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The Music Of St Machar’s in History

Before the Reformation, the Cathedral of St Machar (dedicated also to St Mary) was the Cathedral of the ancient Borough of Old Aberdeen, with a parish that stretched far into Aberdeenshire.  It had a large ecclesiastical establishment, and music – probably mainly plainsong - played an important part in its offices which were sung from early morning until evening each day of the year.

In 1240, long before even the present edifice was built, the Cathedral’s records  make the first mention of a Precentor or Chanter. The Precentor was a very senior official, responsible for the Cathedral’s musical liturgy and for the running of the ‘Sang Schule’ in which boys for the choir were trained and educated.  By the end of the 15th Century the choir included twelve professional priest Vicars Choral, to be in attendance at all hours.  In 1506 this number was increased to twenty, with two deacons, two sub-deacons and two acolytes, six boy choristers and a Sang Schule master.  This was a major musical establishment – even the Chapel Royal at Holyrood had only sixteen Canons and six boys.

At the Reformation services became far plainer in form with elaborate chant giving way to the singing of psalms and with no place for such things as organs in worship.   There was however still awareness of the need for fitting quality in the music, and 1579 the Scottish Parliament decreed the reopening of Sang Schules to train boys in psalmody.    During the 17th Century, except for the period between 1645 and 1663 (which latter  date presumably indicates the Restoration), daily services continued to be held at St Machar’s, with the Sang Schule Master and scholars in attendance.    

By the end of the 17th century the Sang Schule had gone and the singing was being led by a Precentor who gave out the psalms line by line, to be echoed by the congregation.  Perhaps initially this may have been done in a straightforward manner, but it had by this time become the universal custom for each to sing the line after his or her own fashion so that the tune could become quite obscured in the general collective improvisation.  This practice of ‘lining’, a response to the fact that few had their own psalters, was a matter of great contention, and in the first half of the 18th century the Church’s General Assembly issued a direction that it should cease, but it was not until later in the century that this came about.    

The first latter-day mention of a choir appears in the Cathedral records for 1851 when the Precentor requested ‘a Band to assist him in his arduous labours’.  The Scottish Reformed Church had no dealings with instrumental music at that time, and we may take it that the word ‘band’ refers to a band of singers.  Finally, in 1870, with the introduction of the Church Of Scotland’s first hymn book, leaders for a choir were appointed.

With the arrival of the Cathedral’s Willis organ in 1891 came a new tradition of choral music, beginning with the conventional anthems and choruses of the Victorian period and enthusiastically developed under a succession of distinguished organists and choir masters thereafter.   Nowadays choir repertoire at St Machar’s encompasses works of the great masters of sacred music from the Medieval to the present day and it continues to evolve.  The climax of the musical year is the welcoming of Christ in a full Cathedral at one of the city’s most popular Christmas Eve services of Nine Lessons and Carols, a service which has been celebrated at St Machar’s every year since the 1930s.  

As part of St Machars’ declared mission through music, a programme of Choral Scholarships was introduced in 2007, marking a new phase in the choir’s development.  These scholarship placings form a nucleus for the choir, give opportunities in the furthering of vocal training and skills and help make possible expansion of choral repertoire and activities.    

(Historical information based on Occasional Paper ‘St Machar’s Cathedral, Old Aberdeen: Its Organ and Its Music’ by David Murray and Michael Thomson, available from the Cathedral.)