Breaking: Westminster Cathedral’s music chief walks out

Breaking: Westminster Cathedral’s music chief walks out


norman lebrecht

January 07, 2020

The Diocese of Westminster has issued the following statement:

‘It is with regret that we announce the resignation of Martin Baker as Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral with effect from 31 December 2019. We take the opportunity to thank him for his dedication and service over the past two decades and wish him the very best in his future career’.

A second statement added: ‘Today the Diocese will start to address these new circumstances created by Mr Baker’s resignation. A further announcement will be made in the coming weeks.’

You can almost smell the shock and incense.

It is believed that Baker’s resignation is related to a recent controversy reported by Slipped Disc in which a group of choir school parents opposed changes to the boarding arragments, which would have meant the boys being collected on Fridays and returned on Sunday morning. The Diocese rejected their complaints.

The late Colin Mawby reported that Baker implored Cardinal Vincent Nichols not to proceed with the changes.

Baker backed the parents. Baker had to go.

More here.

UPDATE: We understand that Baker had not been seen at the Cathedral since mid-October. He wmissed all the Choir’s liturgies, as well as joint Evensong at Westminster Abbey and a Christmas Concert at Cadogan Hall. No reason was given. Now we know.



  • quirister says:

    Shame on Neil McLaughlan. Shame on Vincent Nichols. The only professional Catholic choir in the world to sing daily mass and vespers and now its future is at stake.

  • Jane Thomas says:

    How long before the guitar-strumming, bongo-bashing Has Beens from the 70s creep in and take over? This is an absolute disaster. Vincent Nichols is but a pale reflection of his predecessors and a deeply unimpressive person, colluding with the notion that you can have excellence on the cheap. Martin will rise again and achieve greater things, I have no doubt; but the personal cost of this upheaval to him and his colleagues should not be underestimated. Meanwhile, Brompton Oratory and Farm Street will fly the flag for excellence in liturgy and music.

    • John Kelly says:

      Quite right Jane, and I might add the guitar strumming bongo bashers playing music retrieved from Sir Paul McCartney’s waste paper basket……………….most not even that good.

    • JR says:

      Not to mention St. James’s, Spanish Place.

      • Maria says:

        They are just professional singers often not involved in the life of any church, singing in Farm St, the Oratory and Spanish Place. The the national church for Catholics and involves committed boys – and their parents. Not about Baker or indeed the Cardinal other than there is less money around and the rver increasing cost of safeguarding is a problem. Every Sunday at Mass there has been a second collection for the music, and people would put in 10p to 50p at the most! Diesnt even put the cost of bread and wine on the altar. If the money is not coming in, then there has to be a rethink and those who go there should dig deep. Perhaps they should look at the great work Leeds Catholic Cathedral (St Anne’s) has done for years with Benjamin Saunders. That the model is the future.

        • A Wothington says:

          Maria, are you part of, or otherwise connected to, the present or past parent, staff, or governing body of the Westminster Cathedral Choir School? Please do share any inside information if you have any. Otherwise, perhaps look at the past press on this issue from 2019. Many parents opposed the change in boarding, and at least four boy choristers were forced to leave as a result of the rushed implementation.

          Regarding money, Private Eye reported last year that the Diocese spent £8.25 million on a building to house a pre-prep operation as part of the overall Choir School – and millions on renovations, all paid for by a bank loan with associated interest payments in the millions of ££. There is obviously cash (or there would have been had it not been for extravagant spending elsewhere). Please do not have the gall to blame the poor parishioners in the pews. This is contemptible.

          Leeds is great for what it is – it is not Westminster and vice versa, nor should they strive to be the same.

          As I say, if you have inside information that his is somehow planned, it is certainly news because the Diocese have only said that the boarding changes relate purely to addressing recruitment.

        • derek siemens says:

          Maria, when the change to the boarding (and hence choir) schedule was instituted Neil McLaughlan (head of WCCS) insisted that it absolutely had nothing to do with money whatsoever. Not at all. Absolutely not. (He stated and restated this ad nauseum.)

