The Glory of the Temple Church Choir


Volume One

The Featured Soloists

Ernest Lough

I am quite sure that no boy’s voice has ever been recorded nearly as well as this, and I am equally sure that I have never heard such a beautiful voice.

Sir Compton Mackenzie, The Gramophone, July 1927

 

Ernest Lough, the most famous choirboy in the world, died on February 22nd 2000 at the age of eighty-eight. His voice stands as perhaps the finest example of the English boy soprano sound we have on record, a sound which was once the envy of the world but now is sadly out of fashion. It is only recently, with the publication of The Better Land CDs, that we are beginning to realize just what has been lost over the past fifty years and to question the training methods employed by the present generation of choirmasters. One of his fellow choristers, Jack Salisbury, said: ‘It was not Lough’s voice, it was the use of his voice that made him unique’.

By 1927, Lough was one of the soloists in the choir which was then blessed with several fine voices. Microphone recording had recently replaced the old acoustic method and H.M.V. had just invested in its very first mobile recording unit. Lough’s twice-recorded Hear My Prayer by Mendelssohn has never been out of print, selling over six million copies since it was recorded on 5th April 1927 and again on 30th March 1928 because the masters of the original recording quickly wore out. The record’s success was due in some degree to the fact that it was issued on H.M.V.’s cheaper ‘plum’ label. Nevertheless, the sales figures took everyone by surprise and it was H.M.V.’s biggest seller for 1927. Six presses had to be set aside at the Hayes factory for its production. It was the first record to sell a million copies and in 1962 G.T.B. and Lough were presented with a golden disc to mark their long association with H.M.V.

During the October 1927 recording session, Lough and Ronald Mallett, another fine soloist, recorded the memorable duet I waited for the Lord from Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise and O come everyone that thirsteth, both featured here. No-one was sure how long Lough’s voice would last, and Mr. Ball reported to H.M.V. in August of 1927 that there were definite signs of his voice breaking. In fact he managed to keep him singing for another sixteen months, during which he made some of his best records. Lough left the choir early in 1929 aged seventeen.

When the Temple Choir was fully re-established after the war, Lough returned as a gentleman. There are many examples of his voice on record and he sang a number of duets with his son Robin, who had an excellent soprano voice.

Ernest Lough retired from the choir in 1971 but continued to sing on an occasional basis until the retirement of Sir George Thalben-Ball in 1981. Some years ago, Ernest wrote to me: ‘You say that much of the credit for how we sang at Temple was due to Doctor. I do assure you that it was all due to him and the wonderful Walford Davies.

 

Harold Langston

He comes from Whitley Bay, Northumberland. It will probably not be long before we hear his voice on record.

The Sound Wave, January, 1929.

 

All trace of Harold Langston had been lost until earlier this year when quite by chance, Harold’s son, Raymond and his wife walked into the Temple Church when David Lewer happened to be there. Harold is now in a Toronto rest home where I visited him, and Raymond told me his remarkable story.

Harold Langston was born in 1916. After winning a major music festival at the age of eleven, he was discovered by George Thalben-Ball who was searching for experienced boys to join the choir, following the departure of the four senior boys, Ernest Lough, Douglas Horton, Jack Salisbury and Ronald Mallett after many years’ service. G.T.B. persuaded Mrs. Langston to send Harold to Temple early in 1929, where he lodged with Billy and Noel Arnold, fellow choristers. The principal soloists at this time were Tim Leibe, head boy, and Denis Barthel, second boy.

Denis Barthel made his first record, Remember now thy creator in 1930 as a duet with Harold, but it was never published. Although Denis had many published discs, Harold’s were never released. Four masters were recorded and we are pleased to feature two of his finest. I will sing of thy great mercies by Mendelssohn, which was recorded on 31st December, 1929 was featured on The Better Land IV.

Langston left the choir in 1932. Later, took up farming before emigrating to Canada in 1951.

 

Denis Barthel

" ‘He was despised’ is by far the best boy’s recording I can remember hearing. I can almost say that this is the first boy’s record to stir me out of apathy"  

Gramophone, April 1932.

Once described as the unsung hero of the Temple Church, Denis Barthel was born in 1916. He became a pupil at Burdett Coutts’ school, and commenced his career as a chorister at St. Stephen’s Church, Westminster, under its organist and choirmaster Dr. William Bunney. When Denis was eleven, he was taken by Dr. Bunney to the Temple for an audition by George Thalben-Ball. Denis was accepted and became a probationer in November 1927. "I shall never forget how kind Doctor was at my audition, and the encouragement he gave to a terrified young boy". Denis became principal soloist and Head Boy in 1931, and went on to record some of the best records ever to come out of Temple.

"In those days, there was no direction of the choir from below the stalls: ‘Doctor’ always played from the organ loft, and it was the responsibility of the Head Boy on Decani side to lead the choir. It developed leadership qualities, and was a wonderful preparation for the future – all thanks to ‘Doctor’.

"We were taught to project our voices through the mouth and not the nose, thus avoiding the so-called ‘cathedral hoot’. In short, we were taught a ‘head tone’. Because of this, numbers of our boys sang on until they were seventeen as boy sopranos, not singing falsetto, as has recently been suggested. It was rare for a boy’s voice to break before he was fourteen. This was due to the superb training we received from Doctor Ball."

Perhaps Denis’s most memorable performance during his Temple days was the occasion on Armistice Day, 1931, when he sang solo, O Valiant Hearts before King George V and Queen Mary and a packed audience in the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first broadcast of the Festival of Remembrance by the B.B.C. to the Empire, U.S.A., and Dominions. It was a very awe-inspiring experience for a fifteen-year-old boy. "The hall was very dimly lit, poppy petals were falling from the ceiling, and I was positioned adjacent to the organ loft, which is quite high up in the hall. I was looking through a dim light at a mass of humanity – and it really was quite frightening. The hymn which I sang was a very beautifully one in my opinion, and I was accompanied in the later verses by Capel Dixon and Frank Hastwell – both great mentors of mine.

