An interview with Jeffrey Williams first published in the Journal of the Campaign for the Defence of the Traditional Cathedral Choir in February 2004
While some traditional parish-church choirs hang on in the face of a thousand difficulties, others flourish magnificently, and perhaps none more so than that of Romsey Abbey. Your Roving Reporter recently decided it was high time to brave the wilds of Hampshire and find out more. A quick telephone call was all that was needed to set up an interview with the retiring Organist and Master of the Choristers, Jeffrey Williams. This took place at the west end of this stupendous Norman building a few hours before the annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.
RR: This is quite a day for you. After many years, you are finally about to retire from the Abbey. How did it all begin?
JW: Initially, I came to help out with the Nine Lessons and Carols. That was 22 years ago, and I have been here ever since. I was Assistant Organist for eight years and then became Organist and Master of the Choristers.
RR: Things must have changed a lot since you first came.
JW: We have seen things change around us. But at Romsey we have always looked at new developments and adapted them to our needs. We have weathered the changes, we have survived the changes and we have maintained the musical tradition. If anything, it has continued to grow and develop.
RR: Do you prefer to keep to a cathedral-type repertoire?
JW: Yes. I think the splendour of the liturgy should be enhanced by the splendour of the music. Obviously, there are times when we are required to sing different things. There is good modern music, but, like many things, it has to be judged on its merits. So, if we have a special service where modern hymns are required, we make sure they are of good quality.
RR: What services do you do?
JW: The normal routine is two Sunday services the 10 oclock Eucharist and the 6.30 Prayer Book Evensong. The choir always sings the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Communion motet. On the third Sunday of the month, they also sing a choral Gloria. Evensong is fully choral at least once a month. If it is not a full choral evensong, there is usually an anthem and an Introit. We may also sing a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Major feasts are observed with a fully choral, solemn sung Eucharist.
RR: Thats quite some commitment. Is it appreciated? Is it supported?
JW: We have plenty of support. On a Sunday morning, the nave will be full. As for Evensong, numbers are declining everywhere, we are told, but our numbers seem steady. The interesting thing is that when we do a choral evensong even more people attend.
RR: Thats very interesting. Now you have between 18 and 20 boys and 10 men, I believe.
JW: We have 18 boys. In fact, we had 20 boys until the summer. Then two senior boys left when their voices began to change. We also have 12 men.
RR: I wonder if there is another traditional parish-church choir in the country which could match that. Boys arent supposed to want to sing any more, so how do you get them?
JW: I go and find them! Boys sing, boys will sing, boys enjoy singing! But you have got to go and get them. There are an awful lot of calls on their time these days, so you have to make it fun and make it worthwhile. Boys relish a challenge. They like doing things in a team spirit. We are very much a team. I write to the heads of schools once a year and ask if I can audition their 8-year-old boys. I then make a list of all the boys I am interested in, ring the parents and say their son is the kind of material I am looking for.
RR: So, you can pick and choose?
JW: To a large extent, but I sometimes face the problem that the boys at the top of my audition list are unable to make it because of family situations. Sometimes, the boys you are taking in are not your first choice.
RR: Do any of them come with any prior musical knowledge?
JW: A few do. A number of boys in the choir at the moment play a musical instrument. I take them at the age of eight, and some of them have already started to learn a musical instrument Obviously, by the time they leave the choir five years later, some of them have actually progressed quite well.
RR: So, on the whole, you do not feel you have a recruitment problem.
JW: At the moment, we dont; nor have we had for the last 14 years. It very much depends on the determination of the person in charge. You have to be prepared to go ahead and find them. You cannot just sit back and hope.
RR: You have talked about camaraderie. Do you have to do anything besides the music? Do you have to organise games or whatever?
JW: We have a very thriving and active social side. We have a friends committee, the Friends of Romsey Abbey Choir, whose role is to support us with fundraising and social events. We have a regular programme of things throughout the year which involve not just the choir members but the choir families, younger brothers, sisters and grandparents. There is a whole range of social activities, some of which appeal to the children and some to the adults.
RR: And it brings people into church.
JW: It brings people into church. I often remind the vicar that one of the biggest recruiters in this place is the Abbey choir. Because we have thirty people, and we must have twenty five families brought into the church each week because of the involvement in choir. There are not many other groups within a church that can bring that number into the congregation. What we do at Romsey is one of the finest examples of youth work. A number of the choirmen actually came to us because their sons were in the choir. Then some boys have a brother. We have three brothers in the choir at the moment. That is the second family in my time that has produced three brothers.
RR: Where do you get your men from? You have got three or four fathers, but what about the others?
