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And the night shall be filled with music

With its glorious acoustics and majestic architecture, Sherborne Abbey is one of the county’s foremost venues for music. Tony Burton-Page visited it in the lead-up to Christmas, one of its busiest seasons.

Technically speaking, Dorset does not have a cathedral, unlike all its neighbours: Devon has Exeter, Somerset has Wells, Wiltshire has Salisbury, Hampshire has Winchester. But there are many who would say that Dorset can trump these with Sherborne Abbey, which is older than any of them. There are surely no churches which better deserve the title ‘Cathedral-in-All-But Name’. Simon Jenkins, in his book England’s Thousand Best Churches, includes Sherborne Abbey in his Top Twenty, saying: ‘I would pit Sherborne’s roof against any contemporary work of the Italian Renaissance.’ But it is not only the ever-astonishing fan-vaulting which places it on a level with the great cathedrals, nor even its thousand years of history, it has a musical life of which any cathedral would be proud – and of which many, indeed, would be envious.

A suitably snow-bedecked Sherborne Abbey at Christmas time

A suitably snow-bedecked Sherborne Abbey at Christmas time

Central to the music of any great church is its choir, and Sherborne Abbey’s has an illustrious history going back hundreds of years. There are, admittedly, plenty of cathedrals and churches whose histories go back further into the past, but unlike many of them Sherborne has maintained its tradition of an all-male choir. This may inspire the politically-correct lobby to cry ‘Sexism!’, but it is quality of sound – rather than chauvinism – that is the issue here. A choir with boy trebles and male altos sounds undeniably different from one with girls and ladies singing these parts and, while many choirs have dispensed with the all-male tradition, it would be criminal if this distinctive sound were to be lost simply to appease a few short-sighted critics. The Sherborne Abbey choir has carried on into the 21st century with its Boy Choristers and Gentlemen of the Choir.

Although Sherborne does not have its own choir school, the life of a chorister here is similar to that of a boy in a cathedral choir. There are two early morning choir practices during the week, beginning at 8.00 (before the maths teachers can get at them, so they are still clear-headed) and lasting 35 minutes, so that they can be on time for the start of their school day. On Friday evenings there is an hour-long practice for the whole choir in preparation for Sunday, when there is a sung Eucharist at 9.30, preceded by a twenty-minute practice, and Choral Evensong at 5.00 (6.30 in the summer), with a half-hour practice before it. There are also extra services for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Ascension Day. The choir is regularly called on to sing at weddings, although these are often in the summer, when the boys – who have the normal school holidays, apart from having to sing at Christmas and Easter – are on holiday.             Such a timetable requires a fairly strong commitment in terms of time alone, but in addition the boys – who are all from local schools and not necessarily specialist musicians – are expected to increase their musical competence.

The Abbey Choir, Boy Choristers to the fore, Gentlemen to the rear

The Abbey Choir, Boy Choristers to the fore, Gentlemen to the rear

‘I insist that they follow the music,’ says Paul Ellis, Director of Music at the Abbey since 2006. ‘That way they can at least see whether it’s going up or down, even if they can’t read music. And I expect them to learn basic musical terms and understand dynamic markings – piano and forte and so forth.’ Despite these exacting high standards, commitment from the boys and their parents is strong. ‘This means we can maintain a high standard of music-making,’ says Paul, ‘and because the boys are such quick learners we can cover a wide range of music – from Tallis in the 16th century to James Macmillan in the 21st.’

A possible inducement for such strong commitment is the fact that, unlike boys at many cathedrals, Abbey choristers are paid for their labours – not in such vast amounts as to bring about an influx of musical mercenaries, but sufficient to encourage regular attendance. There is a demarcation system in the ranks of the choristers to rival the best-regulated trade union, too: different-coloured ribbons are awarded for merit and long service, and the pay grade increases as the boys progress from Probationer to Senior to Deputy Head to Head. There is also potential income to be derived from weddings – which choristers regard with the same affection that cricketers of bygone days had for their ‘benefit matches’.

