A History of the Vaughan Schola
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
This essay first appeared in the programme for the Fortieth Anniversary Concert, given at Cadogan Hall in March 2020.
A History of the Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School
For the first twenty years of its existence following its founding in 1914 the Cardinal Vaughan School appears to have had very little music. The first reference to a choir at the Vaughan is in 1937 and it was only under the short headship of Monsignor Reginald Butcher (1948-1952) that music began to develop. When distinguished violist Bernard Shore visited the School in 1950 to give a recital he commented on the “beautiful tone” of the School Choir and suggested that they should soon tackle music in four parts. In the 1960s and 70s, Fr David Konstant (who would later become Bishop of Leeds) and Anthony Pellegrini (later to join the priesthood) would lead the School Choir through the staples of the choral repertoire in concerts that were increasingly ambitious.
In 1980, four years into his Headship, and determined to raise the standards of choral singing yet higher, Anthony Pellegrini decided to found a new, smaller choir, whose main role would be singing for the School’s liturgy. Fr Pellegrini relates how ‘My inspiration was a Dominican nun, Sister Rose, who had taught me in the 1950s at St James’, in Burnt Oak. Her ability and energy were legendary and her pupils’ performances (e.g. Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St Matthew Passion) were far, far above-average.’
From the start Fr Pellegrini was very ambitious for the Schola and as well as singing for the School each week, the choir sang frequently in various parishes around London. The choir made its first visit to Nazareth House, a retirement home in Hammersmith, in 1982 as Fr Pellegrini’s father was being cared for there – this visit continues each Advent to this day. The Schola also began to sing at Westminster Cathedral, most often for the Feast of Christ the King, a tradition that also continues. It made its first trip abroad, to Paris, as early as April 1980, singing for Masses at Notre Dame and at the Madeleine. In 1981 the Schola made the first of a number of visits to the Loreto Festival in Italy, and in 1982 the choir travelled to Holland and Germany. It appears that the Schola consisted of mainly younger boys in these early years, with the back row made up principally of staff and some Old Vaughanians. Robert Anderson, Stephen Arthur, Paul Coveney, Mark McKenna, Barry Turner, and Michael Gormally, were to spend many hours singing with the Schola in the 1980s.
The Schola’s reputation in London was ever-growing and when Pope, now Saint John Paul II visited England in 1982 the Schola took part in the ceremony held at Wembley Stadium. Two years later the Schola travelled to Rome for the first time and, in a famous moment in the choir’s history, sang once again for Saint John Paul, this time following the Papal Audience in St Peter’s Square. Assisted by Father Terry Phipps (an Old Vaughanian who was then training for the priesthood at the English College in Rome) the choir had obtained a very good position in the crowd, very near the Holy Father. As the Pope’s oration ended they immediately struck up Adamo Volpi’s Oremus pro Pontifice, as carefully planned by Fr Pellegrini. To everyone’s delight the Pope approached the Schola and put his arms round a couple of the trebles, Matthew Catlow (whose father, John, was the School’s Director of Music at the time) and Adriano Guarinon. When the motet came to an end the Pope congratulated the boys on singing so well in Latin, which he said surprised him given that they were from England.
In 1984 the Schola made its first recording, a collection of Catholic Hymns entitled Firmly I Believe. Tours continued with the Schola travelling to Athens in 1986 and 1989, the Loreto Festival again in 1990 and 1994, to Normandy and Strasbourg in 1992 and to Venice in 1993. In 1988 the Schola undertook its then most ambitious tour to date, travelling to the USA for two weeks, singing at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, at both the Catholic and Episcopalian Cathedrals in Washington, in Boston and in Philadelphia.
A memorable occasion came in December 1990 when the Schola was invited to appear on the Wogan show (a nightly chat show on the BBC) with Dudley Moore. Prior to finding fame as a comedian and actor, Dudley Moore had been Organ Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford and to close the Christmas episode of the Wogan show the Schola sang O Come All Ye Faithful, accompanied by Dudley Moore at the organ. The choir was conducted on that occasion not by Fr Pellegrini, but by a member of the Sixth Form, Spencer Boney. Spencer was an outstanding musician who was to go on to study at the Guildhall School of Music before being tragically killed in a car accident in 1995.