JW: Some of them have been here as long as I have, and longer. Four or five have been here for over 20 years. Then there are men who joined when their sons were in the choir. We attract a number of professional people. Our age range goes from men who are in their 60s to men in their 30s. We even have a couple of students who are with us in their gap year before they go to university.
RR: There must be a number of men who would like to sing in a cathedral choir but who cannot, for whatever reasons, and this is a wonderful opportunity.
JW: It is. Most of our men are in pretty high-profile jobs, and they would not be able to sing in a cathedral choir because of their work commitments. However, they can come along here at weekends and on special days, and they can sing music from the cathedral tradition – up to cathedral standards in some cases.
RR: Do the men motivate the boys?
JW: Its a self-motivating process. I always say that the older boys teach the younger boys what to do. It is the enthusiasm of the older boys which is passed on from one generation of boys to the next. Just to sit back and watch that happen has been very rewarding.
RR: So, a choir is the boys and the men, but let us not forget the organist. Who plays the organ at services?
JW: My assistant does most of the playing, but sometimes it is the organ scholar – when we have one, that is.
RR: You have an organ scholar!
JW: Yes, but there are no fees. Organ scholars are entitled to free organ lessons, and they can use the organ for practice. Of course, they get a share of weddings and funerals. The scholarship is aimed at 6th form or gap-year students.
RR: How often does the choir rehearse? I ask because your routine programme is quite demanding.
JW: The boys rehearse Monday night for an hour and a quarter, but the main rehearsal night is Thursday. The boys come along first and are joined later on by the men. Afterwards, the men do another hour by themselves.
RR: That is rather important. When Barry Rose went to St Pauls he found the men tended not to come, and he rather insisted that they did.
JW: It is very difficult in a voluntary choir, which we are. Nobody is paid. (Well, the boys get a pocket-money reward at the end of each term that is all.) So, the needs of the choir and demands of the job have to be balanced.
RR: Youve given so much of your life to this. What has kept you at it?
JW: I think the sheer enjoyment, the thrill at being put in a position where each week youve got to produce high musical standards. Its the love of church music and working in this fantastic building. That has got to be the greatest reward, especially when you work with loyal and dedicated people.
RR: I think a lot of people would agree with you. But what about the fun side of things? You must have a few anecdotes up your sleeve.
JW: These days, things dont seem to go wrong as much as they did at one time. But I recall one famous occasion. It was Rogationtide, and we went down to a local field for the blessing of the crops. There we all were, and I was conducting the choir. Suddenly, everybody started laughing. I could not see why, and then I turned round. All the cows were running down the field.
RR: They were your congregation!
JW: There have been all sorts of wonderful moments over the years.
RR: Among these wonderful moments, has there ever been the discovery of an outstanding voice?
JW: I dont think there is any particular one. There have been dozens of boys who have been strong leaders. We always try to do something good, and if there is something special like the Nine Lessons and Carols, I tell the boys there may be people coming from far and wide to hear them. There is the sheer joy of knowing that you can produce that little bit extra for that special occasion.
RR: This evenings Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is the highlight of your year, I imagine.
JW: Yes, it is; and the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services will happen as a spin-off of what we do this afternoon.
RR: Have you got anything special lined up for us this year?
JW: There are lots of special things this afternoon. We have old favourites, of course, which everybody will expect to hear, and then we have some unusual things which people might not have heard previously. For example, there is a piece by a local composer from Portsmouth, Ian Schofield, whom we have worked with quite closely over the years. There is also an arrangement I made some years ago of Silent Night, which has become a regular feature of the service. In other words, there will be something for everyone.
RR: Now to a topic we cannot avoid: girls and boys choirs. In recent times, it has been suggested that there is no difference between a girls and a boys singing voice. In your view, is there anything special about the boys voice?
JW: I think so. I think so. The voices develop and mature at different rates and times. I have nothing against girls voices if for no other reason than that the place we are sitting in now was once a Benedictine nunnery. The problem I have is that of social integration. To get the same quality of voice which a 13-year-old boy is able to produce you have to have a 16- or 17-year-old girl. From my point of view, as a choirmaster, that poses all sorts of social problems.
RR: What social problems?
JW: The problem of mixing 13-year-old boys and 17-year-old girls. The two have very different needs. In fact, their needs are almost impossible to balance. Perhaps, I should say that we do have a girls choir here, but the two choirs operate separately. Occasionally, we have tenors and basses who sing with the girls for, say, Candlemas, but we do not mix the choirs. The girls do not want to mix with the boys, and the boys do not want to mix with the girls. But the other thing is that, if the girls come, the boys go. You only have to look at any school choir to see that: the girls come, the boys go. I am anxious that we do not lose our boys.
