Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Westminster Cathedral’s musical heritage is under threat

The Catholic diocese of Westminster announced last week that it is holding ‘a strategic review of the role of sacred music in the mission of Westminster Cathedral’. It didn’t add: ‘because our master of music has walked out in despair, after warning that recent changes to the choir will ruin its sound’.

But that is the situation and I suspect the purpose of the review is to extract Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, from the hole he has helped dig for himself. It’s a nightmare for Nichols because Westminster owns what you might call the Berlin Philharmonic of Catholic choirs. And even that doesn’t do its reputation justice, because there are many orchestras that can claim to be as fine as the Berlin Phil, but very few choirs that can compete with Westminster Cathedral’s.

The Anglican choirs of Westminster Abbey, English cathedrals, and Oxford and Cambridge chapels sing different music, so one can’t compare them. Westminster Cathedral choristers also produce a different sound: their voices are bright and penetrating, ideally suited to complex Latin chants and multi-layered polyphony.

Until recently, it was also the only cathedral choir in the world that sang Mass every day. But no longer.

On the last day of 2019, Martin Baker, master of music for nearly 20 years, resigned suddenly. The cathedral authorities waited a week before breaking the news. They claimed to be shocked – but, as Norman Lebrecht reported on his Slipped Disc blog, ‘Baker had not been seen at the Cathedral since mid-October. He missed all the choir’s liturgies, as well as joint Evensong at Westminster Abbey and a Christmas concert at Cadogan Hall.’

Last September, Westminster Cathedral Choir School ended weekend boarding for its 21 choristers; the rest of the 250 pupils are day boys. As a result, the boys no longer sing on Fridays, when they go home, or on Saturdays.

The school made the change at short notice and in the face of furious opposition from Baker, who insisted that the boys must rehearse on Saturdays in order to meet the virtuoso demands of Sunday’s Solemn Mass.

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