Music and Choirs
History of the Choir
The earliest mention of any musical activity at Southwark is in 1365 (then an Augustinian Priory) when one Nicholas Le Clerk was appointed to teach boys to sing and read. In 1456, the parish records include a payment made to the 'theatrical children' at St Saviour's (as it was then known). The first direct reference to professional singers is in 1569 when a certain Brian Pattinson, one of the vestry clerks, helped himself to the huge sum of £20 from funds to pay the Choir. He was dismissed and replaced by a successor 'who shall be a good bass'. At the same time, the Choir also advertised for 'a tenor, that the choir may be better served.'
The Choir prospered during Shakespeare's day when Southwark was the entertainment centre and 'red light' district of London. Its streets were full of cheap hotels, taverns, brothels, gambling haunts and theatres. Shakespeare's troupe of actors lodged here and the tombstone of his brother Edmond Shakespeare, who was an actor in the company, lies between the choir stalls in the Cathedral. William's 20th century memorial is the Cathedral's most popular memorial. Of the list of actors named in the folio edition of Shakespeare's plays in 1623, thirteen are also to be found in the parish records of this time. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the Church's singing boys would have been recruited as child actors and singers in Shakespeare's plays.
St Saviour's Church became the Cathedral for the newly formed Diocese of Southwark in 1905 and has boasted a fine Choir of boys and men for many years, offering pupils at day schools, both independent and state, the opportunity to learn music in the unique English Cathedral tradition. They have become well known through their broadcasts, tours and recordings. As part of the Millennium Project, marking the year 2000, Southwark Cathedral Girls' Choir was formed, on similar lines to the boys, to enrich the Cathedral's musical heritage and to offer the same opportunity for musical, spiritual and social development which the boys have enjoyed for so long. This includes an unparalleled musical education (spanning music from plainsong to the present day). The Choirs sing regular choral services throughout the week and are thus able to minister in a unique way to the people in South London.
The role of the Choir
The English Choral Tradition is renowned throughout the world and is maintained in Cathedrals, College Chapels and larger parish churches. Many of the Cathedrals in England were monastic foundations prior to the Reformation. The Choir enriches the offering of worship day in and day out (the Opus Dei) both in the Office and the Eucharist. The Opus Dei was at the heart of the life of those communities and has continued in our Cathedral churches.
The importance of our Cathedral Choirs in the religious and cultural life of the nation is well acknowledged and supported by many including the Friends of Cathedral Music.
At Southwark the Choir sings each day except on Wednesday and Saturday, when we are often joined by visiting choirs. In addition the Choir sings at special services - memorial services, the consecration of bishops, national events and local commemorations.
The Choir and the music staff also take seriously their responsibility in promoting and encouraging music in churches throughout the Diocese of Southwark. This is done particularly through the work of the Royal School of Church Music.
The Cathedral Choir Today
Peter Wright - Cathedral Organist / Director of Music
Peter Wright was born in Hertfordshire. He was educated at Highgate School and then spent two years as Organ Exhibitioner at the Royal College of Music, studying with Richard Popplewell (Organ) and Angus Morrison (Piano) and gaining various prizes and diplomas. In 1973 he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as Organ Scholar, where he continued his organ studies with Dame Gillian Weir and with Flor Peeters in Belgium.
Following this Peter Wright became Sub-Organist at Guildford Cathedral and, in March 1989, succeeded Harry Bramma as Organist and Director of Music at Southwark Cathedral. Under his direction the Choir has recorded five CDs, undertaken three tours to the USA and several to the continent and broadcast regularly on television and radio, including recording the signature tune for Mr Bean for Thames Television. In 2001 it sang at the Three Choirs Concert of the St Albans International Organ Festival, and in August 2002 the choristers (both the Boys' and Girls' choirs) participated in a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion with Trevor Pinnock at the Proms.
Peter Wright is much in demand as an organ recitalist and choral conductor, both here and abroad, and enjoys performing a wide and varied repertoire. He has recorded the first CD of the restored Lewis organ at Southwark for PRIORY which includes the complete published works of the French organist and composer, Augustin Barié. He was principal conductor of the Guildford Chamber Choir from 1984-1994, and of the Surrey Festival Choir from 1987-2001, and was for several years conductor at the annual Edington Festival. He has travelled widely in Europe and elsewhere as conductor and recitalist, including Japan, South Africa, USA, Bermuda, Australia and New Zealand. In 2000 he performed the complete organ works of J S Bach as part of the Monday lunchtime series of recitals at Southwark, and has recently given recitals in Paris at Notre-Dame and La Trinité.
