Cathedrals Chapels Organs Choirs A Personal View By Sarah Macdonald
Like Sarah Macdonald, I used to write a column for an organisation on the other side of the pond: The Society for the Conservation of Anglican Music, titled ‘The View from Overseas’. So, I know how hard it can be to find suitable and relevant columns, not that it seems a problem for Macdonald.
I wrote in my capacity as the founding editor of Cathedral Music, a magazine published for the Friends of Cathedral Music now the Cathedral Music Trust. However, Macdonald is far more eminently qualified to write monthly columns for the American Guild of Organists, as Director of Music at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Director of the Girls’ Choir at Ely Cathedral, just down the road from the organs and chapel choirs and architectural splendours of the university city.
It is a fascinating read, one that shines the spotlight on an English choral tradition ...
I finished reading Cathedrals Chapels Organs Choirs, a selection of her judicious, perceptive, enlightening, and entertaining columns and am reviewing my notes fortuitously on a day that Selwyn is broadcasting Choral Evensong on Radio 3 and I am enjoying the music and sound she gets from her Chapel Choir. It has brought her narrative and commentary to life.
It is a fascinating read, one that shines the spotlight on an English choral tradition that is admired and respected across the world. Not only that, but Macdonald also lifts the curtain on another applauded institution - chapel life in the fourth oldest university in the world.
Since she began writing in 2009 there have been several juicy topics that Macdonald has been fortunate to tackle and in doing so brought great personal insight and experience to her illuminating discourse.
This book will be enjoyed not just by lovers of the English choral tradition, organs, or by those fascinated by Oxbridge colleges, but also by those with interests in education, composing, performing, publishing, politics, and religion. She helpfully includes music illustrations, when discussing certain aspects of performance.
Macdonald prefaces chapter 11 ‘Politics and Religion’ with: ‘In polite company, one is not meant to discuss either of these topics. In this chapter, both are explored, from passport woes to musical expressions of faith and liturgical spirituality.'
I enthusiastically digested the captivating snippets and relished the delightful explanations to help North Americans understand the differences in the quirkiness of interpreting the English language ...
They are discussed with her characteristic sensitivity and diplomacy as she tackles applying for British citizenship as a Canadian moving to work in the UK.
All her columns are well-researched with interesting and historical titbits along the way.
Where Macdonald finds the time to write though is a mystery; this hardworking musician balances the administration of her two roles in between practicing the organ, taking choir rehearsals, conducting services, auditioning potential choral and organ scholars and fulfilling the academic requirements that a busy Cambridge college requires. Phew!
Her dedication and personality jump off the page as she sets about demystifying the world she inhabits.
Dignissima domine is particularly interesting as Macdonald must get to grips with all the Latin after being invited by the Master of Selwyn College to act as Praelector at the graduation ceremony with 24 hours’ notice.
I enthusiastically digested the captivating snippets and relished the delightful explanations to help North Americans understand the differences in the quirkiness of interpreting the English language as well as some of the idiosyncratic cultural differences between the two continents with a shared passion for English choral music.
For example, in March 2015 she penned a column on application forms and auditioning for budding organists as a means of highlighting the variations between the
For any budding organ or choral scholar this is a must read...
North American and British processes. Later on, Macdonald pulls out one of the lovely quotations she uses superbly well to demonstrate a point; this time from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who is reputed to have said: 'He who is best prepared can best serve his moment of inspiration.'
For any budding organ or choral scholar this is a must read for the pragmatic tips. Especially, as here in England 'church musicians are trained in a curiously illogical way.'
The revelations, though not scandalous, are nevertheless entertaining and highlight many frustrations that I have heard from various cathedral organists over my twenty years as Cathedral Music editor.
'It is obvious from this broad general outline that a cathedral organist requires many skills: playing the organ, training choristers, and being a competent administrator are all aspects of the various jobs', she writes in her aptly titled column: ‘Cathedral organists by the Numbers’.
The book is split into fourteen sections covering an extensive gamut of areas from female composers and girls’ choirs, to politics and religion, to name a few. Macdonald is a sensible champion for both groups and these columns demand a wider audience. A useful list of female contemporary composers is included.
