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

Sir George Thalben-Ball FRCO, ARCM

The Temple Church, London

Immediately that Walford Davies had told the Benchers of his departure to Wales, consideration was given to the appointment of his successor, and in due course Mr George T. Ball, a brilliant young organist at the Royal College, was offered the post as Acting Organist under Walford Davies. It was 6th March 1919 and, at the age of twenty-three, the beloved 'Doctor', as he later also became known, was secured for the Temple where he was to serve for sixty-two distinguished years.

George Thomas Thalben-Ball was born on 18th June 1896 in Sydney, Australia, but his parents returned to England when George was four years old. It was here in London that he later joined the choir of G.D. Cunningham in Muswell Hill, where he became head boy. He was a pupil of Cunningham for piano, and he soon showed musical ability of such great promise that he gained an exhibition, as a first study pianist, to the Royal College of Music at the age of fourteen. There he won the Clarke Scholarship and was soloist in the first performance in England of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in D minor. He studied the organ with Sir Walter Parratt and at the age of sixteen became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. In 1916 he was appointed as organist of Paddington Parish Church.

But it was while still at the Royal College that G.T.B. first came to the attention of Walford Davies, who wanted a good sight-reader to assist with a choir-training course. A short time later, one morning, after Matins at Paddington, two boys came up to the organ and said "Would you mind, please, coming down to Temple to play for the afternoon service. Dr Davies has been taken ill, and he cannot play." It was Cantata Sunday and the Cantata was ten movements from the Mass in B minor by Bach. Mr Ball was informed by the boys that Walford had left a full orchestral score on the organ and that "he required it putting down one semi-tone" in order to compensate for the sharpness of the organ.

The performance must have been more than satisfactory, for soon afterwards, Mr Ball was asked to attend a practice at Temple. George Dixon, who was then head boy, described how Walford had suddenly announced that Mr Ball was going to play some Chopin. "Ball, play to the boys", he directed. Dixon remarked: "we loved him from that moment."

After G.T.B. had been appointed acting organist, he found the Temple choir to be in a poor state.

Walford was now in Wales.

"The boys' voices had all broken and there were no probationers", he described years later. "I then had three anonymous letters saying 'how dare you think you can follow Dr Walford Davies: the best thing is for you to resign at once'." Mr Ball showed the letters to Walford, who admitted the neglect as his fault. He offered to come back at once to take the blame, and for the next two years Mr Ball was able to benefit from working with whom he described as 'the finest trainer of boys' voices ever.' Major Denis Barthel MBE, Head Boy 1931-33 adds, however, that "Doctor Ball was being very modest. In my view he equaled or even surpassed Walford, and there has not been since at Temple or elsewhere any organist or choir trainer to remotely equal him."

On 19th July 1923, Mr G Thalben-Ball was appointed Organist and Director of the Choir from the following Michaelmas. A few years later, after some hesitation, H.M.V. were commissioned to record 'Hear my Prayer' in the church with Ernest Lough singing the solo. This was recorded on 5th April 1927 and the result was phenomenal. The original master wore out within six months and the recording we all know today was made on 8th March 1928 when Lough was sixteen.

Many more records followed, featuring the choir and soloists. The triumvirate of soloists in the late 1920s was Ernest Lough, Ronald Mallett, and Douglas Horton. These were succeeded by Denis Barthel and Thomas Meddings, the great soloists of the 1930s, and we must not forget Harold Langston, another excellent boy, whose records were not published at the time..

The degree of Lambeth Doctor of Music was conferred on George Thalben-Ball by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Inner Temple Hall on 27th November 1935. Thus he became ‘Doctor’ at Temple, following Sir Walford Davies who was also still called ‘Doctor’ on his rare visits.

All of this wonderful music was brought to an end by the terrible destruction of the church on the night of 10th May 1941. The boys were sent away but old choristers sang a short service in the ruins each Sunday 'to keep a song in the Temple.' After the war, Doctor undertook the great task of recreating his beloved choir, once again with boys. But during the war Doctor was much in demand not only as a recitalist and for HMV but also at the BBC where he took over Walford Davies' work. He went to Bedford to be in charge of 'The Daily Service'. From time to time he even read the news! It was there that he composed his famous 'Buffer Music' of 35, 84, and 20 seconds duration for use on the wireless between programmes. He remained as an adviser to the BBC until 1970. After the war he presented a programme entitled 'On Wings of Song' which featured several boy sopranos of the day, including the great Derek Barsham, the Boys' Brigade Boy Soprano who recently recalled that "Dr. Ball taught me to harmonize naturally any piece of music."

On 23rd March 1954, the restored Quire was rededicated. Robin Fairhurst, already an experienced and recorded singer at the age of fourteen, was the first head boy and Ernest Lough's son Robin was the youngest chorister. Robin was to develop into a fine soloist, as did Ian le Grice, who was appointed assistant organist in 1981. G.T.B was presented to H.M. The Queen when she attended the restored Round Church on 7th November 1958.

George Thalben-Ball opened many important organs, including those at the Royal Albert Hall and the BBC Concert Hall, and he was a regular performer at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. The Temple choir was soon, once again, to reach a peak of perfection during the 1960s and 70s and a new series of gramophone records was made. The first, in 1959, consisted of Christmas carols and was widely appreciated. Many broadcasts of the Good Friday Service and Choral Evensong were made from the church, and Robin and his younger brother Graham sang with their father Ernest Lough who, as a bass, was a member of the choir, as were seven other gentlemen who had been boys in the 1920s and 30s.

George Thalben-Ball was knighted in the 1982 New Year's List, a few days after he retired from Temple. In the Daily Telegraph of 31st December 1981, 'Peterborough' wrote:

"There were emotional scenes in the Temple Church on Sunday when George Thalben-Ball made his final appearance at Matins, with the congregation rising and cheering him at the end of his voluntary." David Lewer adds that "the occasion was quite spontaneous and he graciously bowed his acknowledgement."

'Doctor' celebrated his ninetieth birthday on 18th June 1986. Shortly after, on 18th January 1987, he died peacefully. Major Denis Barthel MBE, head boy from 1931 until 1933 said recently:

"Dr. Ball, or 'Pill' as we knew him before the war, was extremely charismatic. All of us who were taught by him came to love him for his clear understanding of us boys. He had a great gift for imparting to us exactly what, and how, he wanted us to perform, and always succeeded - thus achieving a matchless professional standard of choir training."

Ernest Lough added, "He was a great friend". David Abbott, Doctor's last head boy summed it all up by saying in 1979 "He's the nicest man around."

Doctor Ball firmly believed that all the resources of the modern organ should be exploited to the full and he was never ashamed of his romantic and intense playing, which some regarded as rather dated. But even those critics could not but agree that he has uniquely inspired succeeding generations of organists, and continues to do so today.

Doctor G. T. Thalben-Ball rehearsing The Temple Church Choristers

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 Stephen R. Beet Used by permission.

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This page was last modified on 01 September 2004