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SPOTLIGHT ON… Elizabeth Stratford – the first woman to be appointed to a senior music post at a UK cathedral



You started your musical journey as a chorister and studied voice and piano at University.  When, and why, did you decide to take up the organ and what was your training as an organist?

As I progressed as a chorister, my desire to work in Cathedral music increased, and it soon became obvious to me that I would need to play the organ in order to achieve a senior post in liturgical music.  I didn’t start piano lessons until I was almost 17, and the general advice then was that you should be at least Grade 5 piano before beginning the organ.  The organist at Leeds Cathedral, Julie Tanner, said she would be prepared to give me a few lessons.  She was lovely – really patient, didn’t mind that I was still mastering the bass clef, and taught me a great deal about colour and shape on the organ, which of course is quite different from colour and shape on the piano.  I practised on a 3 manual Harrison and Harrison organ at St Columba’s Church, Horton, and my school released me on Friday afternoons during sixth form (when I had free periods) so that I could do this, for which I remain tremendously grateful.  After six organ lessons I sat my Grade 4 organ (with my right hand splinted because I had a repetitive strain injury) and after that I didn’t really look back (I did pass it incidentally).  I had some lessons with Simon Lindley at Leeds Parish Church and Louise Marsh (now Reid) at Wakefield Cathedral.

 

Organ playing did not form part of my first degree, but I was an early choral conducting scholar at Christ Church, New Mill, where I was able to direct the choir for parts of Evensong and assist in rehearsals.  After this I was appointed Organist and Director of Music at St Paul’s Church, Shipley – the church Harry Bramma grew up in – and here I was responsible for playing for all the services, accompanying the choir and taking rehearsals.  I was still studying for my first degree, but found that preparing voluntaries, hymns and accompaniments for services a discipline which improved my playing.  Other skills such as psalm accompaniment and improvisation also developed well.

 

I did major in organ performance at Masters level where my teacher was Gordon Stewart.  We had lessons at Huddersfield Town Hall – a phenomenal instrument, and my first experience of a general crescendo pedal!  In an early lesson, Gordon asked me what I wanted to do.  I said, ”Be the Director of Music in a Cathedral”.  He replied, “You’ll never be at home to put your children to bed because you’ll be playing for Evensong.  You’ll never be able to go away for weekends because you’ll be working and your husband will get annoyed.  You won’t get regular holidays.  You’ll miss parties and things your friends are doing, because you will be at work.  Still want to do it?” I said, “Yes, absolutely”. “Right then”, he said, “that’s what we’ll do”.

 

I had very formative experiences, not least being a chorister.  I remember going to Liverpool Cathedral on a trip with the Bradford Organists’ Association and Ian Tracey asked if anyone would like to play.  A sea of men raised their hands and I stood right at the back.  Ian said, “Girl at the back, would you like to play?”  He proceeded to assist and register for me.  To have opportunities to play some incredible instruments was unexpected and thrilling.

 

In October 2002, at the age of 23, you were appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Arundel Cathedral, which makes you both the first woman to be appointed to a senior music post at a UK cathedral and (at the time of writing) the youngest person to be given a cathedral music department to run.  Did you encounter any challenges relating to your age or your gender?

When I was interviewing for university places, I recall one admissions tutor asking what I hoped to do following my music degree.  When I said I wanted to work in cathedral music, he took off his glasses, leant forward and exclaimed, “But you’re a woman!”  I remember attending for interview at Arundel and one of the shortlisted men boasting about his FRCO and his experience – it was obvious he thought he’d got the job and I think some of the other candidates felt a bit intimidated by his attitude.

 

These were perhaps a foretaste of what I might deal with, but everyone in Arundel was exceptionally supportive.  The adults in the choir, who must have wondered what on earth had hit them, committed to additional rehearsals so that we could work on singing technique and some did joke that I was young enough to be their granddaughter, but they put their trust in me and we moved forward together.  The Dean who appointed me, Monsignor Jeffrey Scott, had absolute faith in me, and supported me in everything I wanted to do, from creating places in the choir for children, to new robes, to tours, recordings and overseeing the rebuild of the Cathedral’s historic Hill organ.  “You do the music and I’ll sign the cheques” he would say.  During the organ rebuild, I expected the organ building staff to assume I wouldn’t understand things but they treated me with the greatest of respect, consulting me about everything – the organ builder even put wood samples in the post to me so I could select the exact colour of console wood I wanted for the new console.  Of course, there were a few comments about my age and gender from people, which was to be expected, but I worked and still work incredibly hard.  I hope I have made those who appointed me proud.

 

You have been Organist and Master of the Choristers at Arundel Cathedral for over 20 years now.  What do you consider to be your main achievements in the post during this time?

