I was in a state of some distress. The Provost of the College had just informed me that a local merchant was after my blood. It seems that I’d transgressed some obscure and ancient local law when I’d provided a feast of doughnuts to the members of my student choir without obtaining the appropriate permits or licenses—or without paying the proper price: it wasn’t clear. The baker was demanding redress and threatening a lawsuit. The Provost, on his part, was threatening dismissal, with a distinct possibility of execution to follow.
I was summoned to a meeting at 7 p.m. in the Chapel, at which I would face the Provost and my accuser. This was indeed disturbing. I wasn’t ready to die, particularly for some crime I didn’t recall committing.
I went to the Chapel early, and approached the organ, a natural gravitation since I was the College Organist. I thought of playing a last lament while awaiting my fate. One of my faculty colleagues and a couple of students were enjoying a picnic, with their food spread out over the keys. When I explained my situation they gladly cleared off the console, and I doodled some sublime but transitory harmonies while they offered assistance with my troubles.
The avenging party came storming in and seated themselves in the front pew. I appealed to the baker, asserting my innocence and offering to pay what he asked for, but he was adamant.
“You young gentlemen from the College,” he said, “must be taught a lesson. We must make an example of you to deter the others!”
At this point I woke up, to find myself, with great relief, safe in bed in my room at Clare Hall in the University of Cambridge, the guest of my daughter and son-in-law. The latter, a professor recently retired from the University of Pennsylvania, is a former Visiting Fellow and present Life Member of Clare Hall, a college for advanced study in the university. Clare Hall provides apartments for their Visiting Fellows pursuing academic research, and we were all spending the summer of 2009 in one of these. I happen to be a Life Fellow of two colleges associated with the University of London, but as far as I know they don’t offer such amenities.
As is the case with dreams, there was a good deal of latitude as to dates and places. “You young College gentlemen,” was strongly reminiscent of the period of my life spanning the years 1922 to 1929, in Hereford, England, while the Provost’s threats would have been more appropriate to the period 1948 to 1979, in Geneva, New York. In any case, my awakening relief was bolstered by the thought that, at age 96, I’d outlived most of those participants—except, possibly, the two students picnicking on the organ.
The above introduction is not the one I’d planned for this narrative, but the dream was so vivid, the experience so real, that it sort of jump-started me into a project I’d been mulling over for some time. So here is really where I’d intended to begin:
The year was 1922, the month, June. The city, Hereford, England, and the immediate location the vast, overwhelming Norman cathedral that had loomed over the city for nine centuries.
I was a nine-year-old boy—I think I need to make the gender clear, for at that time the first name Lindsay was exclusively male. My loving parents would never have saddled me with a name that could apply equally to a girl. The appropriation of this name by the females of the U.S. has been a sore point with me. The huge amount of mail I receive addressed to Ms. Lindsay Lafford, and the phone calls that ask me to fetch her to the phone, are sources of irritation. Once, while lying in bed in a Miami hospital in a private room with my name on the door, a nurse came bustling in and then, seeing my beard displayed over the sheet, staggered back and exclaimed: “Oh, you’re a male!” “Unless the circus is in town,” I replied, “and I’m the Bearded Lady, then I’m a male.”
So, on this fateful Saturday in 1922, my mother was escorting me to a meeting in the cathedral of boys from all over the country competing for a place in the treble section of the cathedral choir. (Known in the U.S. as “tryouts,” in England they’re called “trials,” and there’s something of the trial nature involved). About fifteen boys were there, eager to be chosen to fill one vacancy in a professional choir of men and boys whose musical traditions stretch back hundreds of years, and an experience that would shape their lives for ever.
Overawed by the vast, echoing recesses of this huge building, we were summoned, one by one, into the Song School, the choir rehearsal room. There the organist and choirmaster, Dr. (later Sir) Percy Hull and his two assistants listened while I sang some scales and a couple of hymns, answered some questions—including a fortunately simple one involving the purchase of a candy bar and how many pennies would be left out of a shilling—and that was it. I’ve often wondered how Fate sets things up for us; one of the hymns I happened to know was “Earth has many a noble city…”. and the tune was named Cologne. (Could this have been an omen of the future? Seventeen years later, by that time living in Hong Kong, I was to meet and marry a young lady who’s home was that same German city, Köln!)