The Chamber Choir helps out during holidays and at the Midnight Mass, when the boys are home asleep

The Chamber Choir helps out during holidays and at the Midnight Mass, when the boys are home asleep

Paul Ellis’s sharp-eared auditions select those with ‘a quick ear, a bright eye, the beginnings of a musical voice and a reasonable reading ability… We can do the rest’. But for a pre-teenage boy in 2010, a chorister’s lifestyle hardly conforms to conventional expectations, and it is partly this which has led to a decline in the number of boy choristers elsewhere in the UK. One can hardly begrudge them their financial rewards: they deserve every last penny. Like the boys, most of the Gentlemen of the Choir come from in and around Sherborne. The commitment is the same less the two early morning practices – but then the Gentlemen (in cricketing tradition again) are not paid.

A relatively new idea is the inclusion of three Choral Scholars, who spend their gap year between school and university singing in the ‘back row’ of the choir. They also help out with musical (and other) duties at Sherborne School and Sherborne Preparatory School, as does the Organ Scholar (a sort of assistant Assistant Organist) – in return for which they are given free accommodation in the town and a certain amount of pocket money.

The Sherborne Abbey boy choristers are drawn not from a specialist music school, but from schools around the area

The Sherborne Abbey boy choristers are drawn not from a specialist music school, but from schools around the area

The choir’s ability impressed Paul Ellis so much that he decided that they should record a CD, and this was duly done last June and will be available by the time this issue is printed. Entitled ‘A New Heaven’, it is a reflection of the Abbey’s music over a whole year, including music for Easter (‘God so loved the world’ from Stainer’s The Crucifixion) and Christmas (Herbert Howells’s Here is the little door) as well as the classic 1928 anthem by one-hit-wonder Edgar Bainton, And I saw a new Heaven, which gives the album its title.

Paul Ellis has been part of the musical life of the town since his arrival here in 1978 as Director of Music at Sherborne School. It was his first appointment after his time at the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester University, and he has been in Sherborne ever since – although his musical activities take him all over the country: on Wednesdays he pops down to Liskeard to conduct the East Cornwall Bach Choir. He has been the conductor of the Sherborne Chamber Choir for most of its existence and, although it is not officially connected to the Abbey, it has very strong links – for example, it sings at weddings at times when the Abbey choir cannot oblige, such as the summer holidays. The sopranos also traditionally sing with the Gentlemen at the first Eucharist of Christmas, which begins at 11.30 pm on 24 December – a time when it is assumed that Boy Choristers will be safely tucked up in bed so that they are fresh for the hard work of the following day.

The choir has been a fixture of the Abbey’s Christmas celebrations for hundreds of years. This image shows the scene in the parade 50 years ago.

The choir has been a fixture of the Abbey’s Christmas celebrations for hundreds of years. This image shows the scene in the parade 50 years ago.

Paul also conducts the Sherborne Festival Chorus, a non-auditioned community-based choir of 140 people which started life in 2006 as a result of the success of the Sherborne Abbey Festival. The Festival started in 2000 and now attracts musical celebrities of the stature of Julian Lloyd Webber, Dame Emma Kirkby and Lesley Garrett, and world-famous ensembles such as The Sixteen and the Tallis Scholars. Every May the Abbey resounds to a huge orchestral and choral concert; there have been performances of such works as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony. For these, Sherborne Abbey has a (literally) built-in advantage over countless churches and cathedrals: it has the most glorious acoustics. At performances in many of these larger buildings, one hears the first and last chords of a piece of music perfectly, but everything in between is an auditory mess of echo and re-echo. Sherborne Abbey has no such problem.

And so the year moves round to Christmas, and the Abbey becomes a listener’s paradise. There are carol services by the dozen. The Advent service is especially beautiful, beginning in almost complete darkness, which is gradually replaced by the light of candles as they are passed through the congregation. All the local schools sing their carols here, and there is even a ‘Cathedrals Express’ carol service (sung by the Gryphon School Choir) for passengers from a steam-hauled train from London; while their locomotive only goes to Yeovil to turn round, they are transported to heaven and back by the glorious, life-affirming sound of music in Sherborne Abbey.

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There are two services every Sunday at the Abbey: 9.30 am and 5.00 pm (6.30 in summer). There are also services on all weekdays. Further detals at the website: www.sherborneabbey.com

Telephone: 01935 812452

The CD ‘A New Heaven’ is available from the Abbey Shop, which is open from 10.00-5.00 Monday-Friday and 10.30-1.00 on Sundays

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