Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey
February 17, 2019
CHARLOTTE O'NEILL –––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey
George Sidney Shepherd: Westminster Abbey, 1851.
George Sidney Shepherd: Westminster Abbey, 1851.
One hardy, familiar image associated with church music is that of the organist. Stereotypically perhaps they are imagined to be quiet, slightly eccentric characters who hide themselves out of sight in lofts and galleries, only to be discovered when they begin to allow sound to escape from the mighty instrument around them. To be so enduring an image must have some basis in truth, and perhaps for smaller churches this is true. But there is also the image of the organist as showman, taming the 'king of instruments'. During the nineteenth century, as the size and power of instruments increased it was this latter which became more prominent, especially in the higher profile cathedrals and abbeys in England, but occasionally, and contrary to expectation in smaller parish churches too.
Westminster Abbey in London illustrates the development of such positions from an ill-paid, part time organist to a professional of high social standing. Although under the umbrella of the Church of England, Westminster Abbey retains its status as a 'Royal Peculiar', answering not to diocesan bishops, but to the monarchs themselves as head of the Chapter. This frees the Abbey from adhering to diocesan regulations for much of its procedure, including musician recruitment.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Robert Cooke held the titles of both Master of the Choristers and Organist during his short time at the Abbey (1802–1814), following in his father's footsteps. Little is known about his duties other than he had to prove to the Abbey Treasurer that he had paid the choristers' stipends out of his own pocket before he could claim reimbursement. Similarly, his successor Robert Cooke is equally anonymous, dying in such poverty that the Abbey granted his family £40 to alleviate their suffering in 1819.
Better known is Thomas Greatorex who was born to Anthony Greatorex in 1758 in Derbyshire. He followed in his father's footsteps by studying the organ as a boy, by a strange twist of fate under the tuition of Benjamin Cooke, then organist of Westminster Abbey. Greatorex was fortunate as a young man to meet Joah Bates and Lord Sandwich. Both became influential figures in his life, the former as a musical mentor, the latter as a patron and route into the higher echelons of society. Bates worked for Lord Sandwich and upon his promotion Greatorex succeeded him in his role.
Ill health meant that Greatorex could not continue in the employ of Lord Sandwich, so he became organist of Carlisle Cathedral in 1781, resigning that position three years later. He left Carlisle to live in Newcastle and then traveled to Italy. While there he came into the same social circles as 'Bonnie Prince Charlie', the Young Pretender, due in no small part to his previous relationship with Lord Sandwich and the support of the Earl of Cawdor. Upon the death of the Young Pretender, some of his music books were passed on to Greatorex. He also toured many other Italian cities, notably Rome where he was said to have climbed onto the roof of St. Peter's and sat astride the upper beam of the surmounting cross. Greatorex returned to England in 1788, settling in London to teach music. He was very much in demand as a teacher, recording an income of over £2000 per annum from this activity (in today's values around £179,000/$231,000 USD).
He became conductor of the 'Concerts of Ancient Music' in 1793 upon the retirement of his mentor Joah Bates, and in 1819 became organist of Westminster Abbey. He combined this role with other work outside the Abbey, most notably as conductor of the Birmingham and York music festivals as well as establishing a career as a scientist and mathematician. As such he developed a new method for measuring the altitude of mountains, which earned him a place as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Greatorex also composed, his best-known work today being the anthem This is the Day the Lord Hath Made. He may also have written arrangements for orchestra, and harmonizations of well-known melodies; however these have not survived. He died of an unnamed chronic illness exacerbated by a cold in July 1831. His funeral was held in the Abbey, at which was sung Lord, Let Me Know My End by Greene. The Abbey at the time was preparing for the coronation of Queen Victoria, and to that end the organ had been covered up. For Greatorex's funeral the Dean allowed the organ to be uncovered and used, the service itself being led by the Sub-Dean and Precentor. Greatorex's body now lies in the West Cloister, close to that of his former teacher Benjamin Cooke.
Greatorex, although born in relative obscurity, achieved some renown through his musical efforts, but mainly those which took place outside of the Abbey, enhanced by his scientific discoveries. Nonetheless, records show that when he began his employment at the Abbey he was classified and paid as a lay-clerk, sharing the income derived from an exhibition of wax effigies in the Abbey crypt with them. This scheme was abandoned in 1826, Greatorex's stipend being itemized in the Treasurer's records from 1827, his income of £237 6s 1d including some £33 6s 8d to be defrayed to the choristers. Only Frederick Bridge avoided this translation from lay-clerk to organist, being appointed to the position of organist on the retirement of James Turle.