My waiting mother was duly informed that I had been chosen, and with this seemingly simple act the whole of my life and career was then and there set. Obviously there were conditions disclosed to which I was not privy, but I understood that I was now the newest and youngest probationer member of the eighteen boy trebles of this celebrated choir. (The adult altos, tenors and basses were all paid professional singers). I was told to present myself for the morning rehearsal at 8:30 on Monday, clad in the school uniform of grey jacket, grey shorts, grey stockings, Eton collar with school tie, and the official school cap—something like a baseball cap, dark blue, with three concentric golden rings around it. My mother, clearly having been briefed about this on Saturday, had spent a busy afternoon acquiring all this required regalia.
So, at 8:15 on Monday morning, I was waiting at one of the lesser doors at the back of this huge building, quite uncertain as to how to proceed, when rescue, in the shape of a senior chorister, came wheeling in on his bicycle into the shelter of the cloisters, obviously heading for the same door. “Ah,” said he, “just blew in in time,” for it had started to rain. “You must be the new boy,” he went on. “Just follow me.” I was most grateful for his experienced guidance, and recalled this when, seven years later, I was the most senior chorister, shepherding in the latest addition.
The rehearsal concentrated on the music that would be performed at that day’s Mattins and Evensong, the morning and evening services at which the choir sang most days of the week. I was just a passenger. At 9:15 the boys were all trooped out for a quick walk around the garden of the Bishop’s Palace, beautifully situated between the cathedral and the River Wye. Dr. Hull and his assistants walked behind us, deep in discussion. Ending up in the choir vestry, donning the ecclesiastical robes in preparation for the service, it was decided that there was not enough time to fit me out with robes, so I was taken to sit with one of the vergers, cathedral attendants at the service. So my first choir experience was a listening one.
I marveled at all the elaboration, the handsomely-robed choir and clergy, the formal procession into the choir and clergy stalls, the wonderful sound of the great organ, and the fact that there was virtually no congregation at this 9:30 a.m. Monday morning service. That this was normal throughout the year I learned later. But it had been going on for nearly 900 years, and was a tradition not to be broken lightly. I loved the sound of the choir of which I was now a humble member, and was captivated by the echo and reverberation in this vast stone building. Hereford Cathedral has a reverberation period of close to six seconds, making for a liquid sound that is sheer delight, and to which shortly I would become wedded for the rest of my life.
One of the Anglican chants accompanying the psalms was particularly attractive. I thought “I shall be singing that myself before long.” But by a strange stroke of Fate, in the month that ensued before that chant should turn up again, Dr. Hull removed it and substituted one of his own composing. It puzzled me for years that my favorite chant, by a Victorian composer named Barnby, never turned up again as long as I was at Hereford. From Hereford I went to be organist of St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong, and I lost no time in installing the Barnby chant in our services there.
I quickly learned that part of the compensation for the choirboys’ service to the cathedral was a scholarship to the Cathedral School, an English “Public School” with 350 students (all boys) attached to the cathedral. Nobody seems to know exactly when the school was founded, but the authorities state that there had undoubtedly been a school associated with the cathedral from its beginning. England likes to be a bit confusing from time to time. After all, jt’s the country in which, as the song goes: “If you drive on the left you’ll be right; if you drive on the right you’ll be wrong!” So it is with the term Public School. This is really a Private School, often quite expensive and exclusive. Eton and Harrow are good examples. Private and highly Selective, they still come under the heading of Public Schools.
A free scholarship to HCS was, therefore, a handsome reward. Then also, of course, was the intense musical education we received, with rehearsals every weekday and Sunday mornings, a full rehearsal with the men on Saturday evenings, after Evensong, and many extra rehearsals for festivals and special events. By the time we’d left Probationer status and become Full Choristers, we were hard-boiled professionals. In addition, I’d been studying the piano and Theory with an excellent teacher since I’d been 8 years old.
I gradually worked my way up the seniority ladder, finally becoming the Head Chorister in 1929. In the Spring of that year my voice became unreliable, and finally broke—a sad day. Reaching for that glorious high G, so often an easy routine matter, and suddenly finding that it had gone, was startling stuff. They kept me on for the couple of months that would finish out the school year, and that was that!
