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Coronation choristers celebrated at cathedral

Posted on: June 24, 2013 4:44 PM
Left to right: Malcolm Tanner (represented St Mary Redcliffe); Peter Hampson (represented Bury Parish Church); Martin How (former RSCM Commissioner); Dennis Whitehead (represented St Cuthbert, Hawick), Andrew Reid (director of RSCM).
Photo Credit: Diocese of Salisbury
Related Categories: England

From the Diocese of Salisbury

In 1953, twenty boy choristers from Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) affiliated parish choirs right across the UK were selected to sing at the Queen’s Coronation, alongside boys from cathedral choirs and Westminster Abbey. In recognition of their contribution these parish church choristers were invited to attend Evensong at Salisbury Cathedral last Thursday, followed by a reception at Sarum College.

The service included music from the Coronation Service such as O Taste and See by Vaughan Williams and Gibbons’ O clap your hands, and closed with a rousing performance of Crown Imperialplayed by assistant organist John Challenger.  

Back in 1953, the boys knew the Coronation would receive saturation radio coverage across the Commonwealth and would, in the UK, be the first televised enthronement of a new monarch. With the ears of the world listening, musical passion and perfection were equally essential, so the boys spent a month at Addington Palace in Croydon preparing for the great event.

On the day itself, the boys had to be fully robed and in their places by 7 a.m. – with Ovaltine tablets, a bar of chocolate and a third-pint bottle of milk to sustain themselves until lunchtime. With post-War rationing of sweets having only just ended, the bar of chocolate was particularly prized by the boys!

Dennis Whitehead, then a boy chorister at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Hawick in the Scottish Borders attended the reception. He later sang as a Lay Vicar in Salisbury for 27 years, and is still moved by his memories of Coronation Day.

Dennis recently told the BBC, “When Parry’s I Was Glad started on the organ, and the Queen had arrived – the first few notes, I have to say, I couldn’t sing, there was a lump in my throat. But I soon recovered!”

Dennis was joined by Malcolm Tanner, who joined the Coronation Choir from the famous St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, and Peter Hampson, who represented Bury Parish Church in Lancashire. 60 years ago they had embarked on a bewildering journey – many away from home for the first time, thrown among other boys with strange accents and from different backgrounds, to be worked hard by musicians feeling the pressure of the service of their lives. Yet the challenges and daily grind of practice culminated in a magnificent day in Westminster Abbey, where they played a role that still fills them with pride 60 years later.