Music at Radley College: a reconstructed history

Music has been fundamental to education at Radley College since its foundation in 1847 when four men met in Oxford to sketch out a revolutionary new type of school based on the principles of the Oxford Movement and which placed daily sung services at the heart of school life. Edwin Monk, the first Precentor of Radley, was one of the four. Monk was given charge of a group of poor boys who were employed as servants at the school and to sing services daily in Chapel. This early training was designed to equip the servitors with a disciplined approach to work and to fit them to sing in the choirs needed by cathedrals, colleges and large parish churches as the High Church Movement gained momentum. This use of sacred choral music in education in the 1830s-1840s has been well explored by Bernarr Rainbow, although Radley College’s role in this has never before been made explicit.[1] The diary of the co-founder of Radley College, Robert Singleton, details the development of the choral tradition at the school with specific mention of Monk’s work. In tandem with the training of the choristers, the founders also commissioned a very fine organ from Telford’s of Dublin. Singleton’s diary records an early visit by Sir Frederick Ouseley to try out the new organ at Radley.[2] This early connection between Ouseley and Radley College continued until the founding of Sir Frederick’s own College at Tenbury specifically to train choristers in the emerging Anglican choral tradition.[3]

Sacred choral music was not the only music to be heard in the early days of Radley College. Teachers and pupils were all eagerly engaged in music-making. In the first year of the school’s existence, the pupils approached Singleton for permission to buy instruments to form a brass band.

The brass band is getting on well; in fact, they will soon produce music, which will be quite pleasing to listen to. They are faithfully keeping their promise to be industrious. They devote barely half-an-hour a day to practising, – but their knowledge of music, – scales, intervals, time, and so on, is so solid, that their advancement is easy enough. Thus the band is turning out quite the tool of education that I designed it to be.’ (Singleton’s diary, Dec 28, 1848)

In 1859 Monk became organist at York Minster.[4] By the 1860s the importance of the servitors to choral services had decreased and the schoolboys were formed into a large choir under the direction of Monk’s successor, George Wharton.

The role of the public schools in the hymn-landscape of Britain has not been fully explored. The service settings required a choir of trained singers with the full-range of SATB, but the all-male congregation sang hymns in unison, the majority in the lower registers. It is possible that this has created a ‘national sound’ for favourite hymns. The choice of vigorous, ‘manly’ tunes and words introduced into school assemblies of the twentieth century can be traced to The Public Schools Hymnbook, published in 1919 edited by Athelstan Riley and William Ferguson, and its predecessors.[5] Ferguson was Precentor of Lancing College when the PSHB was first published. Although Radley had attempted to recruit him as Precentor earlier in his career, he actually became Warden in 1925. Ferguson was one of number of public school heads who wrote hymns to be performed within the limited setting of a boys’ school yet which have found their way into the full repertoire of contemporary church music. Most Precentors, and later Succentors, at Radley have also contributed original organ settings to the general repertoire, particularly Donald Paine, Robert Gower and Timothy Morris. Some of the earliest pupils also were influenced by their musical education at Radley. Several were winners of the school’s Ouseley Prize instituted in the 1850s, such as Henry Biscoe (Radley 1849) who became Chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge, 1875-1890; Herbert Woodward (Radley 1856) who went on to study for a MusB at Oxford and was the author of numerous anthems and services; Arthur Loxley (Radley 1858) who became a minor canon of Gloucester Cathedral and author of Thoughts on Church Music; and Edward Cleather (Radley 1888) who became Professor of Singing successively at RCM, Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, and at Guildhall, London.

George Wharton arrived at Radley in 1862 and continued as Precentor until 1914, becoming the longest-serving member of staff in the school’s history. Wharton’s legacy is mixed. The records of The Radleian magazine, published continuously from 1866 until the present, contain detailed reviews of numerous concerts (not necessarily accurate!):


The crowning event of Easter Monday was the Concert. A more successful performance could not have been well looked for. The first part of the programme consisted of Haydn’s first Mass. Of the performance of this work we can thoroughly speak in terms of the highest commendation. The choruses were especially good, the Lyric, Gloria, and Luconiam were rendered in masterly style.