History tells us that the composer Haydn, who had learned his music as a boy chorister in St. Stefan’s Cathedral in Vienna, faced with this same situation, had been addressed by his choirmaster. “You’re about to lose your scholarship and its support,” he pointed out. “But there’s a possible solution,” he continued. “If you’ll submit to the operation”—castration, with the loss of one’s prospects of becoming a father— “then we can keep you on.” Haydn, we understand, gave this some thought, but declined the proposal. He eked out a miserable existence by giving lessons and playing, until he managed to secure employment as a musician by one of the aristocratic families of the area.
In my case there was fortunately no question of operations. Instead, I was offered the Sinclair Memorial Scholarship, a memorial to the organist who’d preceded Dr. Hull (and who’s pupil and assistant Hull had been, as well as my own piano teacher). This scholarship enabled me to become an Articled Pupil of Dr. Hull. A somewhat archaic practice, this was one of the ways in which students learned a profession. It still obtained in the professions, with articled architects, articles solicitors (lawyers) as well as music. The professional equivalent of the apprentice in trades such as mechanics, plumbers, artisans, articles were signed which bound the student to a Master in order to learn, at first hand, the profession. The articled pupil quickly became one of the assistants, earning his keep, so to speak, by performing many of the duties for free that the official assistant received remuneration for. It was a great way to learn, with the choir to train, the organ to play, all the musical services to be accompanied: a hands-on approach.
Some of the educational institutions in England, recognizing the validity of this system, permitted such students to take the same exams and acquire the same diploma or degree as those students who had been in-house students of these institutions. In this manner I graduated from the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and a Fellow of Trinity College of Music, London.
In 1935 I saw, in the Musical Times, a notice that St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong, was looking for an organist. Details concerning the position could be obtained by writing to a given address, so I did this. The job looked very interesting to me—a bit exotic, of course, but I was 22 and rarin’ to go. I was quite busy at that time—I had a church organist position in a village near Hereford, and I was the conductor of the Ross-on-Wye Operatic Society in a town fourteen miles from Hereford. I had my cathedral duties, of course, and I was doing a lot of accompanying and chamber music playing, so the application for the Hong Kong position did not get sent.
When I had time to think about it I concluded that the position must by then have been filled, and put it out of my mind. But one day I had a letter hastily written on the back of an adjudication sheet from a Competition Festival somewhere in the Midlands. The writer, one of the adjudicators at the festival, was the chairman of the selection committee for the Hong Kong job, and had been in conversation with Dr. Hull, my master, also an adjudicator at this festival.
The message said: “We have whittled down the fifty applicants for the Hong Kong position to a short list of two. If you are still interested, we’ll be glad to add your name to this list.” I lost not a moment in mailing a confirming reply, mentioning in passing that this was the most exciting adjudication sheet I’d ever received. Shortly I received instructions to present myself on a certain date at Coventry Cathedral, prepared to play a recital and to be interviewed.
When I arrived, music in hand, it was to discover that the other two candidates were from Oxford and Cambridge, and that one had not shown up. After I’d played my recital for the committee—and this was in the old cathedral that was later to be destroyed in the WW II bombing of the city of Coventry—they said: “The position is yours. Let us all go to lunch.” It was then, in a Coventry restaurant, that I discovered it was Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, the Mardi Gras or Greasy Tuesday that precedes the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
After lunch—I had the pancakes of course—we went to the cathedral organist’s house where I had to sign some papers of commitment. “When can you leave?” they asked. Somewhat overcome by all this excitement, I replied: “Oh, right away!” “Well,” said they, “the next P & O ship leaves next week, and that’s probably full. The next after that will be two weeks later, so why don’t we steer for that?” “Sounds great!” I managed to utter.
I drove home to Hereford in a fog of delight, and announced to my parents with whom I was still living, “I’ll be off to Hong Kong for four years in three weeks time.” They took the shock well, happy that I’d secured such a good position so early in my career.
Dr. Hull, however, was not so enthusiastic, despite clearly having given me a good recommendation. “I’d had great hopes for you,” he grumbled. “I was planning to place you in the University of Birmingham.” This was the first I’d heard of any such thoughts, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was a bit late to let me know. “The contract is only for four years,” I pointed out. “That’s a long enough time,” he muttered. “Out of sight, out of mind!”
Neither he nor I could know then that I’d never be back permanently. At the end of my four years in Hong Kong I was invited to the U.S.A.—but that’s a story we’ll deal with later.
Lindsay Lafford, Professor Emeritus
Lord of Ridley