          Furthermore I understand that there was an offer from a private entity to financially support all choristers for the next 25 years if the decision was reversed.

          Despite all that I think you are right that this is about money. Just not the money it takes to run the choir… I am believe – with reason – that if anyone scratched the surface of this whole situation they would find some curious financial dealings between school and diocese.

          There is no recruitment problem. There was a lack of advertising and outreach, but there are Roman Catholic boys in full-boarding Church of England choir schools. However, the smaller the boarding provision can be made at WCCS (eventually eradicated…?), the more classroom space for full fee paying day boys, whose parents will ultimately be paying the diocese’s debts.

  • Chorister's Friend says:

    The move to a five-day programme by Westminster Cathedral has lost them an excellent Director of Music but has meant that other institutions, that still value their weekly, full commitment to sung services, have benefitted from some new recruits.

    Recruitment of excellent, young singers in our Cathedrals is becoming quite a challenge, for a whole host of reasons. Why make the process even more problematic, particularly when it has the potential to affect standards too.

    • Hacomblen says:

      Recruitment wasn’t a problem there until it was manipulated to fit with the head’s agenda. Now it’s quantity over quality.

    • Maria says:

      Well, they cut out half our children as there is no provision made for talented girls or the talented poor who can all sing equally well Malcolm Archer and Harrison (Fred) Hauxley brought that argument up years ago. All the boys are from the high end of the middle class, ie rich families, the rest excluded and herding on discrimination.

      • A Wothington says:

        As per above Maria, are you in some way connected with the School? Doing its bidding?

        FYI, you will probably know this, but prior to the boarding changes, boys from across the country could apply. Many of these came from modest households to say the least. They are all on scholarships and many had to be given grants from a hardship fund (from generous benefactors) to make up the shortfall in their fee contributions.

        With the changes, only boy choristers from wealthy London postcodes can realistically apply.

        The rest of the pupils are day boys mainly from London paying full fees of £20,000 per year. This now extends to the posh pre-prep school established at great cost by the Diocese for the School (see above comment – and note that ultimately it may be the poor pew-sitter who have to pay the interest and other expenses associated with this project in which they have no involvement whatsoever). Your comment about these changes being somehow likely to boost boys from less wealthy backgrounds is false.

        This has all been covered in articles in the Catholic Herald, the tablet and Private Eye etc. Please do take the time to inform yourself.

        This whole situation is nothing short of scandalous.

      • MrsWesley says:

        There are now, and always have been, bursaries available for parents who can’t pay the fees which are, in any case, greatly reduced in comparison with other, non-singing, boarding prep schools. In addition there are top-up bursaries from a special fund run by the Choir Schools’ Association, which has as its goal that no child shall be prevented from taking up a chorister scholarship because the fees are beyond the parents. And all that is before you get to the issue of government/council funding, which can be applied for because, having gained a choristership one can show that a child has special educational needs, citing music.

        Traditionally choir schools were the enclave of the working class, the upper and middle classes preferring not to send their children to them. It is only since WWII that choir schools have filled up with the middle class.

        The Head at Westminster Cathedral is chasing the “high end of the middle class” by, first, deciding to expand to have kindergarten/infant provision (which has cost millions), the fees for which are eye watering. Vincent Nichols and the Chair of Governors have gone along with the head, rather than taking to heart the reason for the founding of the school, which was to provide singing boys for the cathedral.

      • W. Limburg says:

        Why can,t the rich families pay more money to behold an excellent cathedral choir??

      • Wolsey says:

        “Harrison (Fred) Hauxley”? Perhaps you mean Harrison Oxley. If a detail such as this is incorrect, there is every justification for being suspicious of other details of your claims in this thread.

      • Sally Nicholls says:

        I know this is an old post, but as a past parent of a chorister I must inform you that you are entirely wrong regarding socio-economic backgrounds of previous choristers. Any Catholic boy with talent and the right temperament for the rigorous way of life of a chorister was given the opportunity. There were several boys in my sons time who paid nothing, not even for their uniform.

