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Interview with John Scott, organist

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linked document Saint Paul's Cathedral, London

MICHEL BARONE: It is a phenomenal history that you stand at the current tip of.

JOHN SCOTT : The history of the music at St. Paul's, we know dates back to at least 1127. That appears to be the earliest record of any choir school there at St. Paul's. But the present building, Wren's masterpiece, of course, was built in the later part of the 17 th century. And we believe that it is the fourth and possibly the fifth cathedral to stand on that spot in Ludgate Hill and Wren's masterpiece of course replaced a wonderful, by all accounts, a magnificent gothic cathedral which must have been extremely large in size because we know that the spire, for instance was more than 500 feet tall. So, if we can imagine, those of you who have seen Salisbury Cathedral which is currently the tallest tower in England of something like 404 feet, I believe; if you can imagine that with at least Nelson's column above that, that would've given some idea of the size of the previous spire of old St. Paul's. We know that the first Cathedral at St. Paul's was established in A.D. 604 by Saint Augustin of Canterbury and so in 2004, we celebrate a very significant anniversary of 1400 years of the Diocese of London.

What do you know of the history of church music at the St. Paul Cathedral?

We don't know very much, alas from the earlier times. We just have this magic date of 1127 as being the first record. But, of course, it's reasonable to assume that there was music before that, but maybe it wasn't in such an organized form. The 1127 is the founding of the Song School. But, of course, they must have been presumably singing Gregorian music before that time, of course, so…

And the choir as we know it today, when did it take it's form?

That was really established at the end of the 19 th century by Sir John Stainer, on of my predecessors as organist. When he became organist in 1872, by all accounts the music was at pretty low ebb and he set about with great energy and determination and wonderful sense of vision and really restructuring the way that the music worked at St. Paul's. So he, for instance, suggested to the Dean and Chapter that what the Cathedral really needed was a choir of 30 boys and, in fact, 24 men, although the dean and chapter didn't grant him quite that number but they certainly augmented the choir, which I think had previously been only 16 boys and 12 men.

Which was too small for the space?

It was too small for the space because we have to remember also, the very significant thing that happened in the 19 th century at St. Paul's, which was the removal of the organ screens, so thereby creating one vast open space rather than a building which more in the sort of Gothic style was divided into a nave and then an enclosed choir separated by an organ screen. The organ screen was removed half way through the 19 th century and so, you know, the whole building was opened up into this glorious vast space and Stainer was absolutely right, of course, it does need a choir of 30 boys and, well we have 18 men. It's a compromise between the 12 and the 24. It certainly needs that number of singers to make any impact at all in that vast space.

So instead of, to turn a phrase on it's head, preaching to the choir, the choir was, in fact, preaching to the entire immensity of St. Paul's Cathedral, which is how long from front to back?

I'm not sure I can remember that detail, I'm afraid. It's not quite as long as St. Peter's, Rome, so it's not even the longest nave in England, I think Winchester is longer, certainly. I guess in volume of space, it is immense.

And the reverberant decay lasts what, about 12 seconds?

It's about 9 seconds ordinarily. Although for a couple of years we've been without that because the hood of the interior of the cathedral is currently undergoing a very complicated and thorough cleaning and restoration process, which means there's been an awful lot of scaffolding and polythian [??] against the walls, so we've come down to a sort of manageable 4 or 5 seconds at the moment, but it will be good to get back to our more normal habitat.

Tell me about creating the sound of the St. Paul Cathedral Choir. You came to the job as an assistant organist. How much choir directing background did you have? How much did you learn by watching your master of music, Christopher Dearnley and Barry Rose and how much training had you had before that in dealing with young boys voices?

Well, I guess not a lot really. It's the typically English slightly dilettante manner of learning on the job as it were, as you go along.

Well, you had grown up as a singer too.

I had. I mean, I sang as a boy in the Cathedral in Wakefield in Yorkshire, my hometown. And so, in a sense, I had some knowledge of the repertoire of course. Quite a wide knowledge of the sort of standard repertoire that I had sang as a boy. But then I went on to St. John's College, Cambridge, as organ scholar and working very closely with Dr. George Guest and I learned a great deal from him and also, I suppose I should go back one stage to my former choirmaster for the cathedral, who's still there. He's a very brilliant organist called Jonathan Bealby. And he also had been at St. John's, Cambridge. So, there was sort of an apostolic succession which ran through that and I'm certainly much influenced by the sound of George Guest created and so it was great to go to St. Paul's and hear the sound which Barry Rose had created which was not dissimilar. It was very bright, a very focused sound, a very colorful sound. And that's really what I've built on. I'd like to think that I've developed that sound further. I'm convinced that only a very bright and focused and direct sound works in St. Paul's because it's the only sound that travels. And something that might be more flutey or mellifluous, dare one say, just wouldn't go beyond, you know the first four rows, so it has to be very directional if you like.

