by Dr Alan Thurlow
(Vice-President and former FCM Chairman)
I think that I may be forgiven for being unable to recall exactly what I was doing on the afternoon of Saturday 2 June 1956. At that time I had just had my ninth birthday and was already hooked on church music. When I was a child my mother had taken me, by accident rather than by design, to a church with a good musical tradition; from my earliest years, I just couldn’t wait to reach the age of eight, at which point I would be allowed to join the choir. By my ninth birthday, I had done my probationary period and had been admitted as a chorister. Those were the days when most weddings still took place in a church, and so on 2 June, I would probably have been singing in the choir for at least two or three weddings. For each wedding we were paid the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence and, in the spirit of true Cockney thrift, my money went straight into my National Savings account. I have joked ever since that I am still living off the interest of all those earnings (no tax or National Insurance to pay at that age) but somehow that joke falls just a little flat at the present time!
Although I did not know it then, I was entering a new and exciting world – one which was going to be responsible for shaping my future life and career. However, on 2 June 1956, and although already a convert to church music, I think that I can certainly be excused for being unaware that just eight stations further down the Central Line, in the vestry of St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, about 40 people had come together to discuss their concerns about the post-war state of music in the English cathedrals.
The catalyst for the meeting had been a letter which had appeared in the national press. The initiative came from the Reverend Ronald Sibthorp, at that time Priest Vicar and a minor canon of Truro Cathedral, although two other clergymen (Cyril Dams, Precentor of Westminster, and Canon Lambert, a member of the Association of Minor Canons) also appended their names. The letter, published in the national daily press as well as in the church newspapers and music magazines such as Musical Times, drew about 240 responses. To follow up this expression of support, Ronald Sibthorp arranged and publicised the meeting at St Bride’s. Although pleased and surprised that as many as 40 people attended, he records his disappointment that among that number there were no deans or canons from any of the cathedrals. Out of that meeting came the resolution to found The Friends of Cathedral Music.
Ronald Sibthorp saw himself as an unlikely convert to the world of cathedral music. Although as a schoolboy he had sung in the chapel choir at Marlborough College, he readily admitted that, until 1934 when he entered the theological college at Lincoln to train for ordination, ‘the entire subject of cathedral music and the cathedral choral tradition was unknown to me’. On his first Sunday at Lincoln he was puzzled to hear the cathedral bells ringing out in the afternoon, only then remembering that an afternoon evensong was a peculiarity of cathedral life. The following Sunday he was persuaded by a friend to go along to the cathedral, and there, ‘I heard cathedral evensong for the very first time, and recognised in it the perfection of the musician’s art offered in worship to Almighty God’.
After ordination in 1935, Ronald Sibthorp went to Boston Parish Church where he served as number four of four curates; those were the days! The start of his cathedral career came in 1939 with his appointment to the precentorship of Peterborough Cathedral, a post which he held throughout the war years. At the end of the war, and at the behest of his Bishop rather than through his own inclination, he went back to the parochial ministry and served as vicar of St Peter’s, Northampton. By his own admission he was not happy there and missed the cathedral life, so he was delighted when in 1947 the chance came for him to go to Truro Cathedral as Priest Vicar and minor canon. He remained there for ten years, during which he was responsible for founding the Association of Minor Canons, and then he moved to Lichfield Cathedral as a minor canon until his retirement in 1963 when he and his wife Jessie moved to Salisbury.
In 1949, when Ronald Sibthorp founded the Association of Minor Canons, his motive was not at that stage to address any concerns about the state of cathedral music. In his book Memoirs of a Minor Canon, he says that the regular meetings he initiated were not intended to be a kind of clerical trade union, but rather … a means of bringing together a body of priests who were engaged in a special, not to say unique, branch of the ministry, in geographical isolation from one another, … in order that, by exchanging information, questions, customs, experiences and new ideas, they might benefit not only each other but also the cathedrals which they served.
