Bolton School Former Pupils

Norman Harper (Former Boys' Division Staff, 1974-1984)

Memories of Bolton School Choral Music in the 1980s

Mark Heather - Chorister of the Year finalist

During my time at Bolton School, we developed an active connection with the Royal School of Church Music. Boys were encouraged to attend the Easter residential courses at Rossall School and to audition for the Northern Cathedral Singers, as well as attending events at the local level. There were some very impressive choristers at Bolton School and Mark Heather (Class of 1988) was one of the most outstanding during my ten years.

On the recommendation of John Cooke, RSCM Commissioner for the North, Mark was invited to enter for the Rediffusion Chorister of the Year competition, reaching the national final. This entailed my travelling with Mark and his parents for an overnight stay in London, in order to attend the final itself and a supper party afterwards. Mark had prepared a beautiful solo, Ubi Caritas et Amor by the Belgian composer Flor Peeters, and though he had previously performed it with great success, we found that his voice had started to undergo the expected change for a boy of his age; so by the London performance it had just passed its peak. It was much to Mark’s credit that he took this on board and still went ahead. The boy who won, an exceptional chorister from one of the prominent musical churches in Sheffield, clearly deserved his success and we were all delighted to have taken part in this memorable celebration of singing.

Mark’s involvement in music continued as his voice enabled him to sing lower parts in the choir, and through his very accomplished organ-playing, which he continued to study at Bolton School with Charles Walker.

Choir Tour of Normandy, April 1984

Just before I left Bolton School to take up the post of Director of Music at Ellesmere College, the suggestion was made by a friend with contacts in France to take a selected group of choristers on tour to sing at venues in northern France.

Accordingly, after Easter, a group of 22 boys set off from Bolton School archway by coach to a hotel in Paris, together with Charles Walker, Assistant Director of Music and our excellent tour accompanist, Michael Tatman, Head of French and a member of the Comité de Jumelage at Le Mans and Bert Scott, the aforementioned friend who was our contact at Versailles. It was a particular blessing to have these two fluent French-speakers with us.

We sang in three venues: a small church in Voisin-le Bretonneux, the Cathedral of Saint-Louis, Versailles and the Cathedral at Le Mans, one of the European cities twinned with Bolton. The two cathedrals were probably the grandest buildings the choir had ever sung in, which undoubtedly inspired their performances.

The repertoire included music by Josquin des Près, Tallis, Byrd, Vaughan Williams, Stainer and Stanford, together with arrangements of Beatles songs and other secular material. There were also two substantial items, Cantique de Jean Racine by Fauré and Surrexit Christus hodie by Samuel Scheidt, which were sung together with the choir of Le Mans Cathedral. The programmes also included trumpet solos played by Hector Sims.

In order to minimise the amount of organ practice needed at each venue, I had chosen a largely unaccompanied programme, and one of these items, Byrd’s Ave verum Corpus, we sang impromptu in the huge, sombre and mysterious nave of Chartres Cathedral during a lunch stop en route to Le Mans – a memorable experience for us and, we hoped, for the other tourists who happened to hear us. Another vivid memory was trying (as politely as my rusty French would allow) to dissuade our very generous hosts at Le Mans from plying the choristers with champagne immediately before the concert.

The local press reported on the concerts in very complimentary terms, though one of the reviews appeared to attribute the choir’s excellent singing to the influence of Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister at the time. I never quite understood this.

During the return journey to Bolton the suggestion was made to record the tour music, so we very quickly made arrangements for Priory records to come and record us in the Great Hall one Saturday in June. The hall happened to have been set out with exam desks, whose hard, flat tops enhanced the fine acoustic, ideal for this choral repertoire. Of course, the predominance of unaccompanied music, though ideal for touring, presented us with a new challenge: the need for each piece to hold its pitch perfectly from beginning to end, hugely important in a recording, maybe less so in a live performance. Of course the choir knew the music thoroughly, having rehearsed it intensively for the tour and sung it so often in public. Even so, in retrospect it is remarkable that we achieved such a good result in a single day, and the recording engineer commended us on this. There are still copies of this LP, possibly some of them in the school building still. 

Norman Harper
Director of Music 1974-1984

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