I approached the section, ‘Concerts, Cathedrals and Compact Discs,’ with interest. Macdonald cites the reasons why cathedral and college chapel choirs make recordings and once again her insight is excellent.
...about 80% of her undergraduate choir had never sung or even heard of I was glad!
And although she correctly writes that at one time too many discs included numerous pot boilers, I think the pendulum is swinging perhaps too much towards recording contemporary music. I prefer to see a balance of traditional and contemporary to hear how tastes in accompaniments and interpretation change.
That said, I would not want to dampen her passion as an ambassador for contemporary music, as demonstrated by the album releases on the brilliant Regent label. They are an asset, and if it had not been for Macdonald championing, for instance, Richard Peat, we would all be the poorer. (Classical-Music-Faces-in-the-Mist )
I was particularly interested in the chapter on one of the BBC’s longest running programmes, Radio 3’s Choral Evensong, which commenced on 7 October 1926 on the then Home Service.
...Macdonald knows how to make a riposte ...there is a lovely witty quotation adapted from an old Muppet Show.
Performance can be subjective. I get exasperated when I hear that directors of music suggest organ registrations for their accompanists. I grew up in an era when Roy Massey (Hereford Cathedral), Ron Perrin (Ripon) and David Hill (Winchester) were inspiring, deftly understanding how to excite and colour a religious text. Anyone who heard Ron Perrin play Stanford’s B Flat Te deum patiently waited to see when it would next appear on the music list. Ian Shaw’s introduction to Parry’s I was glad for a Radio 3 broadcast from Durham Cathedral with the wonderful Richard Lloyd conducting, has probably never been heard this way since. I treasure my recording.
Writing of Parry, in a recent interview with Jennifer Johnston on the state of music education in the UK she mentioned to me there is a generation who have never heard of Beethoven and Mozart. (The-Scouse-Diva-A-Prophet-In-Her-Own-Land) I found that to be particularly true and was reminded of Macdonald being surprised to discover that about 80% of her undergraduate choir had never sung or even heard of I was glad! And to boot, after an evening of classical favourites, including Vivaldi's Gloria, Handel's Zadok the Priest and Bach's Jesu joy of man's desiring, one audience member had a vociferous objection because he didn't recognise the music. Really?!
Sarah Macdonald and Jennifer Johnston should get together as a campaigning force.
One of the saddest things to read was the column on ‘Trolling Right Back at You'. I know first hand that those who follow cathedral music can be eccentric and opinionated, and I fully recognise that the comments that appear after a broadcast show are a testament to how cruel social media may be at times. However, the confident Macdonald knows how to make a riposte and here on page 119 there is a lovely witty quotation adapted from an old Muppet Show.
Chapter 12 deals perspicaciously with the impact of COVID -19 on the arts where she muses on the choral recovery.
There are many lighthearted contributions such as when Selwyn College Choir provided music for a BritBox Agatha Christie adaptation of Why didn’t they ask Evans, adapted, written, directed, and starred in by Selwyn alumnus, Hugh Laurie.
...one audience member had a vociferous objection because he didn't recognise the music. Really?!
On the occasions Macdonald could not write, equally eminent practitioners covered her columns, and she includes a selection here.
The Foreword, written by John Rutter, captures the essence of why this lively and multifaceted collection of essays written by an intrepid author arriving in the UK from Western Canada, with an insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s perspective should be read: ‘… Start your journey through this valuable and enlightening book and all will become clear.’ Well said.
By highlighting the English choral tradition, Macdonald makes an effective case, and one realises just how special and precious the tradition is and more to the point, what would be lost if it were to disappear.
There is hope to be found in the Epilogue and the wonderful sentence: '...music in worship must be to move both heart and mind, to challenge both emotion and intellect, to be inspiring and also rigorous, to point to the divine and also to strive for excellence in human endeavour.
You get the gist of the power of music.
Cathedrals Chapels Organs Choirs
A personal View by Sarah Macdonald is published by August Press