"It is indisputable that those privileged years at Temple left an indelible mark on my life, and I shall always remain grateful to Doctor for putting me on the right path of life. I left as a chorister in the summer of 1933 with a heavy heart. I had just turned seventeen. They were wonderful years: I don’t think I ever really left Temple, and my heart is still there."

After working for an insurance company in the city, Denis embarked on what was to become a distinguished military career and retired with the rank of Major. In 1969, he and his family emigrated to Vancouver. There he founded one of the most successful marine equipment distributorships in Canada in which he and his sons are now actively involved. Like his father before him, Denis Barthel was awarded the M.B.E.

 

Thomas Meddings

The performance of this piece (As Pants the Hart) is of a high order. The boy soloist (Tom Meddings) has a voice of lovely quality, not in the least emotional, and it possesses that slightly tentative quality which is much more endearing than the assured ease of some treble soloists one has heard. For this, and the beautifully discreet accompaniment, we have to thank that fine musician Mr. Thalben-Ball. The recording is excellent.

Gramophone, November 1935

 

Thomas Meddings was born in Walthamstow in 1922 and when he was nine his headmaster, John Cox, who was a talent scout for a number of leading London church choirs, suggested he try for Southwark Cathedral. ‘But I never auditioned for Southwark; the reputation of the Temple Choir persuaded my father to press for that option.’ So, at the age of ten, Tom Meddings was auditioned by G.T.B.

‘From the probationers’ mid-church stall I pieced together as best I could what the work of the choir was about, and in due time became a full chorister, singing in Decani side. Before long a few beginner’s solos came my way, and eventually I sang most of the traditional treble solo repertoire. My favourite was the Benedictus from Mozart’s Requiem. All this was most enjoyable, but the supreme musical experience was still a choral one – to sing the Gratis Agimus Tibi from Bach’s Mass in B minor.

‘Dr. Ball’s practices were always enjoyable. He was never stuffy, effortlessly commanding total attention; and he taught as much by example as by precept using his own fine voice to illustrate points. Later I took part in a Schools’ broadcast with the late Ernest Read, who asked for I know that my Redeemer liveth to be prepared. I rehearsed this with Dr. Ball, and with Mr. Read on the morning of the broadcast, which was to take place in the afternoon. Returning to Broadcast House after lunch, I found that Read had changed his mind, and, recruiting a trumpeter, now wished to substitute Let the Bright Searphim, which I had never sung. After a cursory run-through, the broadcast proceeded smoothly with brass obbligato, to the surprise of Dr. Ball, who happened to hear the transmission elsewhere.’

Tom remembers making Lord God of Heaven & Earth with fellow soloist, Dennys Lake. ‘His rich voice on that record is unmistakable, and I remember his participation very clearly because when the disc was published he invited me to spend a Saturday at this home in Hampstead to celebrate. At one point he transmitted the recording to a friend via the telephone!’

Tom Meddings became Head Chorister in 1937 and sang at the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in that same year. ‘My last days at Temple were mercifully untraumatic. There had been signs for some time that my voice was going, and finally in 1938 when I was sixteen it was I who suggested to Dr. Ball that I should stand down. The need to concentrate on forthcoming school exams, and generally expanding horizons outside Temple helped to soften the blow. But it was a frustrating time: just when musical understanding and interpretive skills are improving the voice seemed to become fuller, to be deprived of this faculty is hard. I thought my best singing was done not long before this happened. In particular, I recall a Hear Ye, Israel which satisfied me more than anything I had done.

‘Unfortunately my adult voice was disappointing, and apart from singing for a time with the Templars’ Male Voice Choir (to whom I was more use as an accompanist) I have sung little.’

After war service, including a tour of duty in Burma and French Indo-China, Tom Meddings studied architecture and as a senior architect with the Corporation of the City of London was responsible for the design of the new City of London School which the Temple Church Choristers traditionally attend. Now retired, he lives with his wife in Sussex.

Alfred Capel Dixon was in the choir from 1900-07. He was one of the first new choristers with Walford Davies. ‘Dick’ was considered to be one of the best boy soloists ever. He returned to the choir as a tenor soloist and his fine voice can be heard on this CD. For many years he conducted the Templars’ Male Voice Choir, which comprised ex-choristers of the Temple Church.

Ernest Lough, Douglas Horton & Ronald Mallett

Jack Berry, Harold Cooper &  Denis Barthel

Boys leaving-ages

David Lewer has found a remarkable consistency in both the joining and leaving ages of the boys of the Temple Choir from records taken until the retirement of Sir George Thalben-Ball in 1981, when two of the boys were seventeen. The analysis of the 122 boys who passed through the choir from 1955 to 1981 is as follows:

4 left at the age of 12; 23 left at the age of 13; 48 left at the age of 14; 31 left at the age of 15; 14 left at the age of 16; 2 left at the age of 17.

It is still not as uncommon as may be supposed for choirs today to contain boys of a similar age. In the past boys were taught in a manner that often allowed them to continue singing for some considerable time after the natural voice change. This ‘head tone’ training helped to create the ‘Mystical Temple Tone’. Ernest Lough said: ‘Like everything at Temple, it was something you absorbed by osmosis.’

A fuller discussion on the ‘lost art’ of training choirboys may be found in the notes accompanying the four volumes of The Better Land series (Amphion PHI 158, 159, 167 & 168).

Stephen Robert Beet & David Lewer, September 2001

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