St Andrew’s Church Choir – Some Personal Recollections
By Martin Jones
I attended St Andrew’s Church from the age of about 4 months, when I was baptised there in April 1950, until the time I left the area almost 40 years later.
My recollections of the Church choir stem mainly from the early 1960’s after my family returned from three years abroad, when my mother Nancy and I began to attend Evensong on a regular basis. A 1950’s choir photo in the Church archives showed Mr G Mallett as choirmaster, and I think he was still there in the early 1960’s. Services were from the Book of Common Prayer and the Church was often quite full.
I believe Greg Philp took over when Mr Mallett retired. In those days, the organ console was where the pipes are now and the organist had to climb the stairs from the vestry and go behind the pipes to get to the console. My recollection of Greg was of him regularly disappearing behind the pipes during the invariably lengthy sermons at Evensong and smoke appearing shortly after. I never worked out whether this was the kettle boiling or him having a crafty fag – I think it must have been the former. Greg was also an enthusiastic Scouter at St Andrew’s, and his early death was felt by many.
I recall that Ian Le Grice took over from Greg. Ian was a young man and clearly a very talented musician, with the choir quickly developing under his leadership. His time at St Andrew’s coincided with Clifford Davies’ time as Vicar of St Andrew’s, and although Clifford’s ministry at St Andrew’s was fairly brief, he too was an enthusiastic and able musician and cultivated the development of the choir. It is good that Ian is still working as a professional musician and organist 50 years later.
An early 1960’s photo in the archive shows a choir of boys and men, including Greg, with the Vicar Douglas Robb and Curate Graham Fuller; and another photo taken no more than 2-3 years later with Ian Le Grice, Clifford Davies and a large choir of men, women and boys. I cannot recall why there were no women in the earlier photo, I think they may have been a separate choir singing at different services, which in those days included Matins at 11am as well as a Eucharist service at 9.30am and Evensong at 6.30pm. The two photos together show a large number of familiar faces from long ago, including (surnames only) Anderson, Trent, Spry, Gibbs, Shaw, Gooderson, Witham, Venables, Joyce, Jarrett, Hall, Walker, and more if only I could remember the names!
In 1964, the organ console came downstairs to its present location in the Lady Chapel, and Clifford Davies arranged for an eminent cathedral organist to give an opening recital. All went well until the closing bars of the final item – Widor’s famous Toccata in F – when the said eminent organist failed to pull out some stops in time (or maybe the stops failed) and the Toccata came to a grinding halt accompanied by a most unholy oath from the console. The recital proceeded to a somewhat muted conclusion.
I had no personal involvement with the choir whilst I was a server and later sacristan at the Church in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, but I recall that Peggy and Geoff Spry, Tony Trent, Alastair Seaton and Mollie Shaw were the backbone of a choir which comprised men, women and boys. By 1974, Alan Marlow was the choirmaster. He was a nice guy and a good organist. On one Saturday morning, I happened to be in the vestry when Alan was due to play for a wedding, and a short while before the wedding began, Alan came into the vestry in a bit of a state, saying that he had left his copy of Widor’s Toccata at home and wondering what he could do. After a few moments thought, Alan decided that he would play the first page from memory and then re-play it over and over again until the wedding party had left the Church. Nobody in the wedding party seemed any the wiser!
In 1974, I was persuaded to join the choir as a bass, and although I had no previous singing experience in the lower voice parts, I quickly picked up the rudiments under the guidance of Alan Marlow, Tony Trent and Geoff Spry. Another bass at the time was Ken Dampier who assumed legendary status within the choir for his regular and cringe-inducing comments about the state of his inner health (invariably bad in his view)!
In the mid-1970’s, Alan decided to head to pastures new, and his departure coincided with a new era at the Church as Christopher Lunn took over as Vicar from Alfred Duckett. One of Christopher’s first appointments at the Church was that of Director of Music, and his choice – John Lea, the new Headmaster of Downside School – proved to be enlightened and inspired. John had a considerable amount of relevant experience at his previous Church on the Isle of Wight, and quickly brought this experience to bear. His desire to have boys only in the top line met with some opposition from certain choir members who had hitherto provided the top line, and a number left the choir, rather than sing in the lower voice parts. However John stuck to his guns and the boys who joined the choir – some but not all from Downside school – proved to be willing learners and very capable singers. A number of men joined the lower voice parts at the same time, and for a number of years, the back choir stalls were invariably full, morning and evening, with altos, tenors and basses such as David Steer, Tony Trent, Jock Heddon, Les Rance, Chris Gibson, Martin Johnson, Sheila Lea, John Drinkwater and myself.