    • matteob says:

      I disagree it is actually quite healthy down here in Kent despite two cathedrals in competition and he proximity to London. Though i am not keen on the sound the girls choirs sharing the responsibility have created a less hectic schedule for the main choir and it has been good in allowing all musically gifted children to sing in the cathedrals regardless of sex though the choirs are independent.

  • PGTips says:

    I’m sure Westminster Cathedral will find a fine successor to continue Martin Baker’s good work.

    • Hacomblen says:

      They’ll need someone willing to put up with a megalomaniac head, an uninterested cardinal, and clergy who can’t fight back.

      • Maria says:

        The Cardinal will be 75 soon and so will be resigning as per Catholic Canon Law.

        • A Wothington says:

          Relevance? Also, and you probably know this, but he only has to submit his resignation on turning 75. It has to be accepted by the Pope, and often is not for several years.

          Of course, it has been widely reported that Cardinal Nichols was heavily criticized by the IICSA report into his handling of abuse claims while Archbishop of Birmingham. He is also under the pump at current IICSA hearings into his handling of similar claims while Archbishop of Westminster. He even, during examination under oath, admitted that “Yes, that’s true. I’m afraid there are not many areas of my life in which there is total integrity. I failed in this. I failed to sustain this person in a difficult period in their life.” (see

          So perhaps you are alluding to the fact that he may be allowed to retire asap by the Pope??

          • MrsWesley says:

            Throughout his career Before Vincent Nichols has been marked out by his ambition: indeed, before his appointment a group of catholic bishops (his brother priests, who knew him well), several prominent catholic laypeople and even a catholic MP expressed their worries to the Papal Nuncio, citing his ambition as reason for him not to be appointed.

            Maybe Benedict should have dug a little deeper before naming Nicholas as Archbishop.

            As for him actually going at 75, dream on: he’ll only leave Archbishop’s House when he dragged out.

        • MrsWesley says:

          Sadly not soon enough to stop him wrecking the choral foundation of the cathedral.

          Of course, it could be argued that he has spent so much of his time either avoiding appearing at hearings, or trying to protect his own back when forced to attend IICSA investigations…

    • A Worthington says:

      Dear Cheap Tea,

      Do you have inside information to support your comment, or are you talking out of your hat?

      The logical view is that, if the Cardinal and school authorities have created a toxic atmosphere between them and the music staff, connected to the rolling back of the music programme, then very few top music directors will want to apply for the vacancy.

      What a pathetically blasé (or naïve) approach to this serious matter.

      • Maria says:

        People will be lining up for the job who have flare, and cutting their coat according to the cloth with a view of the future, the needs of the church, and within a budget the Cathedral can afford, starting with looking at the director of music’s salary, and how girls and those disadvantaged can be brought in to enhance the that place. After all, that’s why the choir is there – to enhance the worship.

        • A Wothington says:

          Maria, your prolific commenting is admirable, but also misguided.

          Regarding “within a budget that the cathedral can afford” see my earlier comments about the extravagant spending by the Diocese as regards the choir school. The pew-sitters will likely have to foot the bill for millions of ££. I actually attend the choral services at Westminster very regularly and speak to my fellow parishioners. They were concerned by the news of the changes, and are now devastated by the news that the beloved Martin Baker has permanently departed the Cathedral.

          All your comments show a lack of compassion and empathy for these people, also for the many chorister parents who DID oppose the changes (I appreciate that it is reported that some were in favour of them) and for those who ere forced to uproot their lives and leave the choir as a result. Do you have any consoling words for them?

          Your comments all seem to indicate you know of some agenda behind these changes, not known to the public. Is this true? for instance, how do you know that the Master of Master salary will be lowered? Or that a girls’ choir might be on the cards? Do share any inside knowledge, please.

        • MrsWesley says:

          Youe are definitely a stooge of either Vincent Nichols or the Cathedral.

          FYI the salary of the Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral is one of the lowest in Cathedral Music in the UK – there are assistants in other cathedrals who earn more than him, and have better and more convenient accommodation.

          As for having girls in the choir, lets just say that the RC church’s general attitude towards women is entirely reflected in there not being a girls’ choir.