The second part of the programme consisted of Spohr’s “God Thou art great.'”          Previous to the performance of this a violin solo (Bach’s First Prelude; arranged by Gounod) was played by Mr. Toye, and received with approbation; then followed a solo from (Handel) Samson, sung by Mr. Wharton, who, we can only add, did full justice to the composer. Spohr’s Cantata was then performed with equal success, and was equally appreciated by the audience.  One duet, “Children pray this love to cherish,'” sung by Mr. Wharton and F. Nicholas, was received with loud applause.          Lastly followed, the grand Finale, Beethoven’s [sic] Hallelujah Chorus. The whole performance from beginning to end was most successful, in spite of the difficulties which attended its being got up. (The Radleian, April 1866)



Wharton’s long tenure was accused of having a stultifying effect upon Radley music, but he did keep abreast of new compositions and introduced them to his pupils: even as late in his career as 1907, he performed Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ (first published in 1900) as the organ voluntary in chapel. Alongside

Wharton, Radley employed a number of musicians to give individual instrumental lessons, whilst many of the teaching staff and their wives took part in recitals and concerts. In 1887 the school acquired the freehold of its site and embarked upon a building programme which included a Music School’, which implies that music was always taken seriously although it as never a part of the mainstream curriculum. Wharton must have been responsible for the appointment of the most distinguished musician to teach at Radley: George Butterworth. The earliest notice of Butterworth’s presence at Radley is as the accompanist to the school concert:


ON Saturday, Nov. 6, Mr. Stone provided one of those Concerts which we have come to regard almost as our due in the winter terms. On their occasion we make for Gymnasium with the certainty of enjoying the performance of classical masterpieces rendered with the skill and taste of experts.         We go to learn something of good music and to enjoy, not to criticize… We must take the opportunity of recording MrButterworth’s first appearance: his delightful rendering of the Piano part induces us to look forward to the enjoyment in the future of many good things from his store and skill. (The Radleian, 27 November 1909)


Butterworth lived and taught at Radley for less than a year but his impact was impressive. He introduced the boys to folk music and set up a Morris Dancing Society which endured into the middle of World War 1. It is also probable that much of his work on ‘The Shropshire Lad’ song cycle was completed or sketched out whilst he was at Radley. Butterworth was killed on the Somme on 5th August 1916. In 1986 Radley College commissioned a memorial plaque in glass by Laurence Whistler. It hangs in the Music School at the College.


The Butterworth Memorial

The Butterworth Memorial

Butterworth’s influence can perhaps best be traced in the repertoire of the Musical Society which was founded in 1915, almost immediately upon Wharton’s retirement as Precentor. The minute books of the Society survive in Radley College Archives in an unbroken sequence from 1915 until 1971. The first meeting records twenty-one members. The musical repertoire was limited by the available instruments and performers, so tended towards shorter or vocal pieces, but early meetings covered such topics as ‘the musical scales in use before those employed by the classical composers, and the tendency of modern musicians, such as Debussy, to return to them, or to invent new ones.’ Music by Purcell, Ravel, Glűck, Mozart, César Franck, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Haydn, Scriabin, Thomé, Satie and Vaughan Williams was performed during the first term of the Society’s existence. In February 1916, songs by Butterworth were included on the programme, alongside plainsong chants, folksongs and songs by Couperin and Debussy. The records for 1917 continue this eclectic mix, with a performance of ‘Night in May’ by the ultra-modern Finnish composer, Palmgren, alongside songs by Thomas Campion.


