A Mentor, Colleague, and Friend Retires

James Lancelot at York Minster

by Giles Brightwell. My mentor, colleague and friend, Dr James Lancelot, has just retired after 32 years’ service as Canon Organist and Master of the Choristers at Durham Cathedral in the northeast of England. James’s anniversary also coincides with my own, having completed my 32nd Christmas playing the organ in church.

Early Days

James started out as a boy chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral under Sir John Dykes Bower. He had apparently impressed Dykes Bower at his choral trial (entrance test for St. Paul’s Cathedral choir) by naming and singing all the notes of the harmonic scale at the age of seven. James’s contemporaries as choristers tell stories of him starting the rehearsals from the piano at the age of ten, when Dykes Bower was late, so proficient were his keyboard skills even at that tender age.

From St. Paul’s, James went on to Ardingly College in Sussex. Ardingly was founded, like so many other great schools, by the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic priest, Nathaniel Woodard. Woodard was something of a maverick, whose unorthodox fund-raising methods – he locked wealthy men in a room until they had agreed to give the amount he desired – secured his legacy. While at Ardingly, James had already won prizes in the much-coveted Fellowship examination of the Royal College of Organists when he was pre-selected to be organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge under Sir David Willcocks.

From King’s he went to Winchester cathedral as Sub-Organist to work with Dr Martin Neary who was later organist at Westminster Abbey, and responsible for the music at the funerals of Diana, Princess of Wales and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

At Durham Cathedral

Francis Jackson, Phillip Moore and James Lancelot at Durham

Lancelot then moved to Durham Cathedral in 1985 where he transformed standards. During his 32-year tenure, he established the Cathedral Consort of Voices, a mixed adult choir, as well as adding the girls’ choir to the foundation. He was awarded fellowships of the Royal School of Church Music and the Guild of Church Musicians, as well as the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa by the University of Durham for services to the community and city of Durham.

As some of you will remember, I was fortunate enough to be the organ scholar and a choral scholar at Durham Cathedral (1993-1996) early on during James’s tenure while I was an undergraduate at the University of Durham. This involved me in singing or playing for eight choral services under his direction each week (five Evensongs during the week, and Choral Matins, Choral Eucharist and Evensong on Sundays). We regularly undertook foreign tours, broadcasts on BBC radio and television, and premiered new music by contemporary composers. It was an extraordinary training and a deeply gratifying experience; indeed, everything I do that is good and worthy as a church musician today is thanks to the dedicated and meticulous training Dr Lancelot provided. I am very much in his debt.

What now follows is an excerpt from James’s experience of 50 years involvement in English cathedral music as printed in Church Music Quarterly (CMQ):

‘I was one of 37 applicants for a voice trial at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1961; at that time the [cathedral] school only catered for the thirty choristers and eight probationer [choristers]. Our timetable revolved around the cathedral [choral] services – between ten and twelve a week.

The organist was Dr John Dykes Bower, universally liked and respected by his choristers. His organ playing was immaculate and enormously musical. Despite the handicap of full rehearsal time being limited to 40 minutes a week (!), DB was able to maintain a good standard and to field a wide repertoire.

A chorister’s life in a boarding school was rather more Spartan than it is now. Contact with parents was very limited, in contrast with today when parents and families are so much part of the scene.

Church Music over 50 Years

The choice of music at St. Paul’s in those days was mostly typical of its time. Other than Palestrina, Bach, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schubert, little of it came from outside these islands, and almost all of it was sung in English (including Masses [Communion settings] by Palestrina, Byrd and Vaughan Williams). The repertoire in cathedrals generally was at once wider and less demanding than today’s.

The last 50 years have seen cathedral music nourished by a flow of new [musical] commissions. Walter Hussey [successively Vicar of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton, and dean of Chichester cathedral in Sussex] was a leading figure in this regard, and Martin Neary has championed the works of Tavener and Jonathan Harvey in particular. I was glad to continue such [an] initiative at Durham in a more modest way but nevertheless with fruitful results.

The Role of the Choral Director

And, of course, of course almost all the music sung in cathedrals is now conducted by the director rather than ‘beaten’ by lay clerks [adult professional male singers]. This is a necessary development although not without disadvantages. Many find the prominent visual presence of a conductor distracting…and personally I wish the congregation would listen rather than watch. But at the same time, the presence of an experienced director who can mould an interpretation can only be beneficial; the complexity of the music that is sung today means that the support that a conductor can give to the young singers in particular is invaluable.

This in turn means that the director plays the organ much more rarely. Personally, I regret this; as someone whose singing could never set the standard I wished others to achieve I hoped to demonstrate that in my organ playing I put myself under the same discipline as I expected from the choir. The art of psalm accompaniment I learned from John Dykes Bower and David Willcocks. Today’s organ scholars and assistant organists are more likely to learn it from each another – and many are excellent exponents. But I wonder if something is in danger of being lost through the lack of instruction and example from those who have devoted a lifetime to it and have in turn imbibed it from similarly experienced exponents?


I mentioned that there were 37 candidates at my own voice trial in 1961. The numbers coming forward today are very different, and recruitment continues to be a challenge – and will always be, where church going has become less frequent and families expect greater freedom at weekends. There is no magic wand solution, and to some extent each place needs to find what works best in its own environment. The value of a chorister education to the right child is incalculable – a life-changer….Yet, despite often lower numbers, standards are as high as ever. The very fragility of the tradition, challenged by pressures of both finance and recruitment, means that greater pains are taken to ensure its health and continuity than in the days when it could almost be taken for granted. High standards are necessary not only for the most obvious and important reasons but also because, where so much energy and expense is put into the sustenance of the music, it has to be seen to be worth sustaining.


Change and continuity – what has stayed the same? Still the unique continuation of purpose, of environment, of forces (by and large), and to a great extent repertoire. For many choristers, the day is framed by a morning rehearsal and an afternoon rehearsal and Evensong. And Evensong continues, amid many other liturgical changes; the time-honoured words of the canticles may be sung to Tudor music or to a present-day interpretation; the text of the anthem may be ancient or modern, and – whether ancient or modern – may be sung to challenging music by a present-day composer (not necessarily male). Evensong is ever more valued by believers and non-believers, who find in its content (at once unchanging and yet constantly renewed) something that is greater than themselves, and yet which also connects them to their roots, tapping into something that has gone on for centuries, eavesdropping on a continuing conversation with God.

Above all there are the Psalms, those ancient outpourings of the human soul which articulate every human emotion, which believers have found indispensible to their worship for century upon century, the singing of which is the most challenging and the most satisfying task undertaken by any liturgical choir.

It would be wrong if the last 50 years had seen no change in cathedral music. Improvements have needed to be made, and the tradition has needed not only to be safeguarded but also to be developed if it is to be alive and not fossilized; our worship needs to be both rooted in centuries of experience and also responsive to the world in which we now find ourselves. Its value to those who find their lives changed by what they see and hear is evident from the admission of many and I am sure the silent witness of very many more. Long may it continue – and continue it will, for I am convinced that the energy, the commitment and self-sacrifice of those in whose hands it is will always be more than equal to the challenges that face it. Deo Gratias.’