        • matteob says:

          There have always been bursaries for poorer students. As to girls it is debatable whether they can produce the same sound as the boys. I come from the Anglican tradition and I find the girls tone at the same age much thinner than the boys. Nothing to do with sexism as female adult sopranos can match and exceed a boy’s voice but most musicians will say there is magic to a boys unbroken voice.

        • matteob says:

          Well nearly a year has gone by with no appointment. I don’t see any liturgical musician in their right mind accepting with the current uncertainty and bad blood.

    • MGibbs says:

      Unlikely. It is obvious that the current Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, is a very different man from his predecessors, especially Basil Hume and Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who saw the Westminster Cathedral choir as important and valuable, the jewel in the otherwise base metal crown of Catholic music in the UK.

      A poisoned chalice, no organist in their right mind will take on the job of leading a choir under threat from it’s own clergy.

      • Sarah says:

        It is all about finding an enormous amount of money, and to blame Vincent Nichols as x, y or z is both unfair, unkind and very simplistic in solving this problem. There was serious trouble there way long before Vincent Nichols ever arrived, and he does fully understand the value of the choir and liturgy. But if people want that kind of music in church, and in an age of austerity where British people have been tightening their belts, then they have to pay for it – give until it hurts. The extra Sunday collection they have had there for years has never filled the enormous gap and you can’t run that choir on fresh air and a blame culture. Martin Baker will get another job. Perhaps he was there for too long for his own good and theirs since the carry on they had at Westminster Abbey at the time when he started.

        • A Wothington says:


          Please see my comments to Maria about the extravagant spending by the Diocese on a pre-prep building.

          In terms of blaming the Cardinal, he himself says that he is the boss of everything, and he is. He is the senior trustee of the Diocese and trustee and governor of the school. He controls all the money and all the decisions. He approved the changes, and he would ultimately be responsible for the current state of affairs. How is it unfair to blame His Eminence in these circumstances? O yes, and he would have approved the extravagant spending on the pre-prep building for the school.

          Also, it seems like others are sharing the blame primarily between him and the other main Actor in all this: the school’s head master Neil McLaghulan.

          Like Maria, your comments about Martin Baker are flippant, grossly insensitive at this time (the poor man has just left a job of 20 years that he carried out with utmost professionalism and that he cherished, possibly leaving in circumstances not entirely of his own choosing), and show a distinct lack of compassion and empathy.

        • MrsWesley says:

          First: WHAT “carry on” at Westminster Abbey? Perhaps you are referring to another organist (also called Martin), Mr Neary? For the record, Martin Baker served Westminster Abbey well and faithfully and is held in not only great esteem but affection by staff, ordained and lay, both there and at St Paul’s, where he worked before that.

          You are quite wrong to say there was serious trouble at WCCS before now: the trouble has come about because of the ambition and hubris of the headmaster, who seems hell-bent on turning WCCS into a chi-chi enclave for catholic yummy-mummys, rather than fulfilling the aims of the school’s founder, which was to provide boarding education for the boys who sing in the Cathedral Choir. A tragedy in the making was made worse, and escalated, by the appointment as Cardinal of someone who matches the head in every respect for ambition and ruthlessness.

        • Derek Siemens says:

          Sarah, three of my sons were ejected from WCCS by Vincent Nichols’ decision. We begged and pleaded for our children and he refused to engage with us, hiding behind Alexander Masters (his secretary) and Neil McLaughlan (head of WCCS). Our whole family has suffered at Nichols’ hand – one of our former WCCS choristers still cries daily. They have suffered deep emotional trauma. Par for the course when looking at Nichols’ handling of both victims and abusers under his charge.

          As for the money my gross annual salary would barely cover one chorister’s yearly fee and my wife was an at home mum until recently, but my 4 boys were all able to attend thanks to funding from the Choir Schools Association, Friends of Cathedral Music, hardship funds, etc. Before the current weekly boarding arrangement boys from poor families – like ours – could go and learn to sing to the Glory of God. Now it is an exclusive prep school for the inner London elite.

