Sacred Music at Radley College

Radley has been graced by many fine musicians over the years, but the appearance of Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1953 is an untold story. The enormous frame of the 80-year-old composer perched awkwardly on the organ bench in Chapel and, to the delight of members of the choir crowding round, tootled at the console. But then, in his salad days, he had been a church organist. He was there at the invitation of the recently appointed young precentor, Anthony Caesar.   

Watch our video about Sacred Music here

A key aspect of worship for the Oxford Movement was the re-introduction of sacred music to support the liturgy. The formality of anthems, psalms and sung responses required a trained choir who could sing in parts. The necessity to maintain sacred music in chapel has been the key contributor to the vibrant musical tradition at Radley College which has embraced music hall, plainsong, jazz, opera, musical theatre, folk, the only inter-school bagpipe competition in the south of England and all points between and beyond.   

Early days

The primacy of sacred music was there right at the beginning of the school: Edwin Monk, who became the first Precentor, was one of the four men who met in Turl  Street in March 1847. Monk became the highest paid teacher at the school in his time, achieving his Bachelor of Music degree at Oxford in the process. He was given charge of the servitors, a group of boys who worked as servants around the school and sang the daily services in chapel in exchange for board and lodging, a basic education and musical training. The first boy to arrive at Radley College, Henry Searle, was one of the servitors. This early training was designed to equip them for employment in the choirs being re-established by cathedrals, colleges and large parish churches as the High Church Movement gained momentum. Localised training for choristers was overtaken by the founding of St Michael’s College, Tenbury by Sir Frederick Ouseley in 1856 specifically to educate church musicians. Ouseley visited Radley to see the choir training and the newly installed organ in 1849 and had invited one of the Fellows to become the first principal of St Michael’s. In recognition of these links, Radley’s earliest music prize was the Ouseley Prize instituted in the 1850s.  

Portrait photograph of Edwin Monk

In 1859 Monk became organist at York Minster. There, he collaborated with Robert Singleton on The Anglican Hymn Book, published in 1868, which contains several hymns and melodies by both men. Monk’s own best-known tune, ‘Angel voices ever singing’, is still sung at the school.   

Most of Monk’s successors as Precentors, and later Succentors, at Radley have followed in his footsteps, contributing original organ settings to the general repertoire, particularly Donald Paine, Robert Gower and Timothy Morris, as have don Luke Bartlett and chaplain Anthony Stiddolph.  

The awesome sound of the school in full voice

The distinctive sound of the whole school singing in unison in chapel is one of very few survivors of a tradition which had great influence on nineteenth and twentieth century hymn-singing.   John Bridcut remembers: ‘During a service in 2016, I was standing next to the distinguished conductor, John Lubbock (1959), and noticed he wasn’t singing. He later told me he couldn’t because he was so overcome by the awesome sound of the school in full voice.’   But it wasn’t always like this: ‘in the build-up to the year of student rebellion, 1968, there was a claque in the gallery who set out to disrupt services by singing very loudly at half-speed, and also bellowing their spoken Amens. It was a gathering storm in the final year of Wyndham Milligan’s wardenship. It was up to the precentor to prevent the approaching carol service turning into a fiasco. We arrived one Saturday morning for our weekly congregational practice, when the normally mild-mannered Paine would coax the school into learning new tunes with dry, faintly ironical, humour. But this time the organ wasn’t playing. The school stood as Paine walked to the east end, bowed, turned round and (without a microphone in those days) ripped a strip off the rebels for their misbehaviour. I sat in my choir stall, wondering whether the gallery would shout him down. But as he took the long walk out again, there was total silence. I think the rest of the school was as stunned as I was. And at that moment the rebellion died.’  