However, as time went on, questions did begin to emerge, not just about the failure of cathedrals to carry on the traditions which had pertained up to the outbreak of the second World War but also about the effect which the 1944 Education Act was having on the education of cathedral choristers and the number of services and rehearsals each week that it was reasonable to expect them to attend. Ronald Sibthorp spoke about this to the minor canons at their autumn meeting in 1954 and again at their AGM the following year. In his book, he relates that
On investigation, it transpired that the 1944 Education Act was less to blame than the fact that at no cathedral did it appear to have been anyone’s business to see that the norm was restored at the end of the war. Possibly a new dean, precentor or organist had been appointed who had never known the pre-war conditions, and who had genuinely believed that the reduced number of choral services was the norm. No doubt there were some less-than-dedicated lay clerks and unmusical members of cathedral chapters who were well content with the emergency conditions and had no desire to return to the norm. What was even more sinister and alarming was the fact that the rot, like some insidious disease, was being allowed to continue and spread, not this time on account of any emergency, but simply at the whim of individual cathedral dignitaries, who had only too often been appointed to their exalted positions for any reason other than that of being likely to preserve their cathedral’s traditions.
To address this position, Ronald’s first thought was to try to establish a central body called the Cathedral Music Advisory Committee which would consist of delegated representatives from organisations directly concerned with church music; in addition to the Association of Minor Canons, these would include the Cathedral Organists’ Association, the Church Music Society and the Royal School of Church Music. Although the concept, and the need behind it, gained a ready acceptance, there was no agreement that this would be the right solution. The COA pointed out that the new committee would have no teeth; deans and chapters would be free as before to make their own decisions. The CMS would not allow its nominees to the committee to have a free hand; they would always have to refer issues back to the Society. The RSCM felt that it would be better to raise the concerns in the press and to rely on publicity to bring pressure to bear on the cathedrals. Ronald Sibthorp was not content with this – he argued that even if readers were sympathetic to the cause there would be no guarantee of anyone doing anything, and what was needed was action.
Although sceptical about trying to get results through pressure in the media, the idea of arousing public interest seemed nevertheless to be a good way forward. Having made no headway in his attempt to found a Cathedral Music Advisory Committee, Ronald Sibthorp then conceived the idea of forming an association to be called The Friends of Cathedral Music. His letter, referred to earlier, was sent off to the press and on 2 June 1956 the FCM was born. In Memoirs of a Minor Canon, Ronald Sibthorp devoted just eleven pages to the FCM and the history of its founding. I am sure this was typical of his modesty. He certainly could not have foreseen the tremendous growth and success that the FCM has enjoyed over the subsequent years, internationally as well as nationally. There is no doubt though that in 1970, as he finished writing his book, he was already rejoicing that the seed that he had sown had taken root so firmly.
In its earliest years, and from its small beginnings, the practical help that FCM could give to cathedrals was obviously limited. Sets of anthems were donated to some cathedrals for their choir libraries, and £450 was raised to endow a Head Chorister’s prize at Lincoln. Other needs were perceived, however, which set the trend for future development. These included the recruitment of Diocesan Representatives for each cathedral to stimulate interest and generate recruitment, and the production of an Annual Report sent free to each member, a publication which soon became enhanced by the inclusion of interesting essays and articles.
By 1960, membership had risen to 316 and the step was taken of appointing all deans, provosts, precentors, organists and canons as honorary members of the FCM (this, I think, is something that in the mists of time we have lost sight of). The custom was started off holding the AGM each year at a different cathedral, and the support and enthusiasm generated by these occasions soon led to the recognition that the members could well meet together several times each year rather than just once. So, in 1962, the ‘Gatherings’ were initiated and the charismatic figure of Anthony (‘Tony’) Harvey was soon on the scene, becoming the FCM’s own ‘tour operator’, planning the action-packed weekends that our members have enjoyed for so many years now. How lucky we have been that, since Tony’s eventual retirement from that role, we have had first Jamie Milford, then Peter and Gina Smith and now Rosemary Downey to carry forward this very special tradition, one which not only gives enjoyment to the many who attend but also lends enormous support and encouragement to the clergy and musicians at the cathedrals that are visited. Speaking as a former cathedral organist, I know how uplifting it is to have two hundred or so extra people – dedicated to and interested in the work of the choir – attending the services on a given weekend.
