Trouble at the Cathedral with a Needle

According to a BBC report

Five board members at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast have resigned over the Church of Ireland’s decision to drop the post of Director of Music.  In their resignation letter, they said the decision was “destructive of the Cathedral’s excellent choral music”.

It is understood the current director, Philip Stopford, has been off work on health grounds since the decision to axe the post earlier this summer.

The Chuch of Ireland said the issue was a matter for the board at St Anne’s.  Mr Stopford, who is in his early 30s, took up the post in 2003.  He said that he was not in a position to discuss the matter.  The Dean of St Anne’s, Houston McKelvey, also declined to comment.

Cathedral directors of music are organists who train and mentor musicians and choose its repertoire.

Although the St Anne’s Cathedral’s history of organists only mentions the position of “director of music” from 2002 onwards, prior to that date the organist traditionally also acted as the “Master of Choristers”.  A former organist at St Anne’s, Harry Grindle, described the role in this interview

What musical resources did you find at the cathedral when you arrived? Did you make some changes?

There was a large choir of between fifty and sixty singers. It included about 24 boys in addition to ten sopranos, who had a mature sound with lots of vibrato. My predecessor thought in choral society terms rather than along cathedral lines. I decided to focus on the boys’ choir and not to replace the ladies as they left, thus gradually solving the problem of blend. I also introduced countertenors, who, I think, are an essential ingredient of the genuine cathedral sound. I also developed a young men’s choir for the boys as their voices changed. Previously, they had just left the choir and so you lost most of them. I felt the extra effort was worthwhile.


Were there other aspects that you were keen to work on when you first arrived?

The repertoire needed to be revised and a whole new vision of what the cathedral choir could and should do had to be realised. Over a period of time I began to arrange regular recitals of church music on a Sunday afternoon in place of the sermon at evensong. This became a monthly event, even right through the Troubles, and occasionally I would get together a small instrumental ensemble. We performed Bach Cantatas and other sizeable choral works such as the Bach Passions, and we also commissioned new works, such as an anthem from John Joubert for the dedication of the South Transept.

I was also very interested in orchestral conducting. I had the opportunity to work with the Ulster Orchestra and also got a grant to study with Igor Markevitch at the International Summer School in Monte Carlo. We were able to set up a concert series on Sunday afternoons in place of evensong at periodic intervals and we would fill the cathedral on these occasions. We would promote a full-blown programme with the Ulster Orchestra playing an overture and a symphony, while the cathedral choir would contribute a choral work with the orchestra as well as singing a group of unaccompanied items.

While the Church of Ireland has only issued this short statement on the matter

With regard to reports in the media concerning St Anne’s Cathedral and the position of Director of Music being made redundant, this is a matter for the Cathedral Board.

The Board is currently in discussions with the post-holder and is not in a position to comment further at present.

A UTV report, which notes that the recently be-needled cathedral “costs around £350,000 a year to run” and that “The 106-year-old building is also in need of some costly structural work”, adds

It is understood the cathedral intends to employ a curate to take over the running of the choir.

Which would be a significant disconnect from the historical role of a cathedral organist…