In August 1985, twenty boys and ten gentlemen of Romsey Abbey Choir, together with their then Organist and Choirmaster Anthony Burns-Cox and Assistant Organist Jeffrey Williams, journeyed to Truro Cathedral to sing the weekend services at the invitation of the then Dean of Truro, the Very Reverend David Shearlock, formerly Vicar of Romsey. Eighteen years later, the Abbey Choir sang a week’s services in August 1999,after which the Choir was again invited by the Cathedral Clergy to return to Truro Cathedral.
The choir’s annual singing holiday this year, however, had even greater significance as Jeffrey Williams himself a Cornishman and, since September 1990, Organist and Master of the choristers announced in February this year his intention to step down from his Abbey responsibilities in order to concentrate more fully on his work as Music Examiner for Trinity College London.
The link between Romsey and Cornwallwas strong this year in another respect: three of the current boy choristers Ben, James and Joe Taylor have a Cornish mother, Nicky, whose parents hosted the choir and their supporters on the final Sunday by providing Cornish cream teas in their splendid garden!
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Abbey Choir fifteen boys, eleven gentlemen and Assistant Organist Timothy Rogerson provided their own musical feast throughout the week for Jeffrey Williams whose last Sunday as Organist and Master of the choristers at Romsey Abbey will be 4 January 2004.
The Canon Precentor, Perran Gay, welcomed the Choir at the first Choral Evensong of the week, when they began with a buoyant rendering of Peter Aston’s evensong setting in F of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis and some highly-charged singing in Balfour-Gardiner’s atmospheric Evening Hymn. The responses on the first three evenings of the week were sung to a setting by Jeffrey Williams first heard in the Abbey earlier this year.
It was perhaps the Thursday Evensong, attended by the Vicar of Romsey, Canon Neil Crawford-Jones,that best epitomised the many facets of Jeffrey Williams tenure at Romsey Abbey. His ability to encourage the younger choristers to tackle challenging music that enhances the Church’s daily Office, lifting a congregation to heights of spiritual awareness in the atmosphere of a Cathedral such as Truro. This was surely no better displayed than in Edward Bairstow’s setting of the Compline hymn, Save us, O Lord.
Thomas Morley’s setting of the canticles, in which the seventeenth century composer alternates plainsong with fauxbourdons, preceded by some beautifully controlled phrasing with contrasts of expression and dynamics in Psalm 105, completed an Evensong to savour; the Abbey Choir’s sensitivity to meaning and measured singing of the psalms were notable features, indeed, of the week’s music.
The gentlemen of the Abbey Choir provided the music for Friday’s evensong, in which William Mundy’s five part anthem for men’s voices Let us now laud and magnify with music of concord provided a joyful contrast with Herbert Sumsion’s spacious Evening Service in G written for the Lay Clerks of Gloucester Cathedral.
The weekend’s music reflected the celebration of the feast of St. Bartholomew. At Saturday’s Evensong, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat, composed in the mid-Nineteenth Century for the Chapel Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, was followed by the Te Deum Collegium Regale, written for their colleagues at King’s College a century later by Herbert Howells.
A large and extremely appreciative congregation, including a number of worshippers from Romsey, filled the Cathedral nave and quire for the Sunday services. The musical input by the Abbey Choir was no less impressive. They were worthy substitutes for the regular Cathedral Choir who boast one of the foremost traditional all-male choirs in the country. This was shown in the confidence displayed by the Abbey Choir at the Sung Eucharist, during which Dick Hewett served as solo cantor for the gradual psalm 145.
The opening sixteenth-century anonymous introit Rejoice in the Lord alway was sung from the south aisle of the Cathedral, and Adrian Batten’s lively ‘O sing joyfully’ was the choice for the Communion Motet. The Eucharist setting to Herbert Sumsion in F offered Timothy Rogerson , who played and accompanied the Choir meticulously throughout the week, with an ideal opportunity to explore the more sensitive sounds of the Father Willis Organ.
During the course of Sunday afternoon, Jeffrey Williams’ recording of an earlier interview was broadcast by BBC Radio Cornwall, which included extracts from the Abbey Choir’s latest CD. Included in the items played was Ernest Bullock’s setting of the Saint’s Day text Give us the wings of faith, sung by the Choir at the final Evensong. This anthem makes a number of dynamic demands on the singers, as does the setting of the Evensong canticles by Percy Whitlock in D and the Abbey Choir responded magnificently.
The impressive Solemn Evensong concluded with a dignified procession around the Cathedral to the high altar from where the choir sang a thrilling final response to music set by Bernard Rose. This made a perfect end to a week of music sung in a thoroughly professional and competent manner by the boys and gentlemen of the Abbey Choir who received a number of well deserved congratulatory comments from the Cathedral Clergy, Cathedral staff and congregation. To mark Jeffrey Williams twenty-two years of service to the music of Romsey Abbey and in recognition of this memorable visit to Truro, the Canon Precentor presented him with a limited edition print of Truro Cathedral after Evensong.
Truro provided the perfect centre for visits to Flambards Village Theme Park, Poldark tin mine, Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum and Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station. The group also visited the beach at Perranporth, as well as making an evening trip to St. Ives. The week concluded with a large buffet meal at Truro High School for Girls where the choir and a welcome number of supporters and Friends of Romsey Abbey Choir were accommodated. The new choir term begins on Sunday 7 September when items from the Truro singing holiday will be sung at Choral Eucharist and Choral Evensong in Romsey Abbey.
This article by Michael Rowland first appeared in the Romsey Advertiser on 5 September 2003
The Abbey Choir, joined by the Canon Precentor, before the High Altar at Truro Cathedral