The boys’ voices were put to a different use for six months in 1992 when the Schola provided 25 singers for the West End production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, appearing alongside Jason Donovan. These boys performed seven shows a week, missing school every Wednesday afternoon for the matinée!
In 1992 Fr Pellegrini decided it was time for someone else to direct the Schola and appointed Christopher Scott, a recent graduate of the Guildhall School of Music, where he had won the Dove Prize as the Most Outstanding Musician of his year. Chris Scott was a very fine pianist and organist but had little experience of running choirs. Nonetheless, his high level of musical training and very considerable talents shone through brightly and quickly the quality of the choir reflected their new director’s outstanding musicianship.
The appointment of Kevin Breen as Director of Music at the Vaughan in 1994 gave the Schola its third director. Kevin helped establish a number of important connections, in particular the link with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and boys sang in La bohème and Samson and Delilah in the 1996 season and Tosca in 1997. There was also a mammoth run of 18 performances of Carmen at English National Opera in 1996. Other memorable occasions included the Schola singing at the opening Mass of Westminster Cathedral’s Centenary Celebrations in January 1995. Frederick Stocken was appointed organist around this time, a position he held until 2001. Frederick, a kind and humorous man, greatly accomplished as a composer as well as an organist, was a very positive presence during his years at the School.
When Michael Gormally was appointed Headmaster in 1997 he had great ambitions for music in general and the Schola in particular, and appointed Charles Cole to direct the choir, starting from January 1998. Charles Cole had just completed a year as Organ Scholar of Westminster Cathedral, and had been a chorister there as a boy. His credentials were perfect to run the choir and the following fourteen years saw the Schola achieve new heights of performance under his direction. Early in Charles Cole’s time the Schola gave a number of performances on the BBC’s Songs of Praise and ITV’s Sunday Morning Worship, including a live broadcast from St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater. 1999 saw the Schola make its first CD for 15 years, a follow up to Firmly I Believe entitled Praise to the Holiest, bringing together a further selection of Catholic hymns. This was the first of three recordings made by the Schola during Charles’ time, the second being a collection of Christmas music entitled Sing in Exultation (2002) and finally a recording of Mendelssohn’s setting of the Corpus Christi Sequence, Lauda Sion (2005).
The Schola had not travelled abroad since 1994 and so the trip to Paris in 2000 marked something of a new beginning for the choir’s foreign pursuits. A trip to Rome in 2002 when the choir sang at all four of the major Papal Basilicas in the same week was particularly memorable and this was followed by tours to Rome and Assisi in 2005, Barcelona in 2007, Venice in 2008 and Rome again in 2011. The Schola also travelled alongside its School Choir colleagues on tours to New York and Washington in 2006, Austria in 2008, Prague in 2010 and California in 2012. No doubt the single biggest occasion in Charles Cole’s time came in September 2010 when the boys sang in their first BBC Prom concert, with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra under Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the Royal Albert Hall. This was the 400th Anniversary performance of the Monteverdi Vespers and was broadcast live on both BBC television and radio. The film composer Alexander Desplat was watching the broadcast and was so taken with the boys’ singing that he wrote a part for them into the score of the sixth Harry Potter film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1).
In addition to the tours and recordings, the Schola gave numerous very fine concerts during the Charles Cole years, notably performances of JS Bach’s St John Passion and the Monteverdi Vespers. It was upon the liturgy however that Charles Cole always directed his focus and his work with the Schola week in week out at the Lower School Mass never lost sight of the reason that the choir was founded in the first instance. Charles’s sustained insistence on musical excellence and his thoroughly professional approach to the choir training ensured that he left the choir in a very strong position. The boys greatly admired and respected Charles and there was much sorrow when he announced his departure in April 2012.