What is a week in the life of the choir trebles, the little boys?

They have a very busy, active timetable. We sing Evensong every day of the week at St. Paul's, so it's 9 fully choral services every week and that's in a sort of normal week and there are week's in the year when it just goes crazy and there's actually more than that. But, they don't sing for instance on a Thursday. That's their day off and the men don't sing on a Monday, that's just the boys only. So within that pattern, we still provide 9 fully choral services, three services on Sunday for instance. And in order to prepare the music which we need to resource that number of services there's obviously a very busy rehearsal schedule as well. So, every day begins with rehearsal at ten to eight in the morning so we have half an hour before school and then they go off to the cathedral school, the choir school for their full curriculum of lessons. It's not a specialist music school. It's a thriving prep school of girls and boys of which the choristers are only a small portion, it's about 160 pupils in all. So, their doing the, you know, the full school curriculum along with games and sports and the other things as well. And then the come back to the cathedral at 4 o'clock and rehearse for half an hour, then we rehearse at 4:30 and then we sing evensong at 5. So, it is a very full program, but I'm sure as you can imagine, the repertoire that we sing is necessarily very wide ranging and with singing that number of services in the year, it's really a vast repertoire and we're adding to it all the time. Every new music list that I plan, I always introduce something new.

The age of the trebles spans from what year to what year?

They normally enter the choir between the ages of 7 and 9. We've started one or two even earlier than that at the age of 6. Generally they go on until their 12 or 13...

or whenever their voices…

...or whenever their voices change. They stay in school until the end of that particular academic year.

Do they come to the school with the intent of applying to the choir and audition or do you audition youngsters who come to the school?

Well, a bit of both actually because most of the choristers come after having auditioned for the choir and take up their scholarship. I should say that all of the choristers live at the school. They're boarders at the school because of the schedule and you know, some live quite some ways away and some, we've got three boys in fact, who live in Germany and Holland as well, but most of them are London based but they do have to board within the school. But we have found with the influence of the choristers in the cathedral school, that we've found it a very useful secondary source of recruitment that other children who would not have known about the choir or their parents would not have known about the possibilities that being a member of the cathedral choir affords, come and apply for full scholarships and in many cases, you know, we've got some good boys who've come from the cathedral school itself.

I remember when I first came upon English Renaissance choral music as I suppose early…progression of composers…harmonic progression that seemed unique to the British style. Is that an appropriate viewpoint?

I think it is. I mean, there are clearly continental influences on the English Renaissance composers and certainly we know that Byrd for instance, knew music by earlier composers Diamante and Gomber and so on, the rather more refined continental polyphony. But there's certainly a more distinctive English style, harmonically, and the use of particularly, well like bluesy notes, the flattened seventh, the English cadence they're called. And I think this progression is very clear from the very florid style of the earlier composers such as John Taverner and Christopher Tye in his Latin music but running through Tallis more of a transitional figure, perhaps, leading up to the more refined polyphony of Byrd. But to my mind it all reaches up to it's glorious flowering in the slightly later composers Orlando Gibbons particularly, whose music just seems to me to be so mellifluous, so melodic. It's sort of effortless in every sense, through to the more madrigalian composers such as Thompkins and Wilkes, who respond to the text in a perhaps more dramatic way than composers such as Gibbons and Byrd did do in their own time.

While listening to you rehears at our St. Paul Cathedral in Minnesota, I looked about at the architecture and thought of, you know, the strata of decoration and the accumulation of structure and thought that this is exactly how Gibbons builds, the overlaying…

Exactly, it's sort of organic isn't it. It sort of evolves from single ideas and new points of imitation come in. It's absolutely glorious music.

I'm always astonished particularly by this by all of the Bach motets which were written primarily for memorial services for funerals and yet they are all anything but somber.

Well, maybe Komm, Jesu Komm a bit of a more reflective one. We've been doing that on the tour as well. I mean it's just been a wonderful experience to sing two Bach motets and sing them several times in a row. Because it really is music that you need to absorb not only in terms of knowing what's happening in all the other voices but there are sort of stylistic elements which however much you rehearse, they need to become part of the collective mentality of the choir, I think. And so it's been great to do both Komm, Jesu Komm and Der Geisthilft on this particular tour.