The Public Schools Hymnbook, edited by Athelstan Riley and Harold Ferguson, published in 1919, was the most influential of the collections of hymns chosen by schools up and down the country. It focussed on vigorous, ‘manly’ tunes and words for hymns as sung in the boys’ public schools.  These were introduced nationally into school assemblies of the twentieth century. Much of the Radley hymn repertoire derives from that original compilation. Harold Ferguson was Head of Music at Lancing College when the Public Schools Hymnbook was first published. Although Radley had attempted to recruit him as Precentor earlier in his career, he actually became Warden in 1925. Ferguson’s hymns such as ‘O Jesus I have promised’ or ‘All hail the power of Jesu’s name’ have found their way into the repertoire of contemporary church music. He returned to music after he resigned as Warden of Radley, becoming Canon and Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral in 1937.   

The choir 

By the 1860s the role of the servitors in choral services had decreased and the schoolboys were formed into a large choir under the direction of Monk’s successor, George Wharton.   

Wharton was appointed Precentor in 1862 at the age of 24. He remained in post for 52 years, serving under seven Wardens, doubling up as the first tutor of A Social for 35 years. After retirement in 1914 he remained living in his flat in the Mansion until his death at the age of 87 in 1925.  The piano prize is named in his memory. His meticulously kept day books record the music he played.   

The earliest photo of the choir with George Wharton in the centre, 1863

The chapel choir continued relatively unchanged under Wharton’s successors, adapting to the fashions for sacred music as recordings by famous choirs became available in the twentieth century. The earliest recording of the choir was made by phonograph in 1896, but sadly, this has not survived. The Centenary service for the visit of HRH Princess Elizabeth in 1947 was recorded and gives a flavour of the sound of the chapel under Precentor Ronald Dussek. In 1956, Anthony Caesar’s choir and the school can be heard in the evensong service for Whitsunday which was broadcast on BBC radio, featuring responsive plainsong.  Donald Paine and a small group also contributed to films made by the Film Society in the 1960s, most notably The 139th Psalm which won international acclaim, followed by a setting of The Lord’s Prayer.  Recordings by the choir and anthologies of hymns sung by the whole school along with music performances to accompany films made by the Video Unit have become regular events from the 1990s onwards. 

An Old Radleian writes about being a choir boy in the 1960s: ‘ in those days, the psalm at weekday evensong was sung to Gregorian chant, at the instigation of Warden Ferguson in the 1930s. He was one of the 20th century’s greatest hymn writers, yet he apparently wanted all chapel singing to be in plainchant, until persuaded to restrict this to the psalms. The chant was sung antiphonally between the tenors/basses (and the whole school) and the choir trebles. I well remember my own first rehearsal in the treble section with Hugo Langrish, who (with the aid of his own fine falsetto and a natural twinkle) taught us how to read plainsong, and to work out the placing of words. In 1965 there was a strong treble section at Radley – indeed my first Sunday we sang Parry’s anthem ‘I was glad’, which ends on a top B flat, and I’d only ever been up to A before! Some of us trebles had been well-trained at prep school and carried on in that role without awkwardness. Others felt being a treble wasn’t cool and had to be inveigled into it. So Donald Paine, who began each term with voice trials for all new boys, had to cajole them to give the choir a try for just one term. They usually stayed longer.’  Donald Paine’s voice trials featured in the BBC documentary Public School broadcast in 1980. 

   Ultimately, the treble section went altogether. It became increasingly difficult to provide any treble line, as boys’ voices were breaking earlier, and so the chorister scheme was launched. It is in effect a Radley choir school for boys aged 8-13, originally the brainchild of John Madden and Tim Morris, later driven forward by Stephen Clarke, supported strongly by Warden Angus McPhail. As a result, from 2003, Radley has taken in four or five choristers a year from local schools to sing regular services, as well as in concerts and music tours, for which they receive pocket money and free instrumental lessons. The chorister scheme is a unique venture broadening links with the wider community, and enriching Radley’s musical life. Many ex-choristers have graduated to Radley itself, with several benefiting from Foundation awards to support two years of prep-school education first. Some choristers, such as Peter Norris and Arran Ryder, have gone on to careers as singers. The chorister scheme is one of the College’s most important Partnerships.

The choir and choristers on tour in 2007

Clare Sargent