquire a solid vocal technique and I had yet to find out how to achieve that.
    “In the Christmas term of 1963 we were having a roughish patch and it was then that I had some private discussions with Dean Clarkson to test his reaction to a proposal to drop one weekday Choral Evensong (Monday) in order to give the present inexperienced groups of boys more rehearsal time. This was also discussed with some of the men, and, thankfully in retrospect, the decision was made to carry on with the pattern already set, although the repertoire was re-jigged to exploit more fully the strengths of the men's section. It was a sort of confidence crisis for me; could I re-achieve what we had attained up to July '63, especially at this daily level of musical expectation? There was a time when I felt so lacking in confidence, that on the way to lunch-time practice at Lanesborough School [where the choristers rehearsed] I reach the Stoke Park roundabout, drove round it and headed back towards home. ‘This is ridiculous' I thought: ‘You began all this, you promised Walter Bolton there would be the daily sung office, so get on and do it.' I turned off at Woodbridge Road and headed back towards Lanesborough. Practice went ahead as usual.”
For the Creed they shall stand facing the East
Excerpt no. 5In retrospect
    David Gibbs, from his unique standpoint of 35 years' continuous connection with the choir, dating from the Consecration Service itself, looks back.
    “When the events, intended or accidental, have been chronicled, the triumphs and disasters analysed and evaluated, the personalities with all their shortcomings and virtues called to mind, we have still not conveyed, if indeed it can be communicated, what it felt like to be involved in those first heady, exhilarating yet frustrating, sometimes frightening formative years of the choir. One can see in retrospect how much it owed to the decade in which it was born. The sixties were years of extremes, when everything, good or bad, seemed possible. Peace and perfect love jostled with the real possibility of nuclear holocaust at four minutes' warning, and men walked on the moon. England won the World Cup, and Barry could not forgive the lay clerks who were late to rehearsal because the match went to extra time.
    [...] “Some of us had sung as boys in cathedrals or university chapel choirs. We knew, or thought we knew, how the music should sound. We also knew the social set-up, the taken-for-granted organisation that maintained such choirs, and its complete absence at Guildford came as a profound culture shock. There was no tradition, musical or social, no choir school, no formal hierarchy, no rites of passage from newcomer to established member, no role models, and no voices from the past.
   [...] “Through all the grinding routine of working to perfect the psalms, of being made to work hard to sing simple settings well, instead of flattering ourselves with indifferent performances of more showy works, a few certainties were emerging. There was only one important Service: the one we were then rehearsing; there was only one piece of music worth singing: the one we were singing at the moment; there was only one standard worth attaining: perfection.
    [...] “The psalms were perhaps the first music to move from routine competence to daily beauty, and then, indescribably, came the rare moments of what the Greeks call Mystery. In these instants (they can be numbered on the fingers of one hand), the music assumed a life of its own and carried the performers into what can only blunderingly be described as total shared consciousness of the commoner awareness that we were part of something where, in defiance of mathematics, the whole greatly exceeded the sum of its parts.
    “We had become a cathedral choir”.

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Note: This is an archive of the old unofficial website of 2001. These pages are for historical interest only - please visit the official website for up to date information. Some corrections have been noted and are in maroon.