RR: Have you ever made any recordings?
JW: We have. The most recent recording, And to be the Glory, came out two years ago, and is still selling well. I also brought out a CD of organ music just after the organ was restored.
RR: Do you ever have an opportunity to sing in cathedrals?
JW: We go away every year, usually the last week of August, and that has been a tradition which dates back to 1985. My predecessor started it, and I have kept it going. Ive taken the choir to Winchester, York and Canterbury, and weve been to Westminster Abbey three times and to Truro twice. We have also given two concerts in Holland .
RR: They are very keen on our choral tradition in Holland.
JW: Weve had some fruitful visits over there. There is a choir there with which we have established a close relationship, and they come to us and we go to them. It has been a great joy.
RR: Tours like that must be very popular with the boys.
JW: Very popular. The first time we went to Holland we put the men and boys on a coach and away we went. It would have had far more implications if we had had a mixed group. So yes, they are extremely popular and eagerly awaited, and we are looking to arrange the next one now.
RR: You have recently been awarded the FRSA for your work in restoring the organ here, the famous Walker organ. Can you tell me just a little about that?
JW: There had been a couple of attempts, in the 70s and then again in the 80s, to sort out the ageing mechanics of the instrument. The pipe work had always been superb and still is superb, but it became apparent in the 90s that, unless something were done quite quickly, the organ was going to be unplayable. We launched a huge fundraising campaign in 1992. Carlo Curley came and did the first concert for us. By 1995, we had enough money, thanks to very generous support from grants and trusts. We were able to exploit the organs historical significance. There was also a lot of local fundraising. The dismantling of the organ began in July 1995, and everything was put back in time for February 1996. The fundraising continued thereafter to try and add a nave section. We completed that in 1999. So, it was a project which took eight years from start to finish.
RR: A wonderful achievement.
JW: Yes, and we have got something here which very few places can match.
RR: Well, you are shortly going to be leaving this place after many years. Is Romseys choir and music tradition going to survive your departure?
JW: I very much hope so. I am handing on to my successor a choir of 12 men and 18 boys, all of whom are keen, dedicated and loyal. We also have a thriving back-up of parental support and a social committee. It is up to whoever comes in after me to capitalise on that and derive the benefit that I have.
RR: Over the years, you have been a great inspiration to many people men, boys and fellow organists. But who has inspired you?
JW: The people in the church I work with have inspired me. And this wonderful building itself has been a great inspiration. One of the things I am looking forward to now is the opportunity to go and look at other places. I have not had the opportunity on Sundays to go and hear other people.
RR: Choirs like yours must rank very highly in the country. There are very few of them left, though even as recently as the 60s, they still existed in the thousands. For you to have maintained such a choir, against all the odds, is quite some moral venture. But taking a wider view, how do you feel about the future of the traditional parish-church choir in general?
JW: I very much hope it will continue certainly in places like this. We have shown that the downward trend can be bucked, and if we can buck the trend, then others can as well.
RR: How? What do you need to be successful?
JW: A sense of purpose, a vision – and determination from the man in front. You also need loyalty and enthusiasm from the people that you are working with, as well as a good back-up team of mums who are prepared to wash surplices and so on. It is a big team effort.
RR: Are clergy supportive?
JW: We are very fortunate here with our present vicar, who has been around for nearly as long as I have, and who is incredibly supportive. He could not entertain working in this place without music. He just could not entertain it at all. I sometimes wonder what will happen when he leaves, because he has only three more years to go, and I very much hope that the people charged with the responsibility of appointing his successor will do so in the light of the tradition that we have been able to develop together and with a view to carrying that tradition forward, because a change of vicar or a change of choirmaster can have serious consequences.
RR: It can, indeed. Well, it will soon be over for you as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Romsey. Are not you going to miss it all?
JW: Desperately. But I will still be involved. And I shall enjoy listening to what is going on from the other side of the choir stalls.
RR: So, you are going to continue to live in Romsey?
JW: Yes, and be a member of the congregation; hiding behind a pillar for the first few Sundays so as not to be seen to be interfering.
RR: Yes, yes. Well, I congratulate you on all that you have achieved and, as you said, for a building of this quality to be without fine music would be very, very sad. Long may the tradition you have built up continue and thrive!
A little while later, in the presence of a packed congregation, and in what now seems like immemorial tradition, a chorister began to sing the first verse of Once in Royal Davids City, the pure notes arching and echoing the length of the church. Twelve men and eighteen boys moved up the nave: a sight to rejoice the hearts of all who love our traditional choirs. Floreat Romsey!