John Lea very quickly demonstrated that if the choir was to develop itself still further, it had to tackle more complex pieces, along with unaccompanied singing of anthems and solo singing where appropriate. Later on, John saw the need for cathedral singing, and the choir (with a loyal band of supporters) spent a number of happy afternoons and evenings singing Evensong at St Alban’s, Chichester, Peterborough and even Westminster Abbey. Two incidents from the Chichester visit come to mind. The first came at the first rehearsal at St Andrew’s for the afternoon when John announced that we would be singing an anthem by J Batishall. We sang it through until we came on the wonderful line, ‘the yearning of the bowels’, whereupon all the men collapsed in laughter. John quickly changed the wording to ‘the yearning of the loins’. For this and other cathedral visits, our lay reader Ron Anderson – a very capable singer and service leader – offered to sing the service, and since the visit to Chichester was just a few days after Christmas, we expected Ron to get the nod. However, the Cathedral announced rather snootily that they had a ‘professional’ on hand who would sing the service and he would not require any notes from the organist to pitch the notes. When the opening ‘O Lord open thou our lips’ was sung, it was in a reedy wavering voice and at least half an octave too high, fortunately John and the organist, Paul Burnett, immediately realised this and the correct note was given for our response ‘and our mouths shall show forth thy praise’ before the basses (at least) did themselves a mischief!
John was a firm but amiable and personable Director of Music, and only on a couple of occasions did the choir see him getting annoyed, notably on one occasion when the piano lid was suddenly and loudly banged shut by John during a Friday night rehearsal. The message was clear and the rehearsal proceeded without further interruption.
John always encouraged the musical development of choir members, and a number of boys and men gained Awards such as the Bishop’s Award. In the early 1980’s, Simon Salvi earned a place in the first national Choirboy of the Year Final in London, and I was pleased that I was able to attend the event at the Grosvenor Hotel with John and Sheila. Simon was not placed in the first three, but he sang beautifully and deserved his place in the Final.
In the early 1980’s a great Diocesan Jubilee Eucharist was held on the Centre Court at Wimbledon which will no doubt be remembered by the thousands of people who attended. The event took place just two weeks after the Wimbledon Finals had been played on the Court, the Bishop (Mervyn Stockwood) sat where the umpires sat (although not on a high chair) and I recall we sat above the Royal Box. It was a long morning, with the massed choirs from the Diocese in their seats for something like three hours, but it was a great occasion and the Bishop’s prayers were answered as the promised rain stayed away until after the post-event picnic lunches had been consumed on nearby Wimbledon Common.
In 1982, I stepped down from choir activities, and a year later, John decided to take a break as well. His successor was Paul Burnett, a teacher at Downside and well known in local musical circles. The choir continued to develop under Paul’s leadership and Robert Byatt came 2nd in the Choirboy of the Year Final during Paul’s time with the choir. Paul was Director of Music at St Andrew’s for only a fairly brief period before he moved out of the teaching profession and area, and John Lea took up the reins again for his final 5-6 years at Downside and St Andrew’s.
In 1989, I moved out of the area, and a couple of years later, John retired and he and Sheila went back to the Isle of Wight, there to resume their involvement with the choir at All Saint’s Ryde. It was good to note and no doubt well deserved that John became Director of Music Emeritus at that Church in 2013 after four separate post-retirement stints as Director of Music, and it was also good that members of the choir at St Andrew’s (myself included) were able to visit John and Sheila at their home and at the Church.
Since my departure, I have tried to maintain an interest in the choir activities at St Andrew’s, and I am pleased that modern media allows us now to hear examples of those activities. How I wish we could have recorded on the internet our renderings of the Stanford in C version of the Magnificat or Simon Salvi performing the solo parts in ‘O for the Wings of a Dove’ and the Miserere by Allegri.
And those are my personal recollections of the choir at St Andrew’s. I hope I have not made too many factual errors or left out anyone who deserves a mention. I hope too that you have enjoyed reading my recollections and may want to add some of your own, perhaps from the last 20-25 years after I left the area. I hope very much to see many of you at the Centenary Day of Celebration at St Andrew’s in November 2014.
Martin Jones – October 2014