Category Archives: George Guest

Strive for Excellence

The casual Reader might perhaps mistake me as a died-in-the-wool anglophile in the realm of sacred music, especially since I hold the English Choir School in such high regard, but let us face facts-the English cathedral system of forming church musicians works. I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to an old BBC interview of Sir George Thalben-Ball describing how he landed the his position of 60 years as the organist and choirmaster at the Temple Church (named because of its original link to the Knights Templar) in London.

While studying at the Royal College of Music, Thalben-Ball was called upon to fill-in for the afternoon service. He arrived at the Temple Church to find an orchestral score of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the organ with a note that 10 movements would be sung that afternoon and that Thalben-Ball would need to transpose them all down a “semitone” because the organ was tuned almost half a step sharp. Thalben-Ball chuckled in the interview saying he must have decently well, since no one accosted him after the service, although he admitted to playing (transposed down a half-step) from the choral score instead of the orchestral score.

If any parish were to call and ask me to fill in that afternoon for a Sunday concert featuring 10 movements of the B Minor Mass and as an aside mention that I would need to transpose the entire thing down a half-step, I would quickly dismiss the call as a prank or feign illness. I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. Had I been a choir boy and sung the Mass first as a chorister and then later as a choral scholar and had been playing and accompanying choirs to a high degree since I was in junior high I might have a chance, but that wasn’t the case. In that sense, I feel like a complete joke telling people that I am a competent church musician, much less one with a DMA. When it comes down to it, what do I really know?! Let’s face it, the English cathedrals know what they are doing and even on their worst days hit a mark of excellence that is simply beyond the reach of all but our best cathedral choirs in the US.

Let us imagine for a moment a different situation. What if each of the 193 Catholic cathedrals (Roman Rite) in the United States were to model the English Cathedrals with a choir of men and boys and a separate choir of men and girls (and remember that most of them also have an excellent mixed choir to boot), where the boys and girls constantly rehearsed and sang the greatest music to the highest standards, especially the music native to the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant), took voice and piano lessons and sang daily for Mass and Vespers for the 5 to 6 years they were in the choir. In high school the girls would continue doing the same, while the boys would settle into their new roles as tenors and basses while singing the same music, only as a tenor or bass. A child who showed talent would begin studying the organ and playing and accompanying for services. When he went off to the university, each organist would receive a scholarship for playing for services for his separate college within the university, under the direction of a phenomenal choirmaster. After graduation, he would then be hired by a cathedral as an assistant organist and begin training the new singers as well (and he could, since he had been through the system himself and would be overseen by the director of music). He wouldn’t have to get a Masters Degree or a Doctorate in either organ or choral directing because he would have been singing in a professional choir and accompanying the same choir long before he even thought about shaving! It is nothing but the old apprentice system at work. Now imagine that happened at all 193 Catholic Cathedrals as well as our Catholic colleges, too. That is roughly 25 boy choristers and 25 girl choristers at each institution in one year. At the cathedrals alone that would be almost 10,000 children annually at least learning what good sacred music should sound like and having his/her moral imagination formed at the same time. Obviously only a small majority of those would go on to work in the field of sacred music, but even if it were 1%, that would mean 100 future professional church musicians, organists and singers, would be in formation each year (we aren’t even counting Catholic colleges). The other 99% percent would probably be open to financially supporting such a system because of the benefits they had received. So far the Cathedral of the Madeleine and St. Paul’s, Harvard Square are the only two who have joined the cause.

I challenge every church musician today to begin forming our future musicians. It will change the face of church music in the US and will transform the lives and Faith of uncountable numbers of faithful. As Fr. Z says, just take the training wheels off and ride the damn bike!

Choral Evensong From St. David’s Cathedral

Choral Evensong comes live today from St. David’s Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales (I see Howells is on the program, always a treat!) The choir is unique in the English cathedral tradition in that the treble line consists exclusively of young girls, although the cathedral does operate a boys choir, among others. On a side note, the legendary George Guest came from Wales (although he was a chorister at the cathedral in Bangor). I once asked a choir director who had met Dr. Guest why he thought Guest was such an incredible choirmaster. His reply was that the musicality of the Welsh language and Guest’s command of it came out in his music. I have no familiarity with the Welsh language, but having watched videos of Guest, I can attest to the musicality of his English. I do believe the manner in which a choirmaster speaks plays a role in shaping the the way his choir sings.

