The battle for the finest cathedral choir in the Catholic church

    12 March 2020

    Westminster Cathedral Choir School is a thriving institution, judged by the criteria that applies to most upmarket day prep schools. In 2017 it opened a pre-prep department in what it describes as a ‘tall, gracious, Grade II-listed building’ just behind the cathedral. It’s a former Franciscan friary in Francis Street. ‘If you pass the playground, listen carefully. We hope you’ll hear St Francis’s voice anew among the boys,’ says Lucy Auger, director of admissions. Last year, the school sent five pupils to Eton and five to Winchester — music to the ears of socially ambitious parents.

    Music to the ears, of course, is another of the school’s great selling points — indeed, the reason it was founded by Cardinal Herbert Vaughan in 1902. Originally, all its pupils were boarding choristers for the new Westminster Cathedral Choir, now universally recognised as the finest cathedral choir in the entire Catholic church. Its boy trebles and altos, together with professional lay clerks, sing with a beauty and precision that is matched in London only by the Anglican choirs of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.

    Interestingly, though, they sound quite different. Their voices are trained to become bright and penetrating, ideally suited to the complex Gregorian chants and intricate Renaissance polyphony they sing almost daily in the cathedral. It’s a uniquely tough repertoire; arguably these nine- to 11-year-olds are Britain’s youngest virtuoso musicians.

    Last year, Westminster Cathedral Choir School ended full boarding: these days it’s  not easy to persuade mothers to send away their little sons for months at a time

    These days, however, only 21 of the choir school’s 250 pupils are choristers. They are the only boarders — and now only on weekdays. Last year the headmaster, Neil McLaughlan, ended full boarding, explaining that it was barrier to recruiting choristers: these days it’s not easy to persuade mothers to send away their little sons for months at a time.

    If McLaughlan thought the change would slip by almost unnoticed, he was soon put right. Westminster Cathedral Choir School is now embroiled in the nastiest row in its 118-year history.

    The end of weekend boarding means that the choristers leave school on Friday and reappear at the cathedral on Sunday morning just before solemn Mass, the musical highlight of the week. Therefore they don’t sing on Fridays or Saturdays. Westminster can no longer claim to be the only cathedral in the world that sings Mass every day of the week.

    Martin Baker, the cathedral’s much-admired Master of Music, was appalled by the changes. He warned Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, that lack of rehearsals on Friday and Saturday would have a disastrous effect on the boys’ singing. He was ignored. In October he disappeared from services. On 31 December he resigned. The cathedral, apparently thrown into panic, waited a week before announcing the news.

    Britain’s two leading Catholic composers, Lord Berkeley and Sir James MacMillan, asked the cardinal to reconsider. Colin Mawby, Master of Music from 1961 to 1981, made an anguished protest shortly before his death in November. He described the boys’ chant as ‘a path to heaven and a glimpse of eternity’s beauty’. He begged Cardinal Nichols to veto plans that would ‘gravely affect standards and repertoire’.

    Nichols, however, appears to be backing McLaughlan all the way. The changes have happened. Three choristers who lived far from London have had to leave. Critics say the results are audible. ‘On Sunday mornings you can tell that the boys have just spent two days having fun with their families and not thinking about the biggest musical challenge of the week,’ says a source. There are reports that the choir recently broke down mid-motet; repertoire is already being cut back.

    The cardinal has clearly been taken aback by the fury of the choir’s supporters, non-Catholic as well as Catholic. His response has been to set up ‘a strategic review of the role of sacred music in the mission of Westminster Cathedral’. Critics fear that it will rubber-stamp the existing cutbacks and prepare the ground for a more radical change: the end of boarding at the school — making all the choristers day boys, and freeing up dormitory space for other facilities.

    If that happens, Westminster Cathedral’s choir will no longer be in the same league as those of the Abbey and St Paul’s, both of which insist on weekend boarding for choristers and don’t have any problem attracting them. Indeed, St Paul’s choir school is expanding its boarding facilities.

    If Nichols’s strategic review endorses the changes, there is a long battle ahead. A new Society for the Protection of Westminster Cathedral Choir is being set up, with big names on board. It will lobby Cardinal Nichols’s successor — he is due to retire next year — to restore what is arguably the finest musical ensemble in a church with a billion members.

    All of which leaves bystanders wondering: why has the choir school picked this fight, over the cost of boarding just 21 boys?

    This brings us back to the tall, gracious ex-friary. The purchase and refurbishment of the building, which is rumoured to have cost the diocese £10 million, crops up in every informal discussion of the crisis in the choir. Westminster diocese is short of cash (ask any parish priest) and not renowned for its financial acumen. Lucy Auger says that ‘when 47 Francis Street came on to the market, the school (gently) urged the diocese to buy it’. How did it manage that? Presumably it was counting on overwhelming and profitable demand for places at its pre-prep department.

    It is early days, but if that demand fails to materialise, then the choir’s supporters will suspect that the choir has been sacrificed on the altar of the choir school’s ambitions. And they will remember a parting comment by Colin Mawby, under whom the choir sang for President John F. Kennedy, and who died broken-hearted at what was happening to it.

    Cardinal Vaughan, Mawby said, wanted the liturgy in his cathedral ‘to be of the highest possible standard, an example to the country and the world. To achieve this he opened the residential Cathedral Choir School which he saw as the foundation stone of the cathedral’s sung worship. It was not his vision to turn the school into the most expensive prep school in London.’