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 services — like guitars and dancing and all the rest of it — are 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.