History of Music at the Abbey
From the foundation of the Abbey in 1083
music has formed a vital and integral part of the life of the
building. The Benedictine brothers who populated the Abbey
throughout the Middle Ages regularly sang the plainsong offices of
their order. The brothers would have gathered together eight times
throughout the day and night to sing their praises. The customary
Sung at Midnight
Sung at 3:00 am
Sung at 6:00 am
Sung at 9:00 am
Sung at 12:00 pm
Sung at 3:00 pm
Sung at 6:00 pm
Compline: Sung at
Most of these services
comprised psalms, readings from scripture and plainsong hymns. The
major hours of Lauds and Vespers comprising a more complex liturgy
which included canticles which are still regularly sung in the
church: the Te Deum,
Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis and
Whilst there is little evidence of the
musical foundation of the Abbey remaining, there are suggestions
that music at the Abbey was held in some regard. As early as 1306
King Edward II sent one of his choristers, Richard the Rhymer, to
the Abbey to learn the
‘mistrelstry of the
crwth’, a forerunner to the violin. There is
even evidence that the monks were active as composers: it has been
suggested that a four-part Latin motet, composed between 1285 and
1320 in honour of St Winifred, had its origins at the Abbey, where
there was a cult devoted to the Saint.
Whatever musical foundation existed at
the Abbey was swept away at the Abbey’s dissolution in January 1540
when much of the Abbey was razed and the nave transformed into the
Church of the Parish of Holy Cross. From this period until the
beginning of the nineteenth-century the Abbey appears to have
existed in a musical hinterland -- with accompaniment to the singing
provided only by ad hoc instrumentalists.
In 1806 Lord Berwick advertised his
plan for the restoration of the Abbey Church:
He suggested that
putting up a window of stained-glass at the east end, over the
Communion table, and by erecting an organ
of suitable dimensions for the service of the church’, the appearance and worship of the Abbey
Church would be infinitely improved. He personally offered
£100 to the fund but mentioned that whilst the cost of the
organ was expected to be
£400. 'The salary of an organist can be provided for out of the
funds of the parish, without any further assistance’.
Under the scheme, a future mayor of
Shrewsbury, Thomas Tomlins was appointed organist. An organ was
installed on a gothic gallery in the tower at the west of the Abbey
by Gray of London at a cost of 365 guineas. Tomlins opened the
organ, with its fascinating and unclassifiable case, in January 1807
on which occasion,
‘a suitable discourse was preached to a large and respectable
congregation by the Rev Dr Goddinge’.
Thomas Tomlins left the Abbey in 1820
upon his appointment as organist of St Mary’s Shrewsbury. His death
in 1847 was reported in elegiac terms:
‘The attainments of Mr. Tomlins in the science of music were of no
ordinary character; his rapid execution on the violin, and the
brilliant tones which he elicited from that instrument, will long be
remembered with satisfaction and delight. His name for half a
century had been associated with music, particularly as the leader
of the Shrewsbury Choral Society, and in the exercise of that duty
he at all times commanded the highest confidence from those under
his direction. At the same time it may be stated, that his untiring
zeal, energy, and punctuality, in all that he undertook, was ever
conspicuous, and made it a source of pleasurable occupation to
everyone who happened to be united with him in the soul-inspiring
cultivation of melody’.
He was replaced as organist was John
Amott, a former pupil of William Mutlow, at Gloucester Cathedral.
Amott returned to Gloucester as organist in 1832 and died in the
cathedral in 1865 having conducted the final bars of Mendelssohn’s
Hear My Prayer.
Amott was replaced as organist by John
Hiles, the elder brother of the composer Henry Hiles. John Hiles was
also a prolific composer and teacher. He was variously the organist
of the Abbey, the Music Hall, St Julian’s and the Trinity Chapel in
Shrewsbury. He left in the Abbey in 1847 upon his election to the
post at St Julian’s. He left Shropshire in 1853 upon his appointment
as organist of St Thomas, Portsmouth, today’s Portsmouth Cathedral.
Hiles was replaced by the brilliant
young organist, William Fletcher, born in Ludlow in 1820. Aged only
20, in 1840, and already acknowledged
‘a talented young professor’,
and had previously been
‘elected organist of the parish
church at Hales Owen Shropshire. The organ is a new instrument
containing sixteen stops, built by Banfield of Birmingham’.
Under Hiles and Fletcher the choir
assumed its present shape albeit as a choir of men and boys.
Sometime in the mid 1850’s Fletcher lost his sight but it was not
until 1865 that the vestry advertised nationally for a new organist.
[The Musical Standard, 1st
The new organist, James Warburton,
arrived at a time when there were extensive restorations happening
within the Abbey buildings. His seventeen year tenure saw the
removal of the Gray organ from its gallery at the west of the church
to a position at the east end and the extension of the east end and
quire to something resembling its original dimensions. The laying of
the foundation stone of the new chancel in 1886 was commemorated by
the photograph of the clergy and choir displayed below.
Warburton left the Abbey in 1892 and was
replaced by Percy William Pitcher who combined his position at the
Abbey, with a private teaching practice and a teaching position at
Shrewsbury School. It was his direction that the Gray organ was
replaced in 1911 by a new Hill instrument, which remains today. The
new organ was dedicated on 17 September 1911
‘At eleven o’clock full choral matins took place, and a sermon was
preached by the Archdeacon of Salop (Ven. C.B. Maude) who preached
on the text “Praise Him with stringed instruments and organs” (Psalm
150 verse 4). In the course of his address the Archdeacon
expressed the great gratification it afforded him to be taking part
in that service, and said he thought it was praiseworthy that they
should have undertaken the provision of a new organ so quickly after
the large expenditure of money on the tower. The preacher went
on to trace the origin of organs from the beginning, and gave an
interesting description of the early use of stringed instruments.
A new organ necessarily resulted in improving the singing in a
church, and he also trusted that their singing would become more and
more congregational, as with the attention at present devoted to the
teaching of music in the schools, people were now able to take their
own part in the services.
Evensong on Sunday began with a procession, and the anthem “For He
is a most High Lord” (Sir George Martin) was admirably rendered by
the choir. There were large congregations throughout the day,
and the collections were donated to the new organ fund’.
Throughout the twentieth century the Abbey has been served by
a number of talented and dedicated musicians who have built upon
these historic foundations and have produced a choir which regularly
sings cathedral-style services to the very highest standards.
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