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 offices were:
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 Benedicite.
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 ‘by 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 July 1865]
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.