Music at the Cathedral
Letter to Old Choristers from the Dean
It has become a commonplace these days to begin any communication by expressing the hope that those on the receiving end are safe and well, but my hope that all of you are safe and well is no less sincerely meant. The last twelve months have brought challenges for all of us, though in the week that sees the UK having reached the grim total of 100,000 Covid-related deaths we are mindful that these challenges have been accompanied by tragic bereavement for many.
Many of you will be aware that it has been a year of change as well as challenge for the music department at Wakefield Cathedral. Tom Moore, our long-serving Director of Music, resigned in late summer last year. I know that you will join me in acknowledging with gratitude the gifts that Tom brought to his role and in wishing him well for the future. I am very grateful to James Bowstead for the professional manner in which he has assumed the role of Acting Director of Music, and for the way in which he has combined great organisational and digital skills with his formidable musicianship. It is a combination that has proved invaluable during the past year: chorister rehearsals by zoom, in-person rehearsal bubbles in the cathedral, special furniture arrangements in the quire to ensure social distancing, communication with parents about last-minute changes of plan – all achieved with grace and good humour. James has been ably assisted by Robert Pecksmith who joined us in October as our temporary assistant organist. Robert has brought with him a wealth of knowledge of the liturgy as well as great sensitivity and skill to his organ playing. Our choristers, choral scholars and lay clerks have shown tremendous loyalty and tenacity, for which I am very thankful indeed. They have ensured that we have had any number of memorable musical moments despite the restrictions imposed by the response to the pandemic. Last but not least I am glad to pay tribute here to my valued colleague and our Canon Precentor, Leah Vasey-Saunders. Leah has been indefatigable in her efforts to offer support to all our singers, parents and her colleagues during a time of almost bewildering complexity for church music and worship. We owe her a great deal.
The next twelve months will be full of challenge for all church musicians, and Wakefield will be no exception. Yet I am full of hope. Last month we advertised for a new Director of Music. God willing, we will be joined in the autumn at the latest by a colleague in this role who will have a very clear brief to ensure that the choral foundation emerges from Covid fit for the future; we are bidding for support from trusts and charities for grants that will enable us to build back, and we have already received over £25k from the Cathedral Choirs Emergency Fund; we have a dedicated group of people on our Music Trust whose support of Wakefield Cathedral’s Music Department is unstinting; and we have wonderful musicians of all ages whose talents and time will ensure that Wakefield Cathedral Choir will continue to be a force in the land.
With my prayers and very best wishes to you all for the remainder of 2021.
What the Cathedral Choir has been doing since lockdown began
by James Bowstead, Acting Director of Music
When choral services were halted due to Covid-19, the Choir of Wakefield Cathedral were even more disappointed than most, as we had been due to sing Choral Evensong on Radio 3 on Wednesday 18th March, and as such became the first choir to have a Radio 3 Evensong broadcast cancelled. The last choral service in the Cathedral took place on Sunday 15th March, and was a ‘dry run’ of the same music we would have sung that Wednesday. I’m sure I probably speak for a lot of people when I say how empty I felt realising that the broadcast wouldn’t be going ahead, and that all choral activity would be suspended until further notice. The following Monday, of course, the nation was plunged into full lockdown and the future for the choir looked pretty bleak.
That feeling of emptiness and lack of direction continued for the first couple of weeks of lockdown, but then Canon Leah and I started to devise a scheme of work for the choir. I started sending weekly emails to the parents and choristers to keep in touch and we arranged a Zoom catch-up for the choristers in Easter week. It was really great to see them again, and to have a chance to catch up on how they were getting on during lockdown. I felt that it was really important to keep the choristers engaged through this difficult time, both for their own
sakes and for the future of the Cathedral Choir.
Following that initial meeting, we then started using Zoom for choir rehearsals. The boys would rehearse on Tuesdays and the girls would rehearse on Wednesdays each week, for about 45 minutes. Choir practices on Zoom were an odd experience for everyone. The choristers all had to be on mute throughout, so I had no idea whether or not they were singing the right notes (though of course I’m sure they were)! They would all be able to see and hear me at the piano in my sitting room, playing and singing my way through the music, and I’d be able to see all of them on my screen singing along. They would sometimes unmute briefly to answer a question or sing a short passage as a solo, but otherwise I wouldn’t hear them at all. It was certainly a challenge for all of us, but I was so impressed by how quickly and willingly the children adapted to this new way of doing things.
