The famous composers trained at Gloucester Cathedral

PUBLISHED: 16:12 26 May 2020 | UPDATED: 16:13 26 May 2020

Gloucester Cathedral in spring sunshine (photo: ChrisAt, Getty Images)

Gloucester Cathedral in spring sunshine (photo: ChrisAt, Getty Images)


When the organ loft at Gloucester Cathedral became the training ground for three iconic composers

For a few months between 1909 and 1910 the organ loft of Gloucester Cathedral was simultaneously the training ground for three of the 20th century’s most iconic cultural figures. These were the composer and poet Ivor Gurney (1906-11), composer Herbert Howells (1909-12) and Ivor Novello (1909-10), whose place in musical history would have been assured if he had just composed the song Keep The Home Fires Burning, but who went on to be a major composer, actor, playwright and impresario.

All three were among the teenage articled pupils of the cathedral organist, Sir Herbert Brewer. He would generally have had a few at any one time, generally ex-cathedral choristers, the sons of local lower middle class families. However of the three stellar pupils of Brewer at this time only Gurney fulfilled all those criteria. Howells was from the Grammar School at Lydney and Novello from Cardiff via Magdalen College School Oxford.

Gloucester Choral Society performing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at Gloucester CathedralGloucester Choral Society performing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at Gloucester Cathedral

By the time Brewer was taking on these young pupils at Gloucester Cathedral that training method had been evolving over several centuries, having grown out of the apprenticeships available for membership of the medieval craft guilds. Over the course of the 19th century the system, as it was used by organists, became progressively more flexible as regards the length of time a pupil might spend with a master and also the legal arrangements behind the relationships. Typically organists would advertise vacancies they had for pupils in the trade journals of the time.

Herbert Howells as a young manHerbert Howells as a young man

There are no articled pupils attached to cathedral organists these days, but up to about the time of the Second World War it was the default method of training for the aspiring church musician; Brewer himself had been an articled pupil of one of his predecessors in the Gloucester organ loft, CH Lloyd. Of his training, one of Brewer’s pupils reported that “We attended all services, in the organ loft, chorister rehearsals in the Song School, and had one piano and one organ lesson a week and showed our paperwork for correction more or less when we had some ready.” Pupils automatically also studied for the standard professional organist exams of ARCO and FRCO and then for a BMus (external) ‘if good enough.’ All Brewer’s articled pupils also had the advantage of the presence of the Three Choirs Festival on their doorstep every third year. These were a good extra training ground and experience for them.

Ivor Gurney as a young manIvor Gurney as a young man

I recently researched the relationship Brewer had with all his traceable articled pupils for an MA with the University of Gloucestershire. I discovered that contrary to the established views that the relationship problems were all on Brewer’s side, many of the difficulties that Gurney, Howells and Novello had with Brewer were as much to do with their own characters and ‘issues’ and some of the commonly quoted incidents between Brewer and Gurney, Howells and Novello are based on flimsy evidence and most probably did not occur in the way that they are commonly reported and repeated.

Brewer was the most organised and business-like of men, whereas even Gurney’s most ardent admirers said that he did not take kindly to having to commit to anything. Therefore the accusation that Gurney made to a close friend, Marion Scott, that Brewer had an unprofessional attitude to his lessons has to be taken with at least a pinch of salt. Similarly Brewer kept himself abreast of contemporary music and commissioned Vaughan Williams to compose the Tallis Fantasia so the idea of that he just knew it was being submitted by ‘a strange man from Chelsea’ as reported by Howells is nonsensical. Finally the assertion that Brewer told Novello that he had no future in music if it was actually said by Brewer in so many words is likely to have actually been part of a sentence that also included ‘unless you knuckle down and learn the basics.’ It was Novello’s composing of Keep The Home Fires Burning just a few years after leaving Brewer that set him up and enabled him to employ others to do the basics for him and thus render Brewer’s wise advice look not so wise after all.

Sir Herbert BrewerSir Herbert Brewer

I also discovered that teaching was Brewer’s vocation. He was not just a musician who happened to have teaching roles within his job description. He believed in the civilising power of music education in all its forms and took every opportunity to input its knowledge to those within his sway whether they were the unmotivated public school pupils of Tonbridge School (where he worked for a few years), his choir boys at Gloucester and elsewhere or his concert and recital audiences.

As a result of this research therefore Howells, Novello and Gurney and their relationship with Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral can now be seen in a different light. He clearly believed in all three of them otherwise he would not have taken them on as pupils – and for two of them (Howells and Novello) he had previously had them as piano pupils so had a clear idea of their potential. However, Gurney was a complex, disorganised genius. Howells was riddled with insecurities and an inferiority complex, Novello had his insecurities but like Gurney was a complex genius. Brewer was seen in his best light as a teacher with averagely talented people who were prepared to graft – like Herbert Sumsion, his chosen successor at Gloucester and many others.

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