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Two Years with St Hugh

Musical Opinion
November 1980

Each year since 1975, the Royal School of Church Music has been running a successful Summer course for singers at Lincoln Cathedral under the direction of Keith Burton-Nickson. Although there is no age limit for tenors and basses, there is an upper limit of 21 for sopranos and contraltos.

It was one evening in The White Hart during the 1977 course that Gerald Burton and I, already Lincoln veterans, first suggested an old choristers’ reunion. Naturally we concluded that the ideal format would be to spend a weekend at a cathedral somewhere, singing the services. The Lincoln course had instructed us in this form of Christian music making, it therefore seemed only fitting to put this instruction to good effect.

All this seemed a good idea at the time, but would there be sufficient support to get the scheme off the ground? The idea lay dormant for a year. Then in December 1978 we heard that, owing to an unusually large number of young recruits for the 1979 course, many of the grand old ladies were being put out to grass before the official retirement age. Now was clearly the time to act, but how?

The choice of weekends for such an event is relatively small. During August, potential singers tend to be either on family holidays or singing elsewhere. By mid-September, those singers who are school teachers will be unable to come and, in any case, most cathedral choirs will be back in residence. Having selected a weekend, how does one find a cathedral? Some cathedrals book their visiting choirs eighteen months in advance: early September was then only nine months away. Not only had the cathedral to be suitably accessible for just a weekend visit, but also accommodation would be required for about 30 people.

Guildford seemed a possibility: we could stay in one of the student halls of residence at the adjacent University of Surrey, then on vacation. I remember phoning the Precentor to ask if my choir of former Lincoln course choristers might come and sing the services. Yes, that would be quite all right: what was the name of the choir? It was then that I had to point out that the choir had not yet actually been formed. Some time later we chose the name The St Hugh Singers, on account of St Hugh’s involvement in the building of the Angel Choir at Lincoln.

As organiser of the Lincoln course photograph for several years, I had the names and addresses of some 70 people to whom I wrote. The response was quite encouraging – we asked those interested to send a £4 deposit [that shows how much inflation has increased in the last 30 years…] and other friends, mainly tenors and basses, brought us up to a full complement of 30 singers. Our first rehearsal began after lunch on Friday 31 August 1979 and our first service was Evensong on the Saturday, with three further services on the Sunday. As practice time was so limited, it was necessary for each singer to learn the music in advance. At the Precentor’s invitation, we returned to Guildford this year, our numbers having swelled to 36. I think that my fondest memory of our visits to Guildford will be the scene as we sang our final anthem this year, Purcell’s O God, thou art my God. The setting sun, shining down the full length of the nave, cast long shadows as our Hallelujahs wafted from Decani to Cantoris and back again.

Next year we are booked to sing at St Alban’s Abbey, and there are tentative plans for us to visit Lincoln in 1982. Each year a different choir trainer is invited to direct the St Hugh Singers, and the director invites an organist. The directors so far have been Richard Darke and Michael Cook, and the organists Brian Tetley and Peter Smith.

The administration necessary for such an event is extensive, ranging from the typing and distribution of letters and application forms, to detailed liaison with clergy concerning the latest local variations in the form of the Series II Communion Service. There are the problems of those who misinterpret the form: one girl this year sent a cheque for £20 too much.

During the year it is necessary to spend an average of about three hours per week on St Hugh administration. During the weekend itself, my pockets are filled with various crucial keys: locking up a cathedral is a big responsibility. Only when the last singer, complete with all his/her baggage, has left after breakfast on the Monday morning can Gerald Burton and I feel that we are off duty.

To anyone contemplating such a venture, I would say that, if you work very hard, you will be able to return home after the event with an enormous sense of satisfaction. However, be warned: almost at once you will have to start preparations for the following year!

Robin Rees

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