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The Choir              The Organ              Leeds

The famous adage – there's High Church, Low Church and Leeds Parish Church – is attributable to John Betjeman and was certainly quoted by him in the famous BBC Quires and Places broadcast in the 1960s.  
 St Peter's, Leeds is, to be honest, something of an anomaly.  To begin with, the city is by far the largest in the United Kingdom without an Anglican cathedral of its own.  Thus the inclusion from the Autumn 1999 of the West Riding's most substantial centre of population within the title of the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds has been widely welcomed.  In many ways its Parish Church fulfils for the City many of the functions of a Cathedral, special services and large-scale events combining with the use of the plant as an educational resource and, increasingly, a centre for tourism.  But, very happily in my view, LPC (to give the place the pet name the locals use) remains a spiritual powerhouse at the centre of a substantial worshipping community. It strives also to be as much a haven of welcome for the marginalised as a focus for gatherings of the great and the good.  These elements have recently come happily to the fore in the formation of the new Parish of Leeds City within which are combined the churches of St Peter, Holy Trinity, St Mary and the specialist ministry to deaf people at Centenary House.

Its choral foundation reflects both the cathedral and parochial elements, and by far the great majority of services are of what would be termed traditional pattern – though it's worth remembering that no such thing existed when our choral services were first begun.  Still comprehensive chorally on Sundays as well as mid-week, there is a substantial corpus of hymnody at the heart of weekend worship (exactly as in any parish) and it is on the maintenance of that provision that a considerable amount time is expended on  the technical teaching of music to the younger choristers.  Vocalising, diction, sightsinging – all centre on the hymn repertoire rather than on substantial exercise programmes

Enterprise combined with excellence has always been the aim of the Leeds foundation.  The redoubtable Dr Hook (Vicar of Leeds from 1837 to 1859) declared himself determined

     to have a good service, (even if I have)….to go to prison for it

Hook is often credited with establishing the Leeds choir, but the palm for that achievement must go to Vicar Fawcett who organised a robed choir as early as 1818 though it was Hook who revived its fortunes, scheduling choral services on weekdays as well as Sundays.  That this work continues today is an enormous tribute to the tenacity of generations of clergy and choristers who have sustained it through thick and thin. The willing support over the years of the Friends of Cathedral Music, the Ouseley Trust, and – particularly – the Pilling Trust, remains utterly invaluable in underpinning the considerable expense of sustaining the musical provision, for which about £30,000 is needed on an annual basis.  Leeds was one of the very first foundations to have its own support group, and the Friends of the Music of Leeds Parish Church celebrate in 2001 the golden jubilee of the society's formation.

The boy choristers come from a wide diversity of backgrounds and attend upwards of ten different schools, most of them well outside the inner city.  In recent years, the unstinting support of heads and staff of St Peter's (the Parish Church) Primary School just a quarter of a mile to the north of LPC has resulted in excellent recruitment from that school.  Breaths were certainly held when the previous (new) building burnt down as the result of an arson attack a few years ago. However, splendid new premises (including a Sunday worship centre for that area of the city just north of the inner ring road) now occupy the site at Quarry Hill.  Even despite this advantage, numbers of boys rarely exceed sixteen – making somewhat redundant the copy markings "Top 16" for the semi-choruses of yesteryear.  Those who wish can take advantage of individual tuition in voice, violin, theory and piano in conjunction with normal choir attendance and rehearsals on days when the tutors attend resemble something between a lively stage play (all exits, entrances and doors) and Haydn's Farewell symphony.  A girls' choir, begun in 1997, rehearses once a week and has attracted a gifted group of a dozen or so mostly between the ages of 11 and 16 and many attending schools with a strong academic emphasis. 

Adult singers are, essentially, volunteers – though some (mostly undergraduate students) receive modest payment at the level of expenses and certainly not in excess of £1000 each. When journeys to and from Huddersfield (where several are on courses in that university's thriving music department) are taken into account, there cannot be much of a surplus.  Besides the students, the present daily choir is hugely fortunate to enjoy the full time services of a number of adults in major posts with schools and in business as well as two professional organists who double as tenors midweek for us.  The boys receive a modest quarterly salary, but are well remunerated for extra commitments such as weddings and special events.

There are many delights in working for such a foundation.  Firstly, the music is really appreciated – true food for thought there, for certain.  Second, the folk themselves make it all such a pleasure and, lastly, it is quite impossible to become stale (I hope!) as there is always so much to do.  The amusement resulting in the frequent observation "We know you play the organ (sic) at the Parish Church, but what do you do for a proper job?" is an indication of popular perception of one's work.  The answer – originally lecturing at the Polytechnic – is now "I'm a local government officer" (strictly true, very useful for filling in insurance proposals for companies which regard musicians as hopelessly unreliable – and absolutely guaranteed to silence further enquiry ).  It wouldn't help matters to declare that one was the City Organist and a Senior Assistant Music Officer sounds like something in the army.