In April 2000 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Guild of Church Musicians in recognition of his work at Southwark. From 1997-2002 Peter Wright held the office of Honorary Secretary of the Royal College of Organists, afterwards becoming a Vice-President and retaining his role as Chief Examiner. He held the office of President from March 2005 until June 2008.
Stephen Disley - Assistant Organist / Director of the Girls' Choir
Stephen Disley studied at Liverpool Cathedral before winning a joint Foundation Scholarship to the Royal College of Music and London's Temple Church under Dr John Birch. He won many prizes and awards, studied further under Daniel Roth at Saint-Sulpice in Paris and has performed in prestigious masterclasses.
As a recitalist and accompanist he has played at Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, St Paul's Cathedral, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, King's College, Cambridge, and at festivals at Salisbury, Peterborough, Lichfield, the City of London and the International Organ Festival at St Albans. He has performed and broadcast with ensembles such as the BBC Singers (including a disc of selected anthems commissioned by the Musicians Benevolent Fund), the London Symphony Chorus, the Finzi Singers and the Budapest Radio Choir. Recent performances include Poulenc's Organ Concerto in Salzburg, Janacek's Glagolitic Mass in the Montepulciano Festival, Italy, and a Gala Organ Concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra celebrating the refurbishment of the Royal Albert Hall Organ.
Stephen is Assistant Organist at Southwark Cathedral and Founding Director of its Girls Choir. Under his direction, the Girls' Choir has undertaken tours to Bergen, Rouen and the Czech Republic, and has performed on two recordings to excellent reviews, most recently on a CD of hymns on the Herald label. The choristers (both the Boys' and Girls' Choirs) participated in a performance of Bach's St Matthew's Passion with the English Consort and Trevor Pinnock at the Proms. As an organist Stephen has toured the USA and many parts of Europe with the Cathedral Choir, and has featured on broadcasts and recordings. He has appeared with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus in concerts and recordings, including the world premiere of Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio conducted by Carl Davis, Herbert Howells' English Mass, Hymnus Paradisi and Elgar's Dream of Gerontius conducted by Vernon Handley, and Suk's symphonic poem Praga under Libor Pesek. Stephen is an instrumental tutor at the City of London School for Boys.
Further details can be obtained from his website at www.stephendisley.org
Martyn Noble - Harry Coles Organ Scholar
The Harry Coles Organ Scholarship was founded in the year 2000 and endowed following the death of Harry Coles, a former chorister and organ scholar at the Cathedral who died in 2006.
Southwark Cathedral does not have a choir school and so the boys of the Cathedral Choir are drawn from schools throughout London and the surrounding areas. If you are interested in your son auditioning for the Choir, please download the file below or contact the Cathedral for more information.
As with the boys of the Choir the girls are drawn from schools throughout London and the surrounding areas. If you are interested in your daughter auditioning for the Choir please download the file below or contact the Cathedral for more information.
There are six Lay Clerks in the Cathedral Choir and up to six Choral Scholars. Three of the Lay Clerks are supported by endowments from The Ouseley Trust; the Vernon Ellis Foundation and the Friends of Cathedral Music.
In 2004 the Cathedral founded the Merbecke Choir. This Choir is intended to be the place both for boys and girls who leave the Cathedral Choirs and also other young singers who wish to maintain their sight-reading skills acquired as choristers and explore a wide range of repertoire under expert tuition. Several members have gone on to university as choral scholars. The upper age for membership of the choir is 25.
The choir sings Compline on the 4th Sunday of each month at 6.30pm and performs a seasonal concert of music in each of the terms. In addition the choir sings for livery companies in the City of London and for other organisations. A highlight of their career has been singing as part of Her Majesty The Queen's Christmas Broadcast recorded at Southwark Cathedral in 2006.
The Choir is named after the Tudor composer, John Merbecke (1510-1585), who composed one of the most popular settings of the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service. Merbecke with three other companions was tried for heresy in 1543 in the Retrochoir at Southwark, which was used for this purpose at the time. He was found guilty and condemned to be burned at the stake. His sentence was commuted however by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the then Bishop of Winchester, who decided that as a mere musician Merbecke 'knew no better' and so was released to continue his music making.