Charles Cole was instrumental in the appointment of the Schola’s first singing teacher, Paul Gillham, who joined the School in 1999, teaching until 2007 when he left to train for the priesthood; he is now a priest of the Rosminian Order. Boys in the Schola from those years all share happy memories of the inspiring, rather wacky way in which Mr Gillham would conduct lessons. In 2005 the School was very fortunate to obtain the services of Anita Morrison, one of the most highly regarded singing teachers in the UK and a recognised expert in the training of the treble voice. Anita had worked with the boys at Westminster Cathedral for a number of years and her understanding of the boys’ voices and her ability to get the best from them was hugely important in the development of the quality of the choir’s singing in the years that followed. Anita works with the boys to this day, now together with Susanne Dymott, and the quality of the treble singing has never been higher, with the boys frequently winning operatic solo roles on London’s professional stages. Today Julian Clarkson, Sarah Gabriel and Old Vaughanian Peter Davoren train the older boys’ voices.
Peter Davoren was one of a number of outstanding singers to emerge from the choir in the 2000s. The first Oxbridge Choral Scholarship was won in 2002 when Stefan Schrijnen joined the choir of New College, Oxford. Several boys have followed Stefan into this famous choir and the Schola has provided singers for a great number of colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge. The choir has also been a training ground for a remarkable number of Oxbridge organ scholars, all trained as organists by Iestyn Evans. Iestyn first worked with the Schola on the Trip to Paris in 2000 and was appointed Organist at the Vaughan the following year. Since then he has loyally supported the choir, providing a wonderfully high quality of accompaniment for the singers, encouraging, forgiving, and accommodating of their many foibles, playing a crucial role in the success of the Schola over the past nearly twenty years.
When Charles Cole left the Vaughan in 2012, the Director of Music, Scott Price, became the director of the choir. The past eight years have seen a further increase in the profile of the Schola and the boys have enjoyed a yet wider range of opportunities than ever before. Two recordings have been released, In Honour of Our Lady (2013) and the Fauré Requiem recorded with the Belgravia Chamber Orchestra. Tour destinations have included Poland (2013), Madrid (2014) the USA (Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and New York – 2015), Rome (2016), South Africa (2017), Burgos and Salamanca (2018), Leipzig and Dresden (2019) and Paris (2019).
New ‘traditions’ have emerged including the choir singing Handel’s Messiah each Christmas – with boys singing the solos - and there have been many concert performances including the Monteverdi Vespers with His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts at Arundel Cathedral, the St John Passion at Douai Abbey and a number of concerts with the period instrument ensemble St James’ Baroque. A memorable occasion came in 2017 when the Schola gave a concert of Venetian polychoral music with His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts at the Temple Church as part of their annual music series. World renowned counter tenor Iestyn Davies sang with the Schola in a concert of Purcell and Charpentier in 2014 at St John’s Smith Square and in 2015 boys sang in a performance of Sir James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, conducted by the composer, broadcast live on Radio 3 from King’s College, Cambridge.
The boys remain a regular feature at Covent Garden, appearing as both soloists and chorus members in numerous operas and singing on a number of the Opera House’s DVD releases. Boys have also sung at English National Opera and at Opera Holland Park.
Much in demand in the commercial world, the boys’ voices feature on a considerable number of film soundtracks. The choir enjoys a close relationship with Danny Elfman, having sung for several of his scores. The most notable film recording to date came in 2013 when the boys sang on the score for Life of Pi; Mychael’s Danna’s music, which featured the boys voices extensively, went on to win the 2014 Oscar for Best Film Score. Mychael Danna composed a Christmas Carol for the Schola in 2014, sung at the Carol Service that year. Other composers to do this include Matthew Martin, Ben Parry and Russell Hepplewhite, whilst in 2014 leading Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan composed a motet, Emitte Lucem Tuam, to mark the School’s Centenary. The Schola’s latest commission, marking its fortieth anniversary, a setting of the Ave Maris Stellaby Roderick Williams OBE will be performed for the first time this evening.
And so to the future. In May this year the Schola will become the first state school choir ever to lead a broadcast of BBC Choral Evensong on Radio 3 when it sings the First Vespers of the Ascension from Our Lady of Victories on Kensington High Street. In October the choir travels to Australia, and in March 2021 the Schola will give its first-ever performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass. Such exciting ventures aside however, the choir will always put first its essential role of serving the School’s liturgy, and of striving to become an ever more faithful musical embodiment of our motto: Amare et Servire.