Monday, 1 August 2016

At Cross Purposes - Review

This is a narrow focus review: if, like me, you are fond of church music and the Anglican cathedral choral tradition (something I was introduced to age 18 on joining a Cambridge college chapel choir), read on.

Most of us are probably aware that the big cathedrals have professional organists and semi-pro choirs, working at the highest levels of musical performance. In his memoirs, Michael Smith, organist and choirmaster at Llandaff Cathedral from 1974 to 1999, gives the inside story of what was often a battle to maintain such singing standards. This might sound a touch dull - and there certainly are many small and personal events in this 400 page book, but for those who are interested there are also some fascinating stories, from a murder to legal threats, conspiracy and downright managerial incompetence.

LLandaff was unique among the Welsh cathedrals in keeping up a full scale cathedral choir contribution, singing services six days a week, with a choir of boys and men. The men, as at most major cathedrals, were paid a relative pittance for a job they loved, in theory in combination with accommodation and other opportunities, though the accommodation part was one of the many battles Smith would have with the management of the cathedral: the Dean and chapter.

In keeping the cathedral choir going through many musical successes, Smith had two big problems. One was the bizarre setup at Llandaff: the cathedral was also a parish church, and effectively operated with two separate management structures, even two choirs and totally separate services. This inevitably led to clashes of priority and finances. The other, even bigger, issue was that the management of the relationship between Smith and his employer, the Dean and chapter, was disastrous. Rather than talk about things, everything seemed to be done through letters - which usually seemed to be entirely ignored by the management side. This led to Smith's house becoming dangerously in need of repairs, a total mismatch of salary to other cathedral organists and constant battles over every little detail from who paid the phone bill to a dodgy piano. Other problems arose from the cathedral choir school, which provided the boys for the choir and whose management also seemed both to have serious issues and to be at odds with the school's role as a choir school.

What also comes through strongly is the way that Smith's devotion to a tradition remained constant while society's views gradually shifted, resulting in some unfortunate clashes, all documented here. I can relate to this change in attitude. When I was at school, I sang in a highly rated choir that provided the boys' parts for pieces performed by the HallĂ© Orchestra and the regime was strict. I can remember things being thrown at choir members who weren't paying attention and others getting detentions just for turning to round to see who had come into a room during a choir practice. Smith never resorted to this kind of  regime, but getting a choir to a professional level requires a professional approach, which he had both to his choirs an the music examinations he supervised - and in both cases, towards the end of his career, he was probably unfairly censured for his strictness, at one point being suspended for several months over highly inflated allegations.

Bitterness is a major part of this memoir - combining someone who, I suspect, was always going to be quite a difficult employee with terrible management, leading to a disastrous inability to communicate and get things done. Yet despite that, magnificent music continued to be made. Occasionally an inflexibility comes through that suggests this wasn't entirely one-sided. Smith was, for instance, incredibly reluctant to perform anything in Welsh, despite this being a Welsh cathedral. And he occasionally displayed the musical preferences of a different age when the big hymn books refused to print Welsh tunes because they were too lowbrow: this comes through when he considers the great Welsh tune Blaenwern more suited to a chapel than a cathedral. Yet at the same time there was no doubt that Llandaff was punching far above its weight musically thanks to Smith's efforts.

Whether he is describing conducting wonderful anthems and choral works, gadding around the country and abroad to conferences and to administer music examinations, or taking up Kleeneze sales and market research in an attempt to bolster a meagre income, there's a poignant honesty in these memoirs. It's not a laugh a minute - at times the annual cycle of events can seem to go on for ever - but if you are interested in how this great musical tradition somehow survives against remarkable odds, it's well worth reading Michael Smith's account.

At Cross Purposes is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

You can hear Michael Smith's choir in action here in a rather fuzzy recording:

2 comments:

  1. From your review, it sounds much more exciting and interesting to a general audience than you might think. There could even be scope for dramatisation. I remember a TV drama serial called 'The Choir' that was a hit. All that precise, arcane detail adds to the effect - as, say, tiny details of policing do in police procedurals.

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    1. I think it’s just that, like any description of 20+ years of someone’s job, there’s quite a lot that doesn’t rise up to the drama level, so there is a certain amount of dedication required to get through it.

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