To join the Merbecke Choir please download the form below and send it to the Director of the Merbecke Choir at the Cathedral or contact the Cathedral for more information.
The final element of the music at Southwark Cathedral is the Thursday Singers. This is made up of people from the local community, residents and those in work in the shops and businesses around the Cathedral, who simply enjoy singing. There is no audition, just a love of choral music. The Thursday Singers sing for Festival Eucharists which fall on a weekday and also sing one service of Choral Evensong most terms. They also lead the singing at the Cathedral's Carol Sing-In before Christmas.
If you are interested in joining the Thursday Singers simply turn up at the Cathedral any Thursday in term time at 1.00pm and ask for the Song School. You will be made most welcome.
Donating to the Cathedral Choir
“Without music the stones have no voice”
The Cathedral would like to secure the future of the Choirs through a sound financial foundation. The cost of the Cathedral music is approximately £170,000 per year, and the Cathedral is most grateful for your support.
If you would like more information about donating to the Choirs, please click here to go through to our fundraising pages.
There are opportunities throughout the year for choirs to come and sing services at Southwark Cathedral. During term time these are restricted to singing Choral Evensong on Wednesday at 5.30pm or Saturday at 4.00pm. During choir holidays we welcome visiting choirs on any day and especially on Sunday to sing at the Choral Eucharist at 11.00am, Choral Evensong at 3.00pm and to provide and organist and/or choir for the service at 6.30pm. Though we are unable to offer to pay fees or expenses we are able to offer a wonderful opportunity for a choir to sing in a beautiful building with a wonderful acoustic in central London.
We provide rehearsal time on the day in the Cathedral and the exact timing of this is arranged when a choir makes a booking with us. Choirs are also free to suggest their own choice of music in consultation with the Cathedral's Director of Music.
If you are interested in bringing a choir to the Cathedral please contact, in the first instance, Susannah Bloomfield: e-mail: email@example.com
T.C. Lewis 1897, Willis III 1952, Harrison & Harrison 1991
The Cathedral's organ was built by Lewis & Co. of Ferndale Road, Brixton, south London, and completed in 1897. Thomas Christopher Lewis, the company's founder, was renowned for building instruments that had a bright, vibrant tone which, in part, was due to his use of low wind pressures. Consequently, he was somewhat out-of-step with the trend at the time, which was tending towards high wind pressures and rather thicker tone. The instrument's action was, and is, electro-pneumatic with slider chests, and the main case was designed by the noted Victorian architect Arthur Blomfield.
Apart from routine maintenance, the instrument remained untouched until 1952, when Henry Willis & Son undertook a major rebuild, during which the wind pressures were increased. The balanced Swell pedal and the hitch-down Solo pedal were replaced by Willis's Infinite Speed and Gradation pedals. The Choir organ - which had been housed in front of the Swell - was relocated to the north side and a new console was installed adjacent to it (the original console was on the south side). The Choir organ's Flauto Traverso was replaced by a Nazard, and a Tierce was provided on a new slider. A number of new couplers were also provided and the Violon unit (32'-16'-8') was extended by 12 pipes to create a Viola 4'.
Some years after the rebuild it was thought that the Willis changes, though undoubtedly well-intentioned, detracted too much from the original concept, so the decision was taken to restore the instrument to the Lewis specifications. The Durham-based firm of Harrison and Harrison was engaged and the work was carried out in two stages. Firstly, in 1986, the electrics were renewed and although the Willis console was retained, it was given a solid state action with eight memory levels for the combination pistons and four for the Crescendo pedal. Also, the Willis swell pedals were replaced by balanced pedals. In 1991, the main work was undertaken, including the re-voicing of the stops on Lewis's original wind pressures. A Lewis Flauto Traverso rank was obtained for the Choir organ, to replace the one discarded by Willis, and the Nazard and Tierce were removed - meaning that the Great organ's Octave Quint is now the instrument's only mutation register. The two prepared for drawstops on the Pedal were also disposed of. Thus, the stop list is now as Lewis left it, except for the Viola 4' which was retained because it was a gift in memoriam.
