Westminster Cathedral to review sacred music after master resigns

Harriet Sherwood

The Catholic church has launched a strategic review of the role of sacred music at Westminster Cathedral following the sudden resignation of its music master and controversy over boarding arrangements at its world-class choir school.

The diocese of Westminster said in a statement the review would consider “the steps needed to strengthen the role played by sacred music” as well as structures and “clarity of roles” needed in relationships between the cathedral, its music department and the choir school.

The statement said: “The choir of Westminster Cathedral is recognised as one of the finest in the world. Since its foundation in 1901 it has occupied a unique and enviable position at the forefront of English church music, famous both for its distinctive continental sound and its repertoire.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, said: “Our musical heritage is precious and this strategic review is an opportunity to strengthen this heritage and look forward to the next 10 years with confidence.”

The review will be undertaken by a four-person panel and is expected to be completed in April.

As well as singing mass and vespers at the cathedral, the choir, which comprises 20 boy trebles and altos, aged eight to 13, and 10 professional adults, performs in concerts in the UK and abroad, and makes recordings.

Earlier this month, Westminster diocese retrospectively announced the resignation of Martin Baker, the cathedral’s master of music. Baker, who had held the post since 2000, had reportedly opposed changes to the choir school timetable, which some parents and alumni argued put the cathedral’s musical heritage at risk.

From September, the school required boarding choristers to be collected by parents at 4pm on Friday evenings and returned at 9am on Sundays in time for Mass. Previously boys had boarded seven days a week, allowing them to sing mass on Fridays and Saturdays.

David Heminway, the chair of governors, told parents in May of the new arrangements, saying it had become increasingly difficult to recruit boarding choristers because parents wanted to spend time with their sons. The choristers board from the age of eight.

A group of parents wrote to Nichols, arguing the change would strike “a critical blow to an important part of our national, international and Catholic heritage and tradition” and would “actively damage the world-class standing of the choir”.

Colin Mawby, a former master of music who died in November, previously said the new timetable would “gravely affect standards and repertoire”. The practical difficulties of collecting and returning children within a tight weekend timeframe would mean “what is now an international institution will become localised,” he wrote in the Catholic Herald.

Baker “did manage to put his case to the Cardinal but without effect”, Mawby added.

Some parents and supporters of the choir school believe Baker was forced out because of his opposition to the changes.

Michael Berkeley, the composer and peer who is a former Westminster cathedral chorister, said Baker’s departure was “a disaster”.

“He has been very disciplined as I understand it, by not directly contacting people, but I have been informed by other people that he has essentially been forced out. He really couldn’t cope,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

About 250 boys aged four to 13 attend the academically selective Westminster Cathedral Choir preparatory school, where fees range from £5,641 to £6,765 per term. The 20 boarding choristers, who join at the age of eight, pay lower fees and are eligible for financial support.