St Mary's Cathedral Choir

Music at St Mary's
by Michael T.R.B. Turnbull
(updated February 2016)

As late as 1793, by the order of Bishop George Hay (vicar apostolic for the Lowland District), singing in Scottish Catholic chapels was forbidden. This was a matter of prudence, as Bishop Hay had seen his own Edinburgh chapel looted and burnt in 1779. (1) However, this ban was unpopular with Edinburgh priests and lay people; some twenty Catholics had engaged Gianbattista Corri as choirmaster and continued to practise in spite of it. However, it was not until 1810, under Bishop Alexander Cameron, that congregational singing was re-introduced to Catholic churches in Scotland.

In 1814, when the new St Mary’s chapel in Edinburgh was completed, Bishop Cameron gave permission for a choir to be formed again. In the same year, St Mary’s became the first Scottish public Catholic chapel to have an organ (Messrs Wood and Company of Edinburgh). An organ loft at the east end of the church was also installed.

By 1820 a visiting Polish diarist, Karol Sinekiewicz, commented on the fine singing at St Mary’s. A military band was heard in St Mary’s for the first time in 1841, when a ‘Te Deum’ was sung to the accompaniment of the organ and the band of the 29th Regiment to mark the safe birth of the Princess Royal and the re-opening of the church after redecoration. (1)

Choir stalls in the Cathedral
Choir stalls in the Cathedral

In 1858, Charles Hargitt, son of a local music teacher, announced the holding of weekly meetings ‘for the practice of oratorios and other large works’ in Wood and Company’s Salon at Waterloo Place. This marked the formation of the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, members of which continued to augment St Mary’s Choir when required, along with the Leith Philharmonic Society.

Charles Hargitt left Edinburgh in 1866 to become musical director of the Jesuit church at Farm Street in London. From this time, very little is known of the musical life of St Mary’s.

An alarming event took place on Sunday 28 December 1886, as a children’s Mass was coming to an end. Suddenly, a lady sitting near the door saw smoke rising from the Cloister Chapel. She immediately raised the alarm and panic spread through the whole building as members of the congregation, young and old, rushed for the exit doors. The fire spread rapidly and quickly the main church was thick with smoke. The passkeeper shouted to the congregation to retire quietly through the main doors into Broughton Street.

However, the choir gallery (then above the present main entrance porch of the Church) was full of young singers and there was no other way out other than a stair that led down to the ground by means of a door at the end of the Cloister. The Cloister was well ablaze, full of smoke that filled the church. Fortunately, someone found a ladder and the young choristers who had not dropped the fifteen feet to the Cathedral floor were brought down safely. The fire brigade were unable to save the Cloister Chapel, but managed to prevent the fire spreading to the adjoining Theatre Royal and to one half of the main body of the Cathedral.

The cause of the fire was never discovered. It may have been accidental, perhaps caused by a candle falling on the straw in the Christmas crib, or it may have come from the central heating chamber. (2)

At the turn of the century, Fr McDonald was in charge of the choir. In 1908, Matthew Mccabe was appointed organist and choirmaster, a post he held until his death in 1940. After the appointment of Canon McGettigan as Cathedral Administrator in 1923 Mr Mccabe was given full scope for his musical ambitions and a male voice choir took its place on the sanctuary.

During this period the choir was composed of male and female singers, occasionally joined by the operatic stars of the Carl Rosa and other visiting companies. Mr Maccabe formed the first male voice choir at St Mary’s in 1914, and gradually this choir came to be positioned on the sanctuary itself.

In 1940 John McGrogan MA MusBac succeeded Matthew Maccabe. John McGrogan was well known as a pianist and accompanist and was a regular broadcaster. However, in 1949, he handed over the direction of the choir to John Lappin, a teacher of Latin. He increased the size of the choir to 25 boys and 15 men in order to perform Gregorian chant and polyphonic music.

St Mary's Cathedral Choir in the 1950s
St Mary's Cathedral Choir (1950s)

At this time Dom Gregory Ould OSB, a Benedictine monk of St Benedict’s Abbey, Fort Augustus was closely associated with St Mary’s, writing settings of the Proper of the Mass for the Cathedral Choir.

In 1956 Arthur Oldham was appointed as professional director of music. He continued to work with John McGrogan until the latter’s sudden death in 1961, when he was succeeded as organist by Fr Bryan Byrne and then by Fr Alex Bremner.

Under Arthur Oldham the Cathedral Choir reached a new level of competence. Mr Oldham had studied at the Royal College of Music and then with Sir Benjamin Britten. Among his published compositions were opera, ballet, choral and orchestral works. His ‘Laudes Creaturarum’ was recorded by the Cathedral Choir and the Scottish National Orchestra. He also introduced Scottish pre-Reformation music such as Robert Carver’s 19 part motet ‘O Bone Jesu.’ The Cathedral Choir at this time became the first group to sing Britten’s ‘Miss Brevis’ in Scotland. (3)

St Mary's Cathedral Choir with Arthur Oldham
St Mary's Cathedral Choir with Arthur Oldham

At the Edinburgh Festival in 1963 the Choir provided the boys’ voices for two concerts with the Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra. He went on to found the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Scottish Opera Chorus, using (among many others) singers from St Mary’s Cathedral Choir. Arthur Oldham continued to direct the choir until 1971, when he left to concentrate on his rapidly expanding workload with his professional choirs.

For many years Fr Alex Bremner had been Cathedral organist. He was succeeded by Neil Beynon, and later followed by Stephen Doughty. After Arthur Oldham’s departure the St Mary’s Cathedral Choir was directed by George Farmer (1971-93), the composer Vincent Wallace (1993-98), Roderick Bryce (1998-99), Stephen Doughty (1999-2001) — who also played the organ — and Roderick Bryce (2001-04).

Today, the Choir Director is Michael Ferguson. A new and much enlarged Cathedral organ has also recently been installed by Messrs Matthew Copley.

References:
(1) Christine Johnson, Developments in the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, 1789-1829 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1983), 161-69
(2) Archbishop Gordon J Gray, St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh 1814-1989 (Edinburgh, 1989), 13
(3) Arthur Oldham, Living with Voices (London: Thames Publishing, 2000), 43-46

Contact: Anyone interested in singing in the Cathedral Choir should contact Michael Ferguson via Cathedral House. Telephone 0131 556 1798 or e-mail cathedralhouse [at] stmaryscathedral.co.uk