The Glory of the Temple Church Choir

Volume One
Directed by George Thalben-Ball
Recorded 1922 - 1935


The Glory of the Temple Church

Click here for a track listing from the CD in detail.

The success of The Better Land series of CDs featuring boy sopranos of the 20th century has awakened interest in that great choir to which several of the boys belonged, and in the man who trained them: the Choir of the Temple Church, and its organist and choirmaster, the legendary ‘Doctor’, as Sir George Thalben-Ball was affectionately known.

It was widely acknowledged as the finest choir in the world during this period; we can hear for the first time ever on one disc the unique sound of the choir and its soloists. This CD features recordings of the pre-war period; several of the boy soloists featured – Denis Barthel, Thomas Meddings and Harold Langston, are still living and have been closely involved with the preparation of this CD; others, like Ernest Lough, Douglas Horton and Ronald Mallett, have, sadly, departed to a ‘Better Land’.

The Temple Church

The Temple Church, hidden behind Fleet Street, is one of London’s most famous churches, as well as one of the oldest. The original church was built by the Knights Templar in the twelfth century when the order took part in the Crusades. It was dedicated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1185 but the Order was suppressed in the fourteenth century, and their lands were eventually taken over by the lawyers who later became the Inner and Middle Temple Inns of Court. These two Honourable Societies secured the freehold of the property by Charter from James I in 1608. One condition of the grant was that the services of the Temple Church were to be maintained for ever. The church remains a Royal Peculiar and the private chapel of these two Inns of Court and is not subject to Episcopal jurisdiction. Despite this being so, the public is admitted and will find a warm welcome.

The Choir and its Organists

Although there was a Temple Choir in the Middle Ages, it did not survive the Reformation, and during the 17th and 18th centuries the services in the Temple Church were similar to those of London’s parish churches. From 1688, however, the services were enhanced by Father Smith’s famous organ, played between 1734-86 by the renowned blind organist John Stanley, composer, and friend of Handel.

The modern choir of gentlemen and boys came about almost by accident. Following the major restoration of the church in 1842, the Master, without enthusiasm, had accepted the idea put forward by the Church Committee and some of the Benchers that a Cathedral Service should be introduced. It fell to John Calvert, a deputy lay-vicar of St. Paul’s, to provide a choir for the reopening of the church.

The service took place on Sunday, 20th November 1842, with a little band of six choirboys and three gentlemen. They were Enoch Hawkins (alto), John Hobbs (tenor), and John Calvert (bass), with James Turle, organist of Westminster Abbey, at the console.

The question of a permanently established choir was still undecided, but after the closure of the church from 6th August 1843 for three months for ‘further beautifications’ it was decided to establish a ‘double choir’ with six choristers and three gentlemen each side, the choir having been removed from the organ gallery. The introduction of a surpliced choir caused little short of a sensation.

The next choirmaster was Edward John Hopkins, who was born in London on 30th June 1818, and was from a large family of musicians. He was organist of Mitcham church in Surrey in 1834 and later was elected at the Temple in 1843, though it was not until John Calvert was dismissed in 1844 that he was able to assume full charge of the music and choristers.

In 1848 The Guardian reported that it was not necessary for the visitor to follow the psalms in the Prayer Book as every word could be heard perfectly. On one occasion, Prince Albert caused some consternation by arriving unannounced and on foot to attend a choir practice. Through his great ability, Hopkins soon made the music at Temple a model for the choral services that were rapidly becoming established in parish churches throughout the country and he was soon widely known as a fine trainer of boy soloists.

Hopkins was awarded the Lambeth Mus. D. in 1882. On the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 the Temple choristers led the procession onto the steps of St. Paul’s.

Dr. Hopkins at 70 was among the tenors. This proved to be one of his last engagements, and his farewell services were sung on Sunday, 8th May 1898 when all the music played and sung was of his composition. David Lewer writes that ‘a great crowd gathered in the porch and beyond to salute Dr. Hopkins as he proceeded from the church to the Inner Temple gate.’

Then there followed Henry Walford Davies, who was born in Owestry, Shropshire in 1869. It was the turn of the Middle Temple to appoint, 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 the 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 Greene gave way to Bach and Brahms, and it was at Temple that the ‘speech rhythm’ method of singing psalms was perfected.

During Davies’ early days at Temple 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 and ‘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’ Davies as he was known. This marked the beginning of 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 Davies" said George Dixon "and we would all clamour to stay for extra practice."

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 1923. 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 he was appointed Master of the King’s Musick. Knighted in 1922, he died in 1941. No-one mourned his passing more than his old friends at Temple.

Immediately Walford Davies had told the Benchers of his departure to Wales, consideration was given to the appointment of his successor, and in due course George Thalben-Ball, a brilliant young organist at the Royal College, was offered the post as Acting Organist under Davies. It was 6th March 1919 and, at the age of twenty-three, the beloved ‘Doctor’, as G.T.B. 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 in 1896 in Sydney, Australia to English parents but they all returned to England when George was four years old. He later joined the choir of G.D. Cunningham in Muswell Hill, where be became head boy. He was a pupil of Cunningham for piano, and soon showed musical ability of such promise that he gained an exhibition, as a first study pianist, to the Royal College of Music at the age of fourteen. In 1916 he was appointed as organist of Paddington Parish Church.

It was while still at the Royal College that G.T.B. first came to the attention of Walford Davies, who wanted a first rate 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 the "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 to take the blame, and for the next two years Mr. Ball was able to benefit from working with the man whom he described as ‘the finest trainer of boys’ voices ever.’ Denis Barthel, 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.’ One recently discovered disc from this period survives and is included on this CD.

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. was commissioned to record Hear My Prayer in the church, with Ernest Lough singing the solo.

The degree of Lambeth Doctor of Music was conferred on George Thalben-Ball by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Inner Temple Hall in 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 had been send away but old choristers sang a short service in the ruins each Sunday ‘to keep a song in the Temple.’ After the war, Thalben-Ball undertook the great task of recreating his beloved choir, once again with boys.

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. G.T.B. was presented to H.M. The Queen when she attended the restored Round Church on 7th November 1958.

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 youngest 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 had 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. Denis Barthel said recently: "Dr. Ball 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."

George Thalben-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 has uniquely inspired succeeding generations of organists. His accompaniment to the psalms, service and anthems was masterly.

Stephen Robert Beet & David Lewer, September 2001


Many people have helped in the preparation of this CD, but special thanks must go to Denis Barthel, Thomas Meddings and Stephen Keeble, who have all contributed to this booklet.

Records have been obtained from Martin Carson, Stephen Beet and Stewart Orr. The recording of If you love me, keep my commandments was recently discovered by the Lough family and is the only surviving disc featuring the choir under Dr. Walford Davies. Ruth Edge and Sonita Cox of E.M.I. Archives have dated the recordings and provided invaluable support.

David Lewer and Stephen Beet have produced the programme notes and located the recordings and photographs. Eve Barsham has given her professional advice.

The CD is produced by Martin Monkman of Amphion Recordings, who also undertook all the technical work.



Copyright 2002
This page was last modified on 01 September 2004