[Saint] John Henry Newman, Bishop of Nottingham 1850-????
Peter Francis Smedley, Master of Music, Westminster Cathedral 1961-????
It nearly happened, in both cases. When the hierarchy of England and Wales was restored in 1850, Cardinal Wiseman wanted Newman, his most high-profile convert, to be bishop of Nottingham. He persuaded for a long time, but Newman was steadfast in his refusal: he did not want “power” in the Roman Catholic church, and to come to Nottingham would mean working closely with [Arch]bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham, a prospect the gentle and scholarly Newman dreaded as Ullathorne was, shall we say, no respecter of persons.
When the post of Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral came up in 1961 Peter Smedley made it to the last two. He was beaten by the assistant organist at Westminster, Colin Mawby. Ten years later Mawby’s assistant Nicolas Kynaston left to begin his worldwide career as player and teacher, and Peter was asked to succeed him. However by then professional and family circumstances made this impossible and Peter remained at Nottingham Cathedral till his retirement in 2003.
Colin Mawby began his musical career as a boy at Westminster Cathedral. He was thus present in 1947 when auditions took place for a new Master of Music. Among the candidates were George Malcolm, who got the job, and two other London choirmasters: Fernand Laloux of Farm Street and Henry Washington of Brompton Oratory. (In the way that curious coincidences sometimes arise, Washington went on to teach Peter Smedley and Laloux went on to teach me.)
Mawby became assistant to George Malcolm, and was then for a time choirmaster at Portsmouth RC Cathedral (they have two in that city). In 1959 he became assistant to George Malcolm’s successor Francis Cameron, succeeding him as we have seen two years later.
A taste of the music in Colin Mawby’s early days can be found in the YouTube clip below:
You will briefly see the future Cardinal Heenan’s solemn entrance into the cathedral and hear Mawby’s choral direction and Kynaston’s playing. And, with Heenan’s fine style, it was splendid: he had been given a great send-off in his former see of Liverpool that afternoon with his flock at the station to say goodbye; a delayed train caused him to have a mad dash to Westminster, with the briefest of blessings to a parish group waiting for him at Euston, before his arrival in his new cathedral, under a canopy, scattering blessings and smiles (he always smiled at his flock as he processed from the altar after Pontifical High Mass) and finally enthroned. As some will remember he was a good media star too; an excellent appearance with David Frost has never been forgotten.
Mawby evidently enjoyed good relations with Cardinal Heenan, but with Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy it became clear that change was in the offing: a simplified liturgy and the opportunity to celebrate it in English. Pastorally perfect for parishes and for more experimental liturgies in universities and schools – but what about those centres of excellence, our cathedrals, the mother churches of our dioceses? Should they be leading or following? And what of the patrimony of church music, whether Gregorian chant in some cases a thousand years old or the work of great composers who have served the Church, sometimes – as in the case of Byrd and Tallis – at great danger to themselves?
Mawby saw the opportunities for the new liturgy in a solemn English setting which was broadcast in 1968, televised live from St James’s Spanish Place under the direction of the charismatic Roger Pugh, who later became the assistant organist at Westminster and who, in the company of a Benedictine monk, had a sighting of the Loch Ness monster. Musically Mawby’s mass setting was very interesting indeed, good for choirs to sing and an example of what a good composer could do with the new texts. Nor did Mawby forget choirs and congregations with different needs: as a parishioner at Matlock in 1972-73 I regularly heard one of his settings, in which simplicity was certainly the watchword.
But was that all? He was very worried about what would happen at Westminster Cathedral, which at that time had a daily Capitular High Mass at 10:30 and sung or solemn Vespers (depending on the feast) at 5 pm. Obviously there was scope for different things in other services, but was Latin going to come under attack? The Administrator of the time was a man of immense learning and culture who declared that he felt his chief duty was “to protect the building [the cathedral] from Heenan”, who was very good at steam-rollering through his own ideas. No mention here of the music, and there is no doubt that there were cathedral priests (called chaplains there) who were ill-at-ease with Latin and didn’t look forward to celebrating it. And there started to be pressure from some choir parents, who thought their sons should be singing in English, not old-fashioned and (some thought) heretical and now-forbidden Latin. No wonder Mawby went into print, in a letter to The Times, voicing his concerns (that didn’t go down too well in certain quarters).
And yet . . . it was at this time that the Choir School was rebuilt, and Heenan himself could deliver fine liturgy. I twice saw him on Easter Sunday morning: full Latin mass, attended by deacon and subdeacon of the Mass, two deacons at the throne, assistant priest in cope and a gentleman-at arms in full livery, and Mawby conducting a Mozart mass complete with orchestra.
After Heenan’s death Mawby became director of music at the great Jesuit [then] church of the Sacred Heart in Wimbledon, where my parents and I often worshipped, and then in 1981 choral director at Radio Telefís Éireann. Of his many compositions from that time, his powerfully romantic setting of Ave Verum Corpus is a great favourite at Nottingham Cathedral.
Although he kept a relatively low profile after Westminster, it was no surprise to find him last summer entering the lists about what he saw as devastating changes to the organisation of Westminster Cathedral choir school. And shortly before his death he had gone into print again eloquently warning about the damage that would occur.
The death of a renowned director of music is always a cause for mourning. Mawby’s successor [Sir] Stephen Cleobury died on St Cecilia’s Day 2019; Mawby himself died two days later. And to add to our grief, their latest esteemed successor Martin Baker has resigned. Cardinal Heenan and Cardinal Hume, both so supportive to the cathedral’s music, must be turning in their graves.