SIGNING OFF – a message from your recently retired ex-Director

It is hard to believe, looking back, that my association with Schola goes back nearly 33 years – I don’t even feel that old inside (though progressively more so on the outside!), let alone find it credible that my memories can extend that far – to 1981, when I first received an invitation from Mary to join a project she had in hand to give an afternoon concert in Ghent of chant and associated pieces for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 14th September, the day of the concert itself.

For the rehearsal period (‘Have you all got your Schola pencils?’) of some three days we were lodged in collegiate luxury at Newnham, dining with such fellows as were about and taking tea in Mary’s rooms; it was all utterly and delightfully traditional. On the day of travel we set off in a minibus at some ungodly hour to catch the red-eye ferry from Lowestoft to Zeebrugge, a party of two or three cantors, a number of under- and recent graduates forming the choir, the late, dear Dom Alan Rees OSB from Belmont (who described himself as Mary’s ‘tame Benedictine’), and Ann Bond, who was to play some chant-based pieces on a chamber organ. We arrived in rather good time (a feature, I was soon to realise, of all Mary’s travel arrangements) and so had the opportunity to fortify ourselves with a mug of tea in the rough and ready caff among all the hairy-armed long-distance lorry drivers while we waited for our boat to be called. At what must have been about 5am boarding was duly announced; and Mary, nothing abashed, leapt to her feet and intoned ‘Procedamus in pace’, to which the keener and less bashful lustily responded ‘In nomine Christi. Amen’. The lorry-drivers looked completely incredulous, and I seem to remember even Fr Alan staring at the floor with an air of ‘I’m not with these people’ about him; but we were away from the starting blocks of my first, unique, slightly mad and utterly uplifting Schola trip.

The concert itself was a revelation. We were to perform robed, with lots of Catholic processions and bits of ceremonial, in one of those big brick-built mediaeval churches you get in the Low Countries that first of all get turned sideways in the early 17th century so that the central focus is on the pulpit erected on a side wall (the sermon being the main event in the particularly dour species of post-Reformation religion in that part of the world), and then become museums to all intents and purposes. Mary managed to make it a veritable basilica. But the most astonishing thing was the size and composition of the audience; standing room only in this large church, mothers with toddlers in pushchairs, young and old, all virtually swinging from the rafters. And this for a concert of chant? You simply would not have got this response in England at that time, or, I sadly have to admit, at any time since.

With the wild applause still ringing in our ears we made our way back to the ferry (I think it was that very evening) to take the night boat back to Lowestoft, crammed into basic sleeping berths 4 to a small room (a bit like I imagine being in an overcrowded prison cell feels). Unwinding with a beer in the bar before bed, the conversation became rather heated, and one of the choir, evidently a student of the chant, shrilled in a high-pitched Welsh accent ‘But you don’t seem to realise that the quilisma had disappeared from the manuscripts by the 12th century’ at just the moment that the whole room (more lorry-drivers) fell silent. More incredulity from the assembled company, but the speaker won my eternal admiration for adding, in the awkward silence that ensued, ‘There, that shocked you, didn’t it?’

Well, I could retail any number of such tales from the ensuing decades, when several times a year the call would come to take part in Mary’s projects, and always the same delightful mix of the weird and wonderful, exquisite music and frantic travel arrangements, astonishing venues and completely liberated companionship, often a sense of triumph against the odds; and always in an atmosphere of innocent joy unlike anything else I encountered in my professional life where status-anxiety, competitiveness and haughty grandeur tended to make for a rather uncomfortable experience. Of course Mary was strict ; ‘It’s a Schola rule – no alcohol to be taken on the day of a performance’ was honoured as much in the breach as in the observance, and ‘If you do that in the concert, I will throttle you’ said in such a way that you really believed she might! But she also invested a lot of trust in her singers, letting them off the leash when it was productive, and, in a very understated way, a lot of love in both them and the whole undertaking; and you felt it. I suppose she was one of the last of those firm and formal but loving teachers there seem to be so few of nowadays.

Over the years Mary took me more and more into her confidence, and I was glad to be able to help her from time to time, organising a recording session for a demo disc at 24 hours notice on one occasion, or recruiting a large local choir for a one-off event here in St Albans on another and suchlike. She in return very graciously consented to become a patron of Spode Music Week, an annual residential course of which I am chairman, and several times came to give us a talk or rehearse a Vespers, all for love alone. That course was held at that time at Hengrave Hall, and it was at our Associates’ weekend there in early 2004 that, having co-opted me as Assistant Director in I think 1999, she took me aside and solemnly laid her hand on my shoulder and said ‘You must keep all this going when I’m gone’. Of course we knew her health had been declining, and I suppose we sensed dimly what she perhaps knew more clearly, that she wouldn’t go on for ever. She went on to explain what her hopes had always been for the Schola, not just its public face but its inner ethos and atmosphere too, and I promised that I would do what I could, which in all humility was all that I could promise. Being only an amateur of the chant, only fairly-well informed about it, I couldn’t hope to bring her personal authority to the work; but as a singer and musician I might be able to contribute something relevant, and certainly as the chairman of my Music Week I understood what she wanted to carry forward as the social ethos of the Schola.

A little over four years later I found myself held to my promise, and over the ensuing five I have done my best to keep it. I started by completing the last project Mary had in hand, the Templars, and then settled down to the routine of our twice yearly Associates’ weekends, with two other major projects to follow, Fontevraud/Las Huelgas and Charlemagne/Antichrist (the latter sounds rather alarming when you put it like that!). I also tried to get a continuous buzz of day workshops going, and if that hasn’t quite come true for us, it is not least because many others are also undertaking the same work, and tha main thing is that the chant gets sung. I have indeed invested a lot of time and energy that I don’t really have in these projects, but I have little doubt that it is some sort of intervention from upstairs that has made a little go, I hope you will agree, a long way. And above all, I’ve received the unstinting support and affirmation from all of you without which I could never have kept going. In particular the Trustees, and among them especially Bernard, Grey, John and Patrick, my academic face-saver Dr David Hiley, my indulgent and untiring mentor and Associate Philip and all the Assistants, and all our dear and indispensible friends from CJ at St Benedict’s have put in at least as much as I have (how on earth did Mary, with only Sr Alicia at her side, manage to get so much done?) and for that I thank them with all my heart. My retirement was marked, as those of you who were there will remember, with a most heartwarming and humbling celebration dinner at Whitby. I was a little too overcome to thank you properly for that honour, but I do so now, and assure you that every time my Le Creuset tatin dish comes out (often please, Julia!), I will remember not only my years as Director of the Schola and what an honour it was to have been able to be of service, but all the delightful individuals who carried me along.

But this is not a farewell, just a change of hats from Director to Trustee and I’ll be seeing as many of you in the coming years as often as I can, just like old times. It only remains to join in the unanimous
chant of Ad multos annos/Feliciter to our new Director, Christopher.

Jeremy White