"A boy sings ... a beautiful thing."

Sir Henry Walford Davies KCVO, OBE

The Temple Church, London

Sir Henry Walford Davies

Born in Oswestry, Shropshire, on 6th September 1869, Henry Walford Davies became a chorister of St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, serving under Sir George Elvey, and later a pupil-assistant of Sir Walter Parratt. On the occasion of his death on March 11th 1941, it was said in one of the many obituaries that Walford Davies' broadcasting work was ' his greatest and most enduring service to music'. But now, sixty years later, it must be admitted that his work at Temple (1898-1919) and his long-neglected compositions must stand as his greatest memorial.

From 1883 (while still a chorister) until 1890 he was organist of the private chapel in Windsor Great Park; and from there he progressed to the Royal College of Music, studying under C.H. Parry. He became organist of St. Anne's, Soho, later moving to Christ Church, Hampstead (1891-8). From 1895 until 1903 he was on the staff of the Royal College of Music, where he taught counterpoint. It was in 1898 that he became organist of the Temple Church. During this period he conducted the Bach Choir (1902-7); and in 1917 he was appointed director of music to the Royal Air Force, for which work he was awarded the OBE in 1919.

David Lewer describes Walford Davies' coming to Temple:

"It was the turn of the Middle Temple to appoint the new organist, and from about a hundred candidates, three were selected to play the organ and accompany the choristers who, when they were asked which choirmaster they liked best, all shouted 'Mr Davies!'"

With the departure of an old man of eighty, now came a revolution. A chorister wrote:

"We had a young man of 28 who soon proved to be a real friend to all and called us by our Christian names or appropriate nicknames."

Walford Davies soon introduced new music at Temple. Arnold and Green gave way to Bach and Brahms, and it was here at Temple that the 'speech rhythm' method of singing the psalms was perfected. Doctor often held his choristers spellbound, and long before Master Lough's time, there was a succession of soloists trained by Doctor, which testified to his powers of inspiration

It was during Davies' early days at Temple that the Benchers agreed that once a month the Sunday afternoon Evensong would be without a sermon and a cantata would replace the anthem. This became known as 'Cantata Sunday'. We also owe to Walford the famous 'Carols in the Round' which left unforgettable memories in the minds of many worshippers at the Temple Church.

By 1908 the choir had reached a peak of perfection. A number of Walford Davies' first boys had left the choir, and the ‘The Templars' Union' of old choristers was formed to fill the need of those to whom Temple seemed a second home. In 1913 a camp hut was established at Angmering, partly paid for by Doctor. This marked the beginning of the many Temple camps, which were held during the next seventy years.

Davies was a man who applied rigorous standards to himself, and although he expected nothing less of all who worked with him, he was universally loved, not least by his boys at Temple.

"We all loved Walford'' said George Dixon, "and we would all clamour to stay for extra practice."

Sir Henry Walford Davies

As a composer and arranger of music, Walford Davies enjoyed considerable success. But his large works have largely been forgotten and are only recently being rediscovered. His smaller works and many church compositions, performed regularly at Temple until the 1980s, are also enjoying a revival. These are more consistent in style than his larger works, which often contained off-putting sub-titles, such as 'Memorial'. Louis Foreman, a great authority on Walford Davies' music, recently described his church music as a 'sweetened extension of Stanford' and has predicted a timely revival.

Walford never pushed his compositions, regarding them as a minor part of his life, and seeing himself very much as a teacher and choirmaster. But it was as a broadcaster that Davies made his great mark on the nation. His pioneering wireless talks from 1924 until his death in 1941 had a tremendous effect. These were live and unscripted, illustrated by himself at the piano, and they come across as quite brilliant even today. 'He always seemed to come right into the room to be with us,' wrote one listener.

In April 1919 Walford Davies was invited to become the first Director of Music at the University of Aberystwyth, but he continued to oversee the music at Temple until 1924. In 1927 he took up the position of Organist of St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle in succession to his mentor Sir Walter Parratt, who had died in 1924. He remained there, rather uneasily, until 1932 and upon the death of Sir Edward Elgar in 1934 Walford was appointed Master of the King's Musick.

Knighted in 1922, he died on 11th March 1941 at Bristol where he had removed with the BBC. No-one mourned his passing more than his old friends at Temple.

Stephen R. Beet January 10th 2001

The Oxford Companion to Music by Percy Scholes 
Letters of Frederic Rothwell, 1900 
A Forgotten Organist by Kenneth Shenton 1992 
Music & Letters by H.C. Colles 1941

I am most grateful to Mr David Lewer for all his help in preparing this article, not least for his permission to quote extensively from his two masterly works, 'A Spiritual Song' (1961) and 'The Temple Church in London' by David Lewer and Robert Dark (1997) The latter work is available from the Temple Church, price twenty-eight pounds.


Copyright 2001 Stephen R. Beet Used by permission.

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