The Lay Clerks were not getting neglected in all of this, but in place of a rehearsal, we decided to opt for a weekly pub trip over Zoom. Every Thursday night at 8 we would log in to Zoom with a beer (or several) at hand for chats which would sometimes stretch well into the evening. These Thursday evenings were a real highlight of lockdown for me, and they gave us all an opportunity to try out some new beers from smaller independent breweries doing a roaring trade in mail order cases. We were all very glad, though, when we were able to meet up at the pub for real again in July!
The main thrust of my rehearsals with the choristers was preparing music for the virtual recordings we made throughout the term. These were a huge undertaking from everyone involved, but I think the end results were something we can be really proud of. I would prepare a marked-up score and a guide track for the choir to sing along to and email those out to everyone. Each singer would then play the guide track on headphones and sing along, recording themselves on their phones. They would then send these recordings back to me and I would begin the lengthy process of combining and editing them together to create the finished product. The editing process for a 2-3 minute anthem was about 10-12 hours, but I was amazed by how much like a real choir it sounded when it was finished.
The first recording we attempted was Charles Wood’s ‘This Joyful Eastertide’, which was used in the Cathedral’s online service for the third Sunday of Easter. Recordings of de Séverac’s ‘Tantum Ergo’, Byrd’s ‘Haec Dies’ and Stanford’s ‘Coelos Ascendit Hodie’ followed, along with two recordings made by the trebles alone, including an arrangement of ‘Spirit of God’ by former Assistant Director of Music Simon Earl, and a complete service of Compline with Benediction sung by the Lay Clerks for Corpus Christi.
In the second half of term, our focus was mostly on preparing and recording an entire service of Choral Evensong for the end of term – a really massive undertaking which required a huge amount of work from everyone involved. In true Wakefield style we chose ambitious music, including Gray in F minor as the canticles, but everyone involved fully rose to the challenge and after not far short of 100 hours of work on my part, the service went live on Sunday 12th July. I hope that the whole choir is proud of what we achieved with these recordings – I know I am. It wasn’t easy for anyone, and singing by yourself at your phone is pretty unfulfilling, but I think the fact that we were still able to contribute to the worship of the Cathedral through lockdown made it all worthwhile.
It was also a real delight for me that in the second half of term, the organ scholar and choral scholars decided to make two recordings entirely by themselves, in addition to their contributions to the main choir recordings. They sang Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum’ and Bruckner’s ‘Locus Iste’, both of which we were able to use in Sunday services – a real testament to their commitment to the Cathedral Choir, and their abilities as musicians. All the virtual recordings made by the choir during lockdown, including those by the choral scholars and the complete service of Choral Evensong, are available on the Cathedral’s YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/WakefieldCathedral.
I am so pleased to be able to say that we have now been able to resume in-person choral activities. I write this on Friday morning, after having had the first rehearsal with the senior choristers yesterday afternoon, which was a really wonderful and uplifting experience for me. Last Sunday (4th October) the lay clerks, along with some adult sopranos, sang at the 11 o’clock Eucharist and Evensong for the first time, and I really can’t describe how amazing it was to have a choir singing in the building again. This week we have restarted rehearsals at the Cathedral with the choristers, with a view to including senior choristers in services starting
from the Cathedral’s patronal festival on All Saints Sunday. Seeing and hearing the choristers back in the Cathedral again after such a long time has been so brilliant, and really fills me with hope for the future. It’s still far from back to normal, with strict social distancing measures in place, but just being able to sing together again is amazing.
Senior Choristers practise for the first time in the nave, ensuring social distancing is in place
So what can we take away from this period of time? Personally, I was hugely impressed by the level of commitment and adaptability shown by all members of the choir, both children and adults. It was obviously a very difficult time to be a church musician, but I think everyone rose to the challenge incredibly well, and having these recordings to work on gave a real sense of purpose and focus. The new skills and ways of working we developed during lockdown can only help us going forward, and I am absolutely confident that the Cathedral Choir will continue to go from strength to strength!