Tell me the story about Mr. Belford Garder who has written this marvelous jewel and so little else.

I think that he became slightly dissolutioned, did he not. He certainly did not write a great number of pieces although I've seen one or two piano pieces and various other pieces which are not at all well know, alas. But on the strength of this particular piece, it really is such a shame that he didn't compose more but it seemed that he eventually pursued a career in forestry and looked over his vast estate at Dorset. But there's something so magical about the way this piece begins with the slow introduction evolving over the single pedal note. Well, it's a sort of musical sunrise isn't it as the shear burst of sound when the choir come in. It's like nothing else that I've ever encountered. It's interesting, of course, he's a great uncle, I believe, of Sir John Elliot Gardner and there is an orchestration of this piece that he's occasionally done with the Monteverdi choir, which I'm not quite sure if they've recorded or not, but I'd love to hear it one day.

Percy Whitlock does a remarkable imitation of an English Renaissance composer.

Yes, again this is not a well known piece: Glorious in Heaven. I'm very fond of it. I used to sing it as a boy and I've come more and more to admire the work of Percy Whitlock. I think he was a great craftsman. He's primarily known now for his organ music and in 2003 we celebrate the centenary of his birth. But I reintroduce this or at least it had never been sung at St. Paul's I believe until just a couple of years ago. And I remembered every single little note of it. I mean it's an astonishing thing that when you sing these pieces as a boy, you're sponge-like at that age and you absorb it all but it's a very clever prestige indeed with a very beautiful, very flowing amen but there's a lyrical aspect to the music as well which one sees in so much of his organ music, of course.

I was joking to Carry and Stephen Paulus who were…and Libby Larsen also who have all, I mean, probably because of Philip Brunelle there's been a very high percentage of young American composers who've gotten their works paid attentiont to by British choirs. In the context of all of this British music, how does our Americans stand up? I mean, does he get where you are?

I think he does, very much. I mean it's a very colorful piece. It's a good response to the words. I think picking up on this very strong text dealing with creation and the majesty of creation and it immediately grabs you, I think by the fact that it starts with this bell like sort of brassy almost, this little fanfare motif the dialogue between the lower notes and the upper voices. And there's a great variety of texture unison writing, single voices, single lines, some very beautiful hushed harmonies towards the end, very low in the voices, so it's very atmospheric and I think what he does with the words is very clever indeed. And especially the ending is very striking and it reintroduces the opening bell like motif but we've really been in the key of b flat major for quite a long time and just in the last two bars, there's a sudden excursion to this wonderfully blazing C major sonority, right at the very end. Completely unexpected and I think it's a very clever gesture indeed. It's really very striking.

It's one thing to commission a visit from a choir to perform the local composers piece on home ground. Is this a work that will have legs with the St. Paul's choir?

Well, we had sung it, in fact, in St. Paul's before we came. It sounds very well there. It's a piece which needs a big space. The acoustical dimension, I think is a very important part of this piece, so I'm sure we'll do it again, of course.

People only mildly familiar with the English cathedral repertoire think of anthems of lasting 4 or 5 minutes and yet here is Mr. Parry with a marvelous scene of 16 minutes or so. Can you talk the progression of this, I mean, Parry is someone is certainly someone who knows how to write for the British Cathedral choir, there's no question.

I think this piece is almost unique. It's a sort of mini cantata, isn't it. It has many different movements and sections. I mean, I think it's quite ambitious setting such a long text. But it was actually composed for a specific occasion in Salisbury Cathedral, the annual diocesan choral festival. So, that would mean that all the choirs from all the villages and parishes around the Salisbury Diocese would turn up and perform this piece in Salisbury Cathedral. So, he's very skillfully scored it in such a way that the way that it begins is marked semi-chorus right at the beginning, so I presume that that would have been the cathedral choir and you can see which bits the cathedral choir might have sung through the piece that's slightly more ambitious. Double choir scoring. And then with an absolute masterstroke he brings in this very well known hymn tune well, we all know it now, of course, but this is where it began. Oh, Praise ye the Lord. It really springs out of the organ link passage which takes you into this particular theme so it's a very stirring ending to the pieces especially with the wonderful dialogue between the two sides singing amen. Just throwing the sound from one side to the other. It's absolutely exhilarating.


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