Quirky and comprehensive - the 30-year project to tell story of nine centuries of music at Norwich Cathedral
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Who was Norwich’s finest all-round musician and how is he linked to Christmas? Which cathedral clergyman was accused of being a dandy? Who threatened to storm the cathedral on pancake day? Who wanted to demolish the cathedral and use the stone to strengthen Yarmouth harbour walls? When did choirboy training involve making choristers sing with acorns and marbles in their mouths?
The answers to all of these questions, and many more, are in Tom Roast’s comprehensive book Music at Norwich Cathedral – The First Nine Hundred Years.
Church music has been part of his life from childhood. He began singing in his village church choir by the age of six and was an organist at 18.
Today he plays for several Norwich congregations and has spent three decades researching the music of the cathedral. “I have played the cathedral organ a few times but, my word, there are so many stops!” he said.
After taking early retirement from a career as a chartered surveyor he began researching the history of music at the cathedral for a PhD at the University of East Anglia.
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Despite the huge amount of information this is not a dry and dusty tome. There are stories of the 16th century choirmaster rebuked for piling dung against a neighbour’s wall and another who was forbidden from entertaining a married woman in his bedroom.
However, its main subject is music. Tom includes brief biographies of every cathedral organist from 1542 to the present day and introduces many who made a significant contribution to church music including Zechariah Buck who was organist for 58 years from 1819 and whose choir was regarded as the best in the land and John “Christmas” Beckwith, born in the city on Christmas Day 1759. Tom calls him ‘Probably Norwich's finest all-round musician.’
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“My interest in the cathedral's musical history dates from the 1980s when I began examining the old manuscript choir books in the cathedral library,” he said.
“Although Norwich was an important city, its location set it slightly apart from the mainstream centres of musical development and local musicians took to composing their own anthems and service music for the cathedral choir, much of it probably not heard beyond the cathedral's walls.”
He said every organist from the mid 17th century to the mid 19th century was from Norwich and most wrote their own music. Much of this has been lost – but some of the compositions can still be found in the cathedral library. Tom has also studied the diaries of long-dead choristers to find out about how the choir was organised and includes two times the organ was destroyed by fire – deliberately by troops during the Civil War and by an electrical fault during Evensong in 1939.
Tom’s own earliest memory of music at the cathedral is from 1968, listening to a string orchestra playing Mozart, and he has also sung at Norwich Cathedral as a member of several Norfolk choirs.
At least he never had to train with a marble or acorn, or specially-carved wooden mouthpiece, like, his research revealed, the pupils of cathedral organist Zechariah Buck in the 1820s.
Music at Norwich Cathedral, the first 900 years, by Tom Roast, is published by Gateway Music, Norwich.