Molten gold in the minster: review of ‘A Celebration of Victorian Church Music’

By - Thursday 10th April, 2014

Rosie Edser experiences both an hour of gloriousness and an education

My Soul Doth Magnify The Lord: A Celebration of Victorian Church Music at Croydon Minster, Saturday March 29th

Ronnie Krippner conducts the Whitgift Choir. Photo by the Whitgift Foundation and used with permission.

Some of the six Archbishops of Canterbury who are buried in Croydon Minster may have twitched uncomfortably in their graves at the thought of sacred worship music being performed to an applauding audience, but it was a treat for listeners on the evening of Saturday March 29th.

Croydon Minster’s various choirs joined with Whitgift School’s Chamber Choir to present a celebration of Victorian church music, and an education for the inexperienced pew-sitter. It was an hour of gloriousness – not least glorying in the demonstration that there are children and teenaged lads in Croydon who are so musically talented, wholehearted and well-trained.

The concert marked the bicentennial birthday of Thomas Attwood Walmisley who lived in Norbury when he was organist at the minster for a couple of years and was one of the first composers to raise the standards of Victorian church music by providing good choral music for Anglican choirs. He may not be known for much these days, but his Evening Service in D Minor sent tingles down the spine. This is fairly specialised stuff, however, and not one to drag your fidgety kids along to as their introduction to choral music in the hope of igniting a lifelong passion.

I lost myself in the molten gold clarity of the soaring trebles

Thankfully any restless siblings of the performers on Saturday were speedily hushed and the audience was refreshingly well-behaved, allowing you to really lose yourself in the molten gold clarity of those soaring trebles and savour the throbbing deep bass notes of the organ. The dynamics were particularly striking in Henry Smart’s Evening Service in B Flat as the voices dramatically wove their harmonies around “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen”.

Another highlight for me was Ronny Krippner (Whitgift’s delightfully bearded and Bavarian Director of Music) explaining how he had accidentally come across Felix Mendelssohn’s notebook in the Bodleian library in which the composer had recorded lots of his St Paul’s Cathedral improvisation of Sunday 9th June 1833. Krippner then treated us to his own organ improvisations based on Mendelssohn’s sketch – proving there is space for spontaneous creativity even in the midst of such polished professionalism. Despite the minster organ being in ‘dire need of repair’, it sounded impressive under the fingers of an expert, inspiring me to hope some of the current crop of Croydon 7-year-olds will one day perform like this. Children from a wide variety of backgrounds get the marvellous opportunity to learn violin or cello thanks to the Soundstart scheme in the borough’s primary schools – a piece of truly uplifting inclusiveness.

My only gripe was the surprising lack of girls in an otherwise open and inclusive environment

Staying with the inclusivity theme, my only gripe was the fact that no girls appeared until the last few minutes of the programme. It puzzles me that the rarefied choral church music tradition still insists on separating children by gender when the minster choirs are otherwise so inclusive, surprisingly open to all faiths and demonstrably not just the preserve of the privileged.

As the throbbing notes of “Give unto the Lord” resounded through the air and the harmonies ebbed and flowed between the different sections of the choir, every boy’s eyes were fixed on the conductor, just occasionally flicking down to their folder of music, faces a picture of focus and responsiveness. My ears absorbed the melodious benediction of Elgar’s “blessing of peace” and my heart was gladdened that beautiful music exists, that there are this many children in Croydon who are learning to sing it so well and that anyone who cares to look up the programme can experience it for free in such a beautiful setting.

‘My heart was gladdened that children in Croydon sing so well’. Photo by the Whitgift Foundation and used with permission.

Rosie Edser

Rosie Edser

Rosie is a member of the team at Croydon Refugee Daycentre. She's a teacher of both adult English learners and (in her day job) children. She relishes the fact that her own offspring have attended a school in Croydon with over forty first languages spoken. She lives in Waddon.

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  • Anne Giles

    I do, actually, prefer boys’ treble voices to girls singing.