It is with Turle that the transformation of social status and the professionalization of the organist began to develop more fully. Again, born in relative obscurity, Turle was a chorister at Wells Cathedral and had been an organ student under J.J. Goss (uncle of the famous John Goss who worked at St. Paul's Cathedral, London) and George Williams (organist at Westminster Abbey). His musical credentials were therefore well-established within London society. His lay-clerkship probationary period lasted only a few months before his official appointment as organist on the death of Thomas Greatorex. Regardless of his social connections, Turle was regularly at odds with the Abbey authorities, particularly the Precentor and the Head of the Choir School. It was with the Precentor that the ultimate musical power lay, particularly over the musical content of services; the Headmaster of the choir school was in charge of the boy choristers. In taking both titles of Organist and Master of the Choristers, Turle felt that he should have precedence in the boys' musical education, a view the Chapter authorities reinforced, noting “it is his duty to instruct them in the theory and practice of music, vocal and instrumental and in musical exercise with a special view to correct and effective performance of the choral service of the church.” Skirmishes between the two parties continued until both the Precentor and Headmaster left the Abbey. It is a good indication of both his confidence and social standing that Turle felt able to challenge the Chapter over the behavior of these men. If his stature had been any less secure, no quarter would have been given to such behavior, indicating that a transition of status was underway, if not fully realized.
Complete realization came with the appointment of Frederick Bridge in 1875. Bridge was a noted reformer of cathedral music whose contacts within London musical circles were impeccable. He had studied with Sir John Goss and Sir George Elvey and counted both Sir John Stainer and Sir Hubert H. Parry as friends and colleagues. Although his Abbey salary was not overly generous, he recalled that “I was allowed sufficient liberty from Abbey service to enable me to earn my living," indicating that at this stage, a full-time salaried position was not expected by the Abbey authorities. This is in direct contrast to the situation at St Paul's Cathedral, where, upon the retirement of Sir John Goss, John Stainer (later Sir) was appointed to a full-time salaried position. Instead, Bridge cemented his position in musical society by lecturing at the Royal College of Music and at the Crystal Palace School of Music alongside his friend, Sir John Stainer. Holding such lectureships also had the advantage of placing Bridge on a professional par with academics of other disciplines, cementing further the position of the Organist as a knowledgeable professional, rather than a dilettante amateur.
Bridge was permitted a considerable degree of professional freedom. As part of his early reforms to the music at the Abbey he was given veto power over any musical choices made by the Precentor, eventually taking control of the musical selections made. He was also instrumental in organizing the refurbishment and remodeling the main organ in the Abbey, working alongside Hill and Company, raising a large portion of the funds from his circle of family and friends. As his reforms progressed, Bridge became more involved in the functions of the Abbey, directing large-scale oratorio works, extra services and the celebrations for not only Royal events (Queen Victoria's Jubilee and the Coronations of King George V and King Edward VII), but also organizing the commemorations of Henry Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, and Samuel Sebastian Wesley. As his reforms progressed, so did his responsibilities, including the teaching of choristers and taking of regular rehearsals for both men and boys. In employing Bridge as an experienced reformer, the Abbey chose to utilize his experience and abilities in not disturbing the status quo institutionally. Bridge, for his part, was able to use the prestige of an Abbey appointment to maintain and enhance his social stature and income, peaking with his Knighthood and being allowed to remain as Organist Emeritus living within the Abbey precincts upon retirement.
As noted, similar reforms of music were achieved at St Paul's Cathedral under Sir John Stainer. These took place somewhat earlier in the century, but similarly, although envisioned as a full-time position, Stainer found ample space to pursue a teaching career as well as a great span of compositional output. What the two men had in common, other than a friendship, was the energy to reform their places of work. In doing so they put in place an expectation that their successors would inherit a greater workload, but also, that they would benefit from the prestige that the position of Organist and Master of the Choristers had achieved within society, as they had themselves.
Davy, Simon. "Turle Felt Lowered and Disgraced." The Westminster Abbey Chorister Magazine, 2003, 46f.
The Annual Biography and Obituary (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1832), 384.
Having gained her BA (Hons) at the University of Durham in England, Charlotte O'Neill went on to study singing with Lyndon van der Pump in London and Djoke Winkler-Prins in Rotterdam and led to performances in Italy and the USA. On her return to the UK she took her MA in Sacred Music at Liverpool Hope University, focusing on the development of shape note hymnody in the USA under Tassilo Erhardt. She then studied with Albert Clement at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands, receiving her PhD in 2018. Her thesis on the evolution of the role of the church musician in Anglican cathedrals during the nineteenth century led her to the consideration of the role of women in church music. Her personal experience as the first female Director of Music in a 500 year old choral foundation further deepened her interest in this area. Charlotte is active as a choral and orchestral conductor in southern England and in her spare time plays euphonium with a local brass band.
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