The Choirmaster

The Choirmaster stood at the pearly gates
His face was worn and old,
He stood before the man of fate
For admission to the fold.
“What have you done,” Saint Peter said
“To gain admission here?”
“I’ve been a Choirmaster, sir,” he said,
“For many and many a year.”
The pearly gates flew open wide
Saint Peter touched the bell.
“Come in,” he said, “and choose your harp
You’ve had your share of hell.”

Anonymous (20th century, quoted from A Guest at Cambridge, 1998)

Durufle’s Quatre Motets, Op. 10,

Here is a recording of Durufle’s Quatre Motets, Op. 10, sung by the Choir of St. John’s, Cambridge, under the direction of Dr. George Guest.  I thought I would share these after my post yesterday along with a couple of comments.  Firstly, Guest steered the sound of St. John’s in the direction of a more continental sound (healthy and expressive use of vibrato) which you can hear.  Secondly, in the beginning of the first motet, Ubi caritas, one hears the Gentlemen of the Choir by themselves.  Often one is so busy with the choristers that nary a thought is given to the Gentlemen of the Choir, especially since they traditionally only attend the full rehearsal.  Thirdly, text was primary with Guest, so listen to the way in the choir expresses the text, simply beautiful.  Enjoy!


George Guest

I found an old interview today with George Guest, one of the greatest conductors in the English Cathedral choral system in the 20th century.  His comments range from the nuts and bolts of running a world famous choir school to the state of church music as he saw.  I would like to share a few quotes for the benefit of the reader.

Regarding the voice trial at St. John’s:

“As far as the little boys are concerned, we have, each year in early January, a voice trial.  It’s rather like a cattle auction.  If you were to go through the courts of Saint John’s College on the first Saturday of January, you’d see a lot of ladies clutching the hands of small boys, all with freshly combed hair and brushed shoes, wearing their best suits and carrying miniature violins and miniature cellos with them.  They would be coming to the Saint John’s choristers trial.  We have about thirty or forty of these boys each year, for about, on average, four places.  They come up to my rooms in college and they’re all just a little nervous, although it’s true to say that the parents are more nervous than are the children.  They are given some arpeggios so that one can listen to the sound they make and for quality of their voices.  We give them ear tests.  We give them two- and three-part chords, and they have to pick out the middle note or the bottom note or the top note of these.  We hear them play their instrument, and quite a lot of them, in fact, play two instruments.”

I do believe that all children should be given a very fine musical education.  At the same time, it is essential that we have choral institutions singing to the highest standards, which ultimately raises the choral bar for everyone.

Of special importance in this paragraph was his description of how he chose future probationers.  The examiners looks for a beautiful tone as well as a good ear and musical potential. I have also found that asking a possible probationer to read a piece of prose is very important.  I can’t prove this in any scientific manner, but in my experience a child who reads well seems to learn to read music much faster.

Regarding where he believes sacred music is going today:

“Well, I don’t know.  That’s such a wide question; it’s almost like the title for a dissertation of a master of literature or even a Ph.D. three years thesis.  I don’t know where it’s going!  It depends not so much on the musicians as on the church itself, and on those who are constantly bringing out new liturgies and addressing the almighty in terms of familiarity, which they would not dare to use either to the Queen or even to Mrs. Thatcher!  This is the trouble.  If you have a new liturgy, it does presuppose the fact that you’ve got to have new settings.  We at Saint John’s don’t come under any bishop at all, so we can do exactly as we like, exactly as our dean likes, or our college council.  We tend to be old-fashioned because we’ve found amongst young people at the university that they largely resent the innovations that are going on in the United States as well as in England.  They think that they’re being patronized.  They feel that all this business of addressing the almighty in everyday, modern language, and all the other gimmicks that are used in church serviceslike guitars and dancing and all the rest of itare rather pathetic attempts to increase congregations.  We have found most definitely that young people are now turning back towards dignity in worship, and they dislike the feeling that they are being patronized.  I suppose it may well be thus in a changing and often frightening world.  Lots of young people are frightened.  They’re frightened by the rulers of the United States as much as they are frightened by the rulers of Great Britain.  They’re frightened by the possibility of a nuclear war.  They’re frightened by the rulers of Russia.  They wonder if they will ever be able to live a full life such as their fathers and grandfathers did, or whether they’ll reach the age of three score years and ten.  In this frightening and turbulent world, it’s as if they’re turning back to something which has the appearance of stability.  So church services, with a fresh gimmick each week, are not things which have, to the modern young mind, any kind of stability at all.  I may be wrong in all this, but you put the question to me and that’s the best way I can answer it.”

Dr. Guest said this thirty years ago and I believe it is even more true today.  I pray more and more people realize this.