1 Great Bass 32 (from 3; 1-7 acoustic)
2 Major Violon 32 (from 4)
3 Open Bass 16
4 Violon 16
5 Sub Bass 16
6 Dulciana Bass 16 (1-5 stopped)
7 Violoncello 8 (from 4)
8 Flute 8 (from 5)
9 Viola 4 (from 7) (Willis 1952)
10 Octave Flute 4 (from 8)
11 Contra Posaune 32 (from 13)
12 Bombarde 16
13 Posaune 16
14 Trumpet 8 (from 12)
I Great to Pedal
II Swell to Pedal
III Swell Octave to Pedal
IV Choir to Pedal
V Choir Octave to Pedal
VI Solo to Pedal
VII Solo Octave to Pedal
Choir Organ (unenclosed)
15 Lieblich Gedackt 16
16 Geigen Principal 8
17 Lieblich Gedackt 8
18 Salicional 8
19 Dulciana 8
20 Salicet 4
21 Lieblich Gedackt 4
22 Flauto Traverso 4
23 Lieblich Gedackt 2
24 Mixture 15.19.22 III
VIII Swell to Choir
IX Solo to Choir
X Choir to Octave
XI Choir to Sub Octave
XII Choir Unison Off
25 Contre Viole 16 (1-17 from 4)
26 Bourdon 16 (1-24 from 5)
27 Open Diapason No. 1 8
28 Open Diapason No. 2 8
29 Flûte Harmonique 8 (1-12 from 30)
30 Stopped Diapason 8
31 Octave 4
32 Flûte Harmonique 4
33 Octave Quint 2 2/3
34 Super Octave 2
35 Cornet 12.15.17 III/V (from ten C 126.96.36.199 /
from mid C 188.8.131.52.17)
36 Mixture 184.108.40.206 IV
37 Trumpet 8
XIII Swell to Great
XIV Swell to Great Sub Octave
XV Swell to Great Octave
XVI Choir to Great
XVII Choir to Great Sub Octave
XVIII Choir to Great Octave
XIX Solo to Great
XX Solo to Great Octave
Swell Organ (enclosed)
38 Lieblich Bordun 16
39 Open Diapason 8
40 Rohr Flöte 8
41 Viole de Gambe 8
42 Voix Célestes (t.c.) 8
43 Geigen Principal 4
44 Rohr Flöte 4
45 Flautino 2
46 Mixture 220.127.116.11 IV
47 Contra Fagotto 16
48 Horn 8
49 Oboe 8
50 Voix Humaine 8
51 Clarion 4
XXI Tremulant to Swell
XXII Solo to Swell
XXIII Swell to Octave
XXIV Swell to Sub Octave
XXV Swell Unison Off
Solo Organ (enclosed)
52 Flûte Harmonique 8
53 Vox Angelica 8
54 Unda Maris (t.c.) 8
55 Flûte Harmonique 4
56 Cor Anglais (t.c.) 16
57 Orchestral Oboe 8
58 Clarinet 8
59 Trombone 16
XXVI Tremulant to Solo
60 Tuba Magna 8
61 Trompette Harmonique 8
XXVII Solo to Octave
XXVIII Solo to Sub Octave
XXIX Solo Unison Off
I Great and Pedal Combinations Coupled
II Generals on Swell toe Pistons (plunger switch)
III Doubles Off (Rocker Tablet)
IV Pedal Stops Off (Rocker Tablet)
Seven toe pistons to Pedal Organ
Seven toe pistons to Swell Pistons
Seven thumb pistons and cancel to Great Organ
Seven thumb pistons and cancel to Swell Organ
Seven thumb pistons and cancel to Choir Organ
Seven thumb pistons and cancel to Solo Organ
Seven general pistons
One general piston for couplers
Reversible thumb pistons to:
Choir to Pedal
Great to Pedal
Swell to Pedal
Solo to Pedal
Swell to Great
Choir to Great
Solo to Great
Swell to Choir
Solo to Choir
Solo to Swell
Pedal Posaune 16
Reversible toe pistons to:
Choir to Pedal
Great to Pedal
Pedal Violon 32
Pedal Posaune 32
One thumb piston for Octave Coupler Cancel
One General Cancel piston
Balanced expression pedals for Swell and Solo Organs
General Crescendo Pedal, with indicator
All non-reversible pistons adjustable by setter
Eight memories for General and Divisional pistons
Pedal: CCC-f 30 notes
Manual: CC-c 61 notes
Justin Sillman 1991
This organ, which is regularly used in services in the Cathedral, was built in 1991 to complement the musical resources already in place.
Stopped Diapason 8