Sunday, December 13, 2009


Some 35 miles from here, our local cathedral is Winchester. Yesterday we went to the Lord Lieutenant's Carol Concert at Winchester Cathedral. Winchester has one of the most magnificent cathedrals in the world. It is also one of the largest cathedrals in England, with the longest nave and overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. The cathedral was originally founded in 642 AD on an immediately adjoining site to the north. This building was known as the Old Minster. Saint Swithun was buried in it, before being moved to the new Norman cathedral. Mortuary chests containing the remains of Saxon kings such as King Eadwig of England, first buried in the Old Minster, and his wife Ælfgifu, are also housed in the present cathedral. The Old Minster was demolished in 1093.

Construction of the Norman cathedral began in 1079 and completed in 1093. The crypt of the present building dates from that time. William II (William Rufus, shot with an arrow while hunting in the nearby New Forest - perhaps murdered) of England and his older brother, Richard, Duke of Bernay are both buried in the cathedral. The squat, square crossing, Norman-looking tower was begun in 1202. Work continued on the cathedral during the 14th to the 16th centuries. During the early part of the last century waterlogging of the foundations threatened to bring the cathedral down. A deep well was sunk to the foundations of the south and east walls and a diver, William Walker, descended and packed the foundations with more than 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks and 900,000 bricks. He worked six hours a day from 1906 to 1912 in total darkness at depths up to 6 metres, and is credited with saving the cathedral from total collapse.

The Cathedral is certainly an impressive place, but the acoustics are dreadful. They are fine for choral music, but it was hard to listen to speech from the pulpit because of the echoes. I begin to understand now why the High Church has beautiful music and short sermonettes.

The music was performed by the Choristers of Winchester Cathedral, directed by Andrew Lumsden, with the baritone Stephen Gadd. The congregation sang O come all ye faithful, God rest you merry gentlemen, O little town of Bethlehem and Hark the herald angels sing. The pieces for the choir included In the bleak midwinter, Ding dong! merrily on high, Bethlehem Down, Carol of the bells, Britten's This little babe, Wither's Rocking Carol, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, and Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols.

The Winchester choristers should not be confused with the Winchester Quiristers, though both attend the same choir school. The Pilgrims' School is home to two professional choirs, the Winchester Cathedral Choristers and the Quiristers of the Winchester College chapel choir.

There are twenty-two Boy Choristers. they are all boarders at the highly acclaimed Pilgrims' School, from which the majority of them gain musical scholarships to the next school. They sing an average of six services each week during choir term time. There are twenty Girl Choristers, who sing one service a week during choir term time. They rehearse at two other times during the week and are given help with the costs of instrumental tuition. Both treble lines sing with twelve adult singers, the Lay Clerks, music professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Auditions to join the choir are held on a single day - in November for boys and February for girls. Openings for lay clerks are advertised when they are available.

On 28 March 1394 William of Wykeham formally opened his college at Winchester with 70 poor scholars, a warden, headmaster and second master, ten priest-fellows, three chaplains, three lay clerks, 10 commoners (that is, those who paid for their commons) and 16 quiristers. The quiristers had to be paupers and under 12 years old, well mannered and with an ability to sing. They were to be eligible for Winchester college scholarships and would have a free education under a chaplain or other teacher in return for their singing. Today Winchester College is one of the most expensive Public (ie private) schools in England. In prestige it rivals Eton, in scholarship it surpasses it.

The most famous teacher at the school was William Whiting (1825-1878). He had charge of the school 150 years ago. He was waiting at Southampton docks for the return of a friend on the ship, The Great Western, from America. The Channel and Southampton Water had been beset by the sort of fierce storms that are common in November (just as we have had in the past few weeks and no, they are not due to global warming). Many ships had foundered. In response, he penned a poem that he gave to his friend when he returned to America. Two years later John Bacchus Dykes set it to music. It has become quite well known.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy Word,
Who walked on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our family shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoever we go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

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