But the members were frustrated by the limitations imposed by the skills of home-grown performers and it was decided to use subscription money ‘for obtaining the services of eminent musicians.’ Performers paid to visit the school during the 1920s and 1930s included many Old Boys who had become eminent professional musicians. This was a growing trend in the employment records of Old Radleians. The College Register published in 1904 lists five Old Boys who had the profession of ‘Music’, compared with eight architects, six artists, five journalists, four ‘on the stage’, 257 in the armed forces and 176 in Holy Orders. Among these were Arthur Johnstone (Radley 1873) who became the Musical Critic of the Manchester Guardian. By 1933 the Register lists considerably more professional musicians such asAlfred Smallfield (Radley 1903) Music Master at Rossall School and ‘author of many musical compositions which have been broadcast’; James Shotter (Radley 1901) ‘who plays as ‘Basil Austin’ in musical comedy, halls and films’; John Butterworth (Radley 1919) principal oboe with Sadlers Wells; and Marcus Holmes (Radley 1928) who founded the Malvern Music Festival and became Director of Music at Achimoto College, Accra.


The diversity of employment reflects the breadth and influence of music within a school, but it is seldom possible to see the school’s influence on the wider musical world. An example from Radley College is that of Ronald Dussek and his work with the school choir. Ronald Dussek was appointed Precentor at Radley from 1937 until 1951. During this period he was working on the sinus tone theory of vocal production.   A meeting of the Musical Society records his work:


1942. On Sunday February 22nd the Society met in conjunction with The Scientific Society to hear a talk by Mr Dussek on ‘Sinus Tone Production.’ We all know what ardent disciples of this theory the Precentor and his wife are, and although there are many who still scoff at it, there can be no doubt that the germ of the theory has already insinuated itself at Radley… Mrs Dussek emphasised her points by displaying a skull, and showing us how the air moved round the various sinuses and channels. Also she showed how little air is used in singing, by lighting a candle and singing ‘forte’ close by. The result one might have expected from the old idea was that the candle would have been instantly snuffed out. By Mrs Dussek’s method so little air was breathed out, that the candleflame hardly quivered.’[6]


The diversity of music-making itself makes it difficult to track a school’s influence in the wider world. In the early 1950s as a boy at the school, the comedian Peter Cook produced his first recording ‘Black and White Blues’ in collaboration with Michael Bawtree. Cook was a member of the Marionette Society, a group whose shows included a full performance of Mozart’s ‘Bastien and Bastienne’ accompanied by the school orchestra. In 1971 a folk band called Oberon gave the first public performance of ‘Auguries of a magpie’ a composition by James Woods. The same group later held a joint folk and poetry meeting which featured early poems by Andrew Motion, later to become Poet Laureate. The filmmaker, John Bridcut, who has done much to bring the English composers of the early twentieth century to a new audience, was their contemporary at school. A brief survey of present Old Radleians working in music includes, Robert King, founder of the early music ensemble, The King’s Consort; the jazz musician, Alex Hawkins; the composer Hugo Brunt; James Burton, Director of Schola Cantorum of Oxford; Andrew Grant, conductor of the Choir of the Chapel Royal; AM Miller, Director General of the European Union Chamber Orchestra and of the King’s Lynn and Stratford-upon-Avon Music Festivals. This list is by no means exhaustive.



Clare Sargent


[1] B. Rainbow, 1970. The choral revival in the Anglican Church, 1839-1872. Boydell Press

[2] The full text of Singleton’s diary, including the detailed specification of the organ built by Telford’s, can be found online at

[3] An unpublished letter in Radley College Archives from Rev. Richard Norman, then a schoolmaster at Radley, to Hon. Gerald Talbot, describes how Norman was invited to take up the Wardenship at Tenbury, but found that it did not suit him. Norman instead became the fourth Warden of Radley, 1861-66.

[4] In 1851 Singleton also retired to York. In 1868 Singleton and Monk collaborated on The Anglican Hymn-Book.

[5]Athelstan Riley attended a meeting of Radley College Musical Society on 19th November 1918, at which the group sang hymns such as ‘For all the saints’ from The English Hymnal

[6]Radley College Musical Society Minute Book, 1937-1949, pp 77-78