Andrew Carter sung in the Minster Choir at York
Encounters – Andrew Carter, composer1:05, 25th November 2019
‘I come from a family of change-ringers and my mother had a good
voice. My introduction to music was through school choirs, particularly at my co educational Leicestershire grammar school, where the head of music, Terry Dwyer, used to put on Mozart operas and Bach cantatas. As a 16-year-old baritone I found myself singing Leporello in Don Giovanni, and at 17 I sang the solos in Wachet auf.
I went to Leeds University and it was a great experience. I joined lots of university choirs and sang works such as the B minor Mass and the Bach Passions. Donald Hunt gave me organ lessons at the parish church for a year, and I learned enough to be able to write effectively for the instrument. I’d been crazy about York Minster ever since listening to broadcasts of Choral Evensong on my old Bakelite radio at home in Leicester.
A schoolfriend and I used to do cathedral pilgrimages by bike; we did one trip up to Durham (where we were given a tour of Harrison & Harrison’s workshops by Cuthbert Harrison), then down the A1 to Ripon and over to York. We were shown up to the organ loft, where Francis Jackson was playing the last movement of Mendelssohn’s Sonata no.3; astonishingly, he talked to us throughout, while his hands and feet glided effortlessly over the manuals and pedals.
On graduating, I heard there was a bass songman vacancy in the Minster choir, so I wrote to Francis to apply. Those were fabulous days; Francis was a wonderful role model. The Minster repertoire list was large, ranging from the 16th century to Tippett, Britten and Rubbra. I spent my first two years sight-reading or taking things home to learn.
In 1965 I founded the Chapter House Choir, which I conducted for 17 years. We explored all the usual choral repertoire, up to Poulenc and Messiaen, which we thought was very advanced. The most challenging piece we tackled was Messiaen’s Cinq rechants for 12 unaccompanied voices – but I think we did it pretty well. To help keep up the standard, we entered competitions such as BBC Radio’s Let the peoples sing. I stood down when I felt I was beginning to repeat myself, and I was afraid people would stop listening!
By that time, with the support of my wife Sylvia, a pianist and music teacher, I’d given up my teaching job to focus on composing. Marrying Sylvia was undoubtedly the most important highlight of my life; we have had a wonderful life together with our two children.
A major turning point for me was Philip Ledger’s inclusion of my carol “A Maiden Most Gentle” in the 1978 Christmas Eve service from King’s College, Cambridge. Commissions immediately started coming in, which made a huge difference to my life. Philip was also the catalyst for my first and best-known cantata, Benedicite.
Another highlight was the invitation from John Scott at St Paul’s Cathedral to write the Missa Sancti Pauli to celebrate the tercentenary of Wren’s cathedral in 1997. It was astonishing to sit under the dome in the Grinling Gibbons choir stalls, listening to my music. Early on, I realised I wouldn’t earn much by waiting for commissions from British choirs. American choirs have so much get-up-and- go and are quite happy to say, “Let’s commission so-and-so.” Bob Hobby, at Holy Trinity, Fort Wayne, Indiana, commissioned both my Te Deum and the organ concerto.
I’ve been impressed by the achievements of Francis’s successors at the Minster, Philip Moore and Robert Sharpe. In the 1960s, we thought this set-up couldn’t survive much longer, it was far too expensive – but cathedral choirs in York and elsewhere are still going strong, many now with the addition of girls, which I welcome. Having taught in a girls’ school, I know they can be trained to sing in exactly the same way as boys.
I admit that I’m conservative in my musical tastes. I pushed my boundaries a bit for No man is an island, written for Tim Brown and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, when our daughter Elinor was a member; but on the whole I’ve stayed where I’m comfortable. Others must do what is right for them.’
Andrew Carter, who was talking to Clare Stevens, turns 80 on 13 December. Organist Gordon Stewart with Tom Osbourne (trumpet) and Elinor Carter (soprano) give a celebratory recital in Huddersfield Town Hall on Monday 2 December at 1pm; tickets 01484 225755.