The appreciation factor is very considerable and is particularly precious, perhaps - certainly Melville Cook (organist here from 1937 to 1956) and his immediate successor, Donald Hunt (at Worcester from 1975 to 1996) truly valued it.   Not that there's an element of sycophancy in the Yorkshire makeup – they'll certainly tell you what they think, not what they might think you want to hear! The Parish Church seems to attract characters, and this was certainly the case with the lay clerks of earlier times – one, a master organ builder who worked on the LPC instrument for thirty years, and another, a schoolmaster, remain regular members of the congregation. 

Taking stock of any task involves memories crowding into the consciousness.  Of the great occasions, the vast congregation for the Wesley "warmed heart" anniversary in 1988 (with simply superb hymn singing) and the memorial service for the late Princess Diana the early evening before her funeral stand out particularly.  In terms of co-ordination, the service for the late Lord Boyle took a lot of beating – the final muffled scale from the bells (in the correct key) leading magically without break into the funeral sentences by the choir.  I seem to remember that this was achieved more by good luck than anything else – never mind, it was a significant moment.  Mobile telephone technology now makes co-ordination between tower and chancel very much easier, of course. These "specials", or the federal-type RSCM festival occasions led by colleagues of the calibre of  Michael Fleming, FCM President George Guest, Barry Rose, John Rutter and Sir David Willcocks, can – of course – only be really fulfilling when underpinned by the skills acquired by means of a sustained daily routine.  There is, perhaps, quite a congruence of commitment between choir direction and the management of a sports team.  The LPC musicians enjoy the kindly guidance from time to time of the choral equivalent of a star physio in the person of ENT surgeon David Hanson, himself a fine singer, who understands fully the various vagaries of voices great and small.

It is now hard to imagine the annual schedule without the Yorkshire Three Choirs' Festival or the musical events presented at the Church and elsewhere by St Peter's Singers, though both groupings are of comparatively recent formation.  One can with due modesty assert that the vision of Harry Fearnley in setting up the latter group has proved of great benefit to the musical life of the district as well as to the parish.  The Yorkshire Three Choirs emerged from the old West Riding Cathedrals' Festival and from the extant participation between the Parish Church and the diocesan Cathedral at Ripon.  This latter partnership has recently been developed further by clergy and musicians and the two foundations did a "stall swap" (our first) last St Peter's Day.

The truly wonderful Leeds organ is designed for a full church – far more a triumph of the voicer's skill than the product of a favourable acoustic.  Lack of resonance has been rectified by a combination of paint and the design and construction of a magnificent glass screen in the North Tower arch.  Sally Scott's engraving of Jacob's Ladder has vastly enhanced the building and the complete reconstruction of the well-lit inner tower entrance from the street now draws the individual in rather than presenting a maze-like obstacle of inner doors and multiple choice routes entered in semi-sepulchral gloom. 

 Limited financial resource presents particular challenges and the choir "team" relies heavily upon unstinting voluntary help to keep it going.  This is especially important in the case of those who care for the children during normal choir attendance and with regard to the work of the music librarian.  The present Mistress of the Robes first came when her son joined the choir fifteen years ago, and has stayed to look after the boys ever since.  She also fulfils the important function of Choir Steward, organising meals, refreshments, away visits and acting as matron on tours.  Hers is an ever listening and sympathetic ear and she has calmly defused many a sensitive situation caused by an unthinking organist.

"They all stay for seventeen years, you know" – a comment frequently uttered after appointment in 1975 – refers to the approximately equal tenures of Albert Tysoe, Melville Cook and Donald Hunt, Leeds organists from 1920 to 1975.  As someone who has stayed all that period and rather longer, it is perhaps significant to look at aspects of sticking to what has been traditionally regarded as a stepping stone.  Firstly, the career structure in cathedral music has altered beyond recognition in the past three decades; by and large, folk simply do not cut their teeth on a division three foundation, move up through division two and, ultimately, on to division one.  It happens like that no more.  Secondly, the need to earn a living additional to the church work – important for most professional organists – is, presently, 100% essential at Leeds; only in very recent years has the emolument reached the dizzy heights of a five-figure sum (and that we can't really afford). 

Personal reasons – family and friends – have also been significant in cementing one to the proverbial stepping stone.   The pleasure of a close working relationship with Francis Jackson has led directly to involvement in recording his two monodramas with music in collaboration with the works' creator, actor-dramatist John Stuart Anderson, Daniel in Babylon and A Time of Fire.

Lastly, but very important, is the matter of Leeds itself.  It is a simply wonderful place in which to live – as testified by the considerable reluctance which all my predecessors this century have experienced on leaving it.  The city at its heart is as friendly as village, while priding itself on a truly cosmopolitan infrastructure.  Besides the Saturday Symphony Concerts and, of course, the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, there are concerts galore.  Tremendous music thrives within the Universities and the trail-blazing College of Music and a wonderful Opera company.  The Church sustains close relationships with Opera North.  The Boys and Girls have recently taken part, as ragamuffins, in the company's Chandos recording of extracts from Boris Godunov and players from the English Northern Philharmonia feature on two CDs by the Parish Church Choir.  Alongside first rate theatre and cinemas – what more could one wish for? Above all, perhaps, the provision of music by the City itself (pretty well two hundred different concerts a season) makes one well able to proclaim with the psalmist

    the lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground;
    yea, I have a goodly heritage

To be allowed a small part in such a process remains an immeasurable privilege. 

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