There are a number of things which spring to mind.  One is the BBC One live broadcast of Midnight Mass in 2014.  For a Cathedral which doesn’t have a choir school and doesn’t sing daily (or even almost daily) services, this felt like a tremendous responsibility.  The BBC placed huge trust in the choir and me to deliver a high standard of music for perhaps the most watched religious broadcast of the year, and we were fortunate to have Daniel Moult playing the organ and Robert Prizeman producing.

 

Between 2004 and 2006, the Cathedral’s Hill organ was rebuilt by David Wells and his team and I was very much at the helm where this was concerned, choosing an advisor and ultimately who would rebuild the instrument along with forming an advisory committee and considering the various aspects of work.

 

I managed doctoral study alongside working, researching the revised vernacular Ordinary of the Mass in the Catholic Church.  That was hard but fascinating – and helped me to connect to others and learn about worship and pushing the boundaries of composing for congregations.

 

Perhaps the thing I am most proud of though is the blend of choir members.  Currently, the youngest probationer is 6 and the eldest volunteer will be 80 next year.  They all treat each other with respect, dignity and warmth which is crucial in any team, I feel.  The majority of current singers are not Roman Catholic and many have no faith or religious affiliation, yet all are welcome.  To me, this is true evangelisation.  I have tried to create an extended family where all are welcome regardless of faith, belief and background and where each person feels comfortable and safe. Parents in particular comment on how the choir has helped their children develop social skills, grow in confidence, deal with anxiety and so much more.  Older singers inspire younger ones and everyone is a valued part of what we do and who we are.

 

Can you tell us something about the music team and choir(s) at Arundel Cathedral, and the weekly pattern of services?

In terms of staff, there are three assistant organists who share the playing, each travelling a considerable distance to do so, the chorister singing tutor, choir chaperones and me.  The top line is, and has always been, mixed so all our trebles sing together for everything that we do.  This works very well for us and I have found that the children are very comfortable with each other and form close friendships, regardless of gender.  When boys’ voices start to change, they continue in the choir if they want to, moving to alto, tenor and bass.  The adults in the choir are made up of Choral Scholars who are university students and volunteers.  The Choral Scholars are enthusiastic about what we do and the choir brings performance opportunities for them as well as a grounding in plainchant, different psalmody styles and more.

 

Before the pandemic, we sang Compline twice a week, a full choral Mass each Sunday and had additional services of Vespers seasonally along with special celebrations to mark Corpus Christi (when the Cathedral is carpeted in flowers), for the Easter Triduum and at Christmas.  We also sing at Civic Services taking place at the Cathedral or St Nicholas’s Church, Arundel, and for community services (recently these have included conferring the Freedom of the Town on The Duke of Norfolk, a short carol service to mark the switching on of the Christmas lights and an act of Remembrance for Remembrance Sunday).  I am also keen that the choir should experience as much as possible musically so took the choristers to see Grease the Musical in the West End in the summer as well as to sing at St Paul’s Cathedral.  In both situations, the choristers were able to speak with other musicians about their work which they found extremely valuable.

 

What other activities are you engaged in?

I work full-time hours in Arundel as the music provision is more extensive than it was at my appointment, and there are more people to manage.  On an average day, I could be timetabling lessons, booking out rooms, composing something for use in a particular liturgy, coaching a chorister for a solo, playing or singing for something – the list is endless.   In wanting to give the choir opportunities I acknowledge that I will have a heavier workload; the paperwork for taking the choir off site is generally quite extensive and because I don’t have a secretary in Arundel I am responsible for everything including sorting out coaches.  The whole choir are going to sing in Oxford in January so I am busy dealing with final arrangements for that at the moment.

 

I am also the Director of Salisbury Cathedral Chamber Choir, a post I began in 2023 and which brings me tremendous joy.  As a teenager I attended singing courses at Sarum College, singing daily Choral Evensong in Salisbury Cathedral, and it is a place which holds lots of happy memories for me so to be on the staff there now is something of a dream.  The Chamber Choir sing when the Cathedral Choir can’t or is away, and we have some exciting projects planned for 2024 and beyond which I’m looking forward to.  (I am also provided with a secretary in Salisbury – it is a marvel!).

 

Beyond this, I am Principal of the National College of Music which offers examinations in a number of musical disciplines, Administrator of the Guild of Church Musicians and currently serve on the Cathedral Organists’ Association committee.  I teach piano, organ and singing and 2024 will see me tutor on the Jennifer Bate Organ Academy, which I’m looking forward to very much.  In my (very limited) spare time I enjoy walking my dog – a yellow Labrador – on the beach, photography and going to the opera.

 

What are the highlights of your career so far?