1966 saw the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the FCM and by then membership had increased to 600, with a further 168 honorary members. Two years later, in 1968, a grant of £750 was made (payable over four years) to help save the choir school at St Mary’s, Edinburgh. This established both the precedent of making regular grants to cathedrals and also of paying the money in annual instalments rather than in a lump sum, a pattern that was to continue for the next twenty years. 1968 was also an important year as it saw the FCM fulfil a vital role in relation to Ronald Sibthorp’s original vision of being a ‘watchdog’. This was the year in which the BBC announced its intention to discontinue the broadcast of the regular Wednesday afternoon Choral Evensong. FCM was at the forefront of the public outcry which eventually forced the BBC to relent.
In 1971 Ronald Sibthorp stepped down as FCM Chairman; he was succeeded by Christopher Dearnley, former Organist of Salisbury Cathedral who in 1968 had succeeded Sir John Dykes Bower at St Paul’s Cathedral. By this time FCM membership had grown to 833 and the annual income had risen to £1,500. For the next twenty years, the established pattern of Gatherings flourished and numbers supporting these events continued to rise. The emphasis was very much on the recruitment of new members, enabling a yearly increase in the grants that could be given to endow choristerships. There were also new initiatives such as the production of Christmas cards and other merchandise, designed to increase income, as well as the initiation of the invaluable annual pamphlet, Singing in Cathedrals, mailed free to all members. It was a period of steady growth; more and more cathedrals began to receive benefit from FCM awards, and the FCM name and logo became a familiar and established feature of the cathedral world. By the end of the eighties, membership had grown to about 1,600.
Christopher Dearnley left St Paul’s in February 1990 and, as he was moving abroad to spend his retirement in Australia, also stepped down from the Chairmanship of the FCM. I was invited to succeed him and at that time felt that there were three things in particular that the FCM needed to do. First, to break the practice of giving grants by instalments. Each year we were announcing new grants of increasing value, but in reality, only the first instalment was actually paid in that year. The bulk of the money listed as grants in our annual accounts was, in fact, paying off the remaining instalments of grants announced in previous years. The impact in terms of publicity, as well as in practical assistance to those cathedrals receiving grants, would be so much greater if we could hand over the full amount in one go at the outset. To achieve this we had to have a period of several years where grants announced only added up to the money actually available in that year; this meant that – to the public – it seemed that we were, in fact, giving away less than before. However, year by year as the backlog of grants was paid off the sums that we could give away increased dramatically until, after about six years, we had cleared all our outstanding liabilities and could issue cheques on the day for the full amount.
The second challenge was to centralise and modernise the administration of the society. Until then the membership lists existed in three different (though technically the same) card index systems, one held by the Secretary, one by the Treasurer, and the third by the Diocesan Representative co-ordinator. Supposedly these lists were identical and any change of information (new members, changes of address, deaths etc) received by one person was then communicated to the other two. In reality, however, (no great surprise here!) there were major and sometimes embarrassing inconsistencies between the lists, where information supplied to one source had not got through to the other two or had not been recorded correctly. The challenge, therefore, was to take advantage of new and emerging technology and to centralise and computerise the information, taking heed of course of the requirements of the new Data Protection Act. By good fortune, a new computer system had just been provided at Chichester for the computerisation of the choir library catalogue and also for the membership administration of the Patrons of the Southern Cathedrals Festival. With the consent of the dean and chapter we were able for a period of about four years to set up and run a new centralised system for the FCM before, in due course, the work was passed on to Alan Parish, a volunteer from among the members.
The third challenge turned out in the end to be the most important. The Annual Report had always been a very interesting booklet, not so much because of the inclusion of the minutes of the AGM and the report on the previous year, but because of the excellent articles commissioned to accompany it. In modern jargon, however, it was just not ‘sexy’; to turn it into a informative magazine instead of a dry pamphlet would be a much better advertisement for the FCM. Having floated the idea and asked around, an interested volunteer came forward in the shape of Andrew Palmer. Andrew came down to Chichester for a day and we talked through the idea. It won the approval of the Treasurer and of the Council, and the rest is history! I could never have anticipated the brilliant job that Andrew has made of it and the great success that, through his vision and journalistic flair, Cathedral Music has enjoyed. ‘CM’ is now established not just alongside Organists’ Review and the RSCM’s Church Music Quarterly but also with the commercial magazine Choir & Organ as one of the leading publications in the field of church music. It is an excellent shop window not just for church and cathedral music but for the cause of the FCM itself. Andrew Palmer decided to hand over the post after 20 years, and in 2011 the position was taken up by Sooty Asquith, a book publisher and cathedral music enthusiast.
