I was back in Frome today, where I grew up. It’s not often I visit. I wanted to spend a few minutes in St John’s church on Bath Street. I was a chorister there, then, when my voice broke, a choirman as I worked my way from alto, through tenor to bass.
That choir, in a small Somerset town of only 20,000 people, had 30 trebles, 4 counter-tenors, 4 tenors and 6 basses – and by God it was good. We sang pieces that terrify modern parish choirs; those few still left. And the Church itself… Restored in the 1850s, it’s a stunning, faded-gilt combination of faux-medieval art and architecture that now has a merit all of its own.
I turned the cold iron handle on the heavy wooden door of the north aisle and went in. There was same smell and the same weighty Church silence I’d forgotten. Quiet, wood, old incense, stone, ripened hymnbooks. I’d pushed that door open every Wednesday and Friday evening for choir practice and twice on a Sunday for Eucharist and Evensong.
St John’s was always High, with a properly Anglo-Catholic capital H. Incense, a whole corps of acolytes, processions, benediction – the whole thirty-nine Anglo-Catholic yards. That’s not to say it was stuffy – although you couldn’t usually see the west door from the chancel for incense after a Eucharist. I’d moved from another church in the town – our two choirs were fierce rivals – but I was accepted straight away. And, like most choirs, there was plenty of mischief. All innocent stuff, but to us it seemed the height of daring.
It was really the people I’d come to remember. The choir were my family as well as my friends. I chatted with the two men selling charity Christmas cards at the back of the Church who still knew a few of the same names I did. Bob Stannard, the senior Bass. Always slightly frowning, but able to bring a choir practice to a complete halt with one of his one-line, observational dry jokes. Ken Smalley; renowned among us trebles for his grumpiness but who quietly helped unseen and found kind things to do for people. Harry Salter; one of the finest countertenors I’ve heard.
But, as I sat in my old place in the choir, I looked across to the decani stalls and remembered my friend Herbert White. If becoming a ‘name’ was simply about vocal quality, you would know his as well as Ian Bostridge, Philip Langridge or Peter Pears. But a family jewelery business and close ties kept him in Frome when he could – and should – have stood on any stage in Europe.
Herbert was a pure, clear English tenor who could sing a tax return and make you weep. There was never any debate over tenor solos. Stephen Carleston, our Choirmaster, would simply turn to Herbert and raise an eyebrow. He’d lean back against the choirstall, always without music, and let his voice soar – free, effortless, silvered, ringing.
Just after my voice broke and I thought I might be a tenor too, Herbert took me under his wing. By then, he was in his late 70s, I was in my early teens. His voice still shone and I idolised him. He gave me the book he’d used to teach himself to sing – “The Singer’s Art” by Harry Gregory Hast. I still cherish it. He taught me how to breathe properly, how to hum to develop head resonance, how to project. But, most of all, he taught me to love what I sang. That, he said, was the secret. I listened, sang, breathed and learned.
I was determined to sing professionally. Not as a soloist but as a choral singer. I spent more time at college singing than studying. I had my own little choir and then moved to Oxford to make the dream reality. But professional choral singers don’t come from comprehensive schools and obscure Somerset market towns. More significantly, they’re also rather better than me and don’t decide to work in ad agencies instead.
So I sat in the stalls and remembered Herbert, countless services and solos and the sheer joy of singing in ensemble with others.
Then, in the almost empty Church, on a dreary winter Friday afternoon as the light was beginning to fail, I stood up in my stall, leaned back and breathed in the same air that I’d smelled as a chorister. And, not caring who heard, I sang.
Veni Creator Spiritus – “Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire…” The acoustics were still, despite their lack of use, very much still there.
And, as I finished the “amen” of the last verse, I’m sure I saw Herbert sitting opposite me, just as he used to, smiling.