There are so many.  Bringing lots of primary school children together and directing them in the Baron’s Hall at Arundel Castle for Children in Need was incredible and terrifying in equal measure as it was transmitted live, but was an amazing experience for all those involved.  The Cathedral Choir have broadcast on several occasions as well as making Songs of Praise programmes, and it is always wonderful to think that we are helping others to worship in their homes, whatever their circumstances.  We sang at the memorial service for Miles Frost, who tragically died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and ended up performing alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber who played the piano and Liam Neeson who gave a eulogy.  Recently one of my choristers reached the final of the BBC Young Chorister of the Year and it was immense fun working on this with her.  I was presented to HRH The Duchess of Gloucester in recognition of my achievements in sacred music and have worked with the Norfolk family on a number of liturgies.  Commissioning works for the choir is really exciting and our most recent commission, a piece by Kristina Arakelyan for the Cathedral’s 150th anniversary, was tailored to our acoustic and choral resources.  Kristina was wonderful to work with and produced a beautiful piece for us – the choir were able to meet her and talk with her which was particularly useful for the GCSE students I think.

 

I have sung for members of the Royal Family, played the organ for the Requiem Mass of the editor of the New York Times, directed music for the wedding of a prince, recorded music which speaks to me on a devotional level, obtained my doctorate…, but more than this, I have had children join the choir as choristers and request baptism, confirmation, the sacraments of the church.  I have watched children, and also adults, join the choir, grow as people as well as musically, gain confidence, resilience, discipline and come to love music.  It is an incredible privilege to send them off into the world and see what they do and where they go.  One former chorister is now singing professionally in London, another has just finished a West End run.  Choristers have gone on to become (in no particular order) a doctor, a pilot, a stage manager, a midwife, an interior designer, some are solicitors, several are teachers and of course, musicians!   One of our Choral Scholars is part of the current Genesis Sixteen group and a former Choral Scholar has just been given a National Youth Choir of Great Britain Fellowship.  It is wonderful to see the diversity in what they all achieve and even more wonderful to welcome them back – this year one of our former choristers gets married and we are all singing for that.  The choir is very much a community, a family, accepting of all and this is the biggest highlight for me of everything.  I feel so very fortunate to work in the areas that I do, in a job that I love, with tremendous support from the Deans of each Cathedral.

 

Is there anything else you would like to do?

I do have a wish list – one is pure fantasy like establishing a choir school and having millions in the choir endowment fund which I also established a few years ago (we are nowhere near the millions yet).  The other is more realistic (perhaps) – securing funding for visiting tutors to come and work with the choir, outreach projects, collaborative performances, learning and performing large scale works (we’ve just performed our first Handel’s Messiah to close Arundel’s 150th anniversary year and the choir did an amazing job alongside professional soloists).  Taking the choir to Paris and to Rome to sing is also on that list.  On a more personal level, there are pieces I’d still like to learn on the organ but so little time, some instruments I’d love half an hour with just to explore (Truro leads here, but Westminster Cathedral and the Abbey are there along with the Royal Albert Hall) and I’d like to write a book of all the hilarious things choristers have come out with during rehearsals.  Last year we were working on Allegri’s Miserere Mei – my rehearsal style is to ask questions to check the choristers are keeping pace with what’s going on.  This particular rehearsal was with the probationers so I asked which line they thought they should be singing.  The score read Cantus 1, Cantus II, Altus. etc.  One small boy put his hand up and said, “Is it Cactus Two, Miss?”  You might think I’ve had enough of research to last a lifetime but I’d like to undertake some study of psychology and produce an Arundel Psalter when the text revisions are complete.  Plenty to keep busy with!

 

Finally, why do you think there are still relatively few female Directors of Music?  Is there anything that can be done to improve the situation?

Honestly, I don’t know.  We know that fewer people are playing the organ in general, but for me, it shouldn’t be a gender issue – choose the best person for the role but make the role as accessible for everyone regardless of the school they have attended, the background they have or any other criteria which could exclude the candidate you really need for the job.  I had hoped that the field would have opened up more over the past twenty years and women are moving into these roles – but it’s slow.  I hope I’m suitably encouraging when people ask me about how to get into this area of work – my route was fairly unconventional but my faith directs my life and I believe that God puts us in the places He wants us to be.  Anything is possible.


 

Dr Elizabeth Stratford was one of the first girl choristers in this country.  She is Organist and Master of the Choristers at Arundel Cathedral and Director of Salisbury Cathedral Chamber Choir.  In addition to her teaching practice she is a Course Director for the Rodolfus Foundation and a tutor for the Jennifer Bate Organ Academy as well as the Principal of the National College of Music, Administrator of the Guild of Church Musicians and on the committee of the Cathedral Organists’ Association. She has broadcast on television and radio, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2017 and was awarded her doctorate in 2020.

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