By 2002 the FCM membership had grown to around 2,500 and the work had expanded to the point where it needed a chairman who was not in a full-time job as a cathedral organist and who in an executive sense would have more time to devote to its day-to-day management and development. Happily Peter Toyne – a great devotee of the cathedral tradition, a distinguished academic and also a member of the Archbishops’ Council – was on the point of retiring and was persuaded, so to speak, to take over the baton. Peter will be able in the future to write his own thoughts about the present chapter of FCM history, but we have already seen how his dynamic leadership and emphasis on marketing have helped to make a further significant increase in membership numbers as well as in the amount of money awarded each year as grants to choral foundations. In the course of half a century, the FCM has grown from the handful of concerned individuals who responded to Ronald Sibthorp’s call into a thriving charity with a worldwide membership.
At the end of the chapter of his book devoted to the FCM, Ronald Sibthorp concluded: If the original hazards that threatened cathedral music have largely been overcome, a watchful eye must none the less be kept open for possible new dangers in the future. But, should they ever come, I feel confident that the society, now endowed with a strength beyond my wildest dreams, will be more than equal to the occasion…
What are the issues that might be of concern to supporters of cathedral music today? Certainly, the financial aspect is still important, not least in the present economic circumstances where reduced income from endowed capital is affecting the ability of cathedrals to meet their financial obligations. Over recent years the costs of music, scholarships (particularly school fees for foundations with choir schools), salaries and second choirs have risen way beyond inflation. Cathedrals should not, of course, be criticised for maintaining and developing their choral foundations but, when financial circumstances outside their control affect what has in the past been a regular source of income, there simply comes a point where the ability to pay must put tight constraints on budgets. For many years, and for good reason, most of the endowment donations given to cathedrals by the FCM have gone to enable parents who cannot afford the full parental contribution of fees to send their children as choristers. Now is a time when all of us need to realise the extent of the commitment which the cathedrals themselves make through the scholarships which they provide, not just for one or two children but for whole choirs. I believe that cathedrals today are as committed as ever to their music and to their choirs, but the provision of this takes a large percentage of their annual budget, and the ability to continue to fund it cannot be taken for granted. All cathedrals are feeling the financial crunch at present, and several are in a serious position. They need and deserve our help as much as the chorister parents deserve it.
There may also be other ways, particularly through letters and articles in CM, in which FCM can express views and influence the future direction of cathedral music. I am thinking here perhaps of trying to stress the importance of the survival of the service of choral matins. Before the Second World War matins was a regular Sunday service at many parish churches as well as in cathedrals, and the larger cathedrals provided choral matins on several days each week as well as on Sundays. Today (except at St Patrick’s, Dublin) weekday choral matins is a thing of the past; few parish churches keep that wonderful office alive, and there are only about twenty cathedrals that still sing matins regularly every Sunday. Many of us feel that an opportunity has been lost here, and that in the older cathedrals the new second choirs could have provided a welcome opportunity to increase the weekly choral provision by re-introducing some services of choral matins rather than, as has tended to be the case, dividing up the existing workload to become what today in the workplace we know as a ‘job-share’.
There can be no doubt, however, that the FCM is here to stay. The movement which Ronald Sibthorp founded has grown into a vibrant worldwide organisation which provides necessary and much needed financial assistance for cathedrals as well as fulfilling his vision of acting as a watchdog to protect the unique heritage and traditions of cathedral music in our country.
Dr Alan Thurlow was FCM Chairman from 1990 until 2002. He retired as Organist and Director of Music at Chichester Cathedral in 2008. This article is based on a talk he gave to a Salisbury Diocesan Gathering in 2009. Today the FCM has around 4,000 members and support is growing year by year.