          Finally – I am sure that Martin Baker will find another job – no problem. He is an incredible musician, professional, and man. What I fear is that the cathedral will not find another Martin Baker. When we were forced out the cardinal refused to see us, Neil McLaughlan’s feigned concern was full of lies, and my three boys were ‘disciplined’ and derided for their tears by the boarding house master who insisted they weren’t leaving. At Westminster Martin Baker stood alone showing any care for the boys, and treating us as a family with compassion, sympathy, and love.

          God bless Martin Baker! And I pray that the rot in Westminster will soon be exposed.

          • Hacomblen says:

            I’m very sorry to hear all of this, Derek. [redacted: defamation]. It remains to be seen as to which of them is quickest to sell his grandmother to save his own skin, and who will be thrown under the bus. The chair of governors? A slow-witted staff patsy? Even the cathedral administrator?

          • matteob says:

            I hope your son may find another place to sing. It might mean moving to the opposition but if he is talented there are many Anglican Cathedral Choirs who would be glad to have him. I am so sorry for you and him and will keep you in my prayers this is very sad 🙁 It seems like the place does not value what they have especially if they are truculent in the face of someone offering to offer long term financial support for the boys. I won’t darken the WC doors again. God bless.

          • Derek Siemens says:

            hacomblen and matteob, thank you for your kind words and prayers. thank God, all three of my boys were generously offered places at numerous and Anglican cathedrals and were welcomed with open arms into the one that seemed the best fit. (Having trained with Martin Baker made them desirable assets to other choir leaders it seems…) I must say that since I came into communion with the Roman church 17 years ago I now understand more than ever the reformation! I pray for all those who have been cheated and abused by the hierarchy and then lied about and made to look the villains!

    • Una says:

      Yes, they will quite easily. No one is indispensable. Jobs too are scarce as well.

    • A Guest says:

      No one in his right mind would tie himself to that sinking ship.

    • Ruth Wilson says:

      It doesn’t seem to have done so as of October 2020 and, given the fuller story revealed by the very brave Madeline Smith’s trenchant resignation letter, it neither deserves “a fine successor” nor has much chance of procuring one.

      Forget the poisoned chalice – Westminster has produced its very own toxic baton,

      Initiation of major change at Westminster is needed from the very top as the existing local hierarchy is floundering if not already sunk. Perhaps nothing short of an “ex cathedra” pronouncement will do to restore the dignity of this once proud institution.

  • Garry Humphreys says:

    Not a very appropriate picture, Norm: it looks as if the choir boys are dancing for joy that Martin Baker has gone!

    • matteob says:

      I think if you look at Derek’s post you will see that quite the opposite is true. And as to their current standards I read the choir broke down mid motet on one occasion this year. Martin must have been inspirational. He always had a few of the lads follow him to the Grand Organ after Mass when he played the closing voluntary.

  • A concerned onlooker. says:

    Why are you assuming this is a money issue?

    The school was actually offered a multi-million pound donation by a private donor to help reverse the decision. It was, unbelievably, declined. This donation would have secured significant bursaries for
    talented choristers from under privileged families for over 2 decades.

  • Early Byrd says:

    one suspects there’s more in this than’s being acknowledged publicly

  • matteob says:

    This is very sad. Nicholls obviously does not realize what an asset the Choir is to the Cathedral. These boys are professional musicians and some of the finest singers in the world. They enrich the worship and they bring in money from their recorded music which is very popular. The Catholic church unlike the Anglican church seems cavalier about its choral music. Cathedrals in Europe became mostly silent long ago. If this choir goes too then it will be very sad. The loss of Baker too is lamentable as he is an extremely hard working and gifted musician.

  • matteob says:

    Just one last comment Norman about the parents seeing their kids at the weekend and the legacy. I can understand this WCC has no voluntary choir and girls choir to take the stain off the boys. However if it is true that multi million pound donation was offered the solution would be to say recruit say 10 more boys and have the boys sing in rotation so there would still be a full choir but the same lads would not have to sing every weekend. Canterbury used to have this size of Choir and I think the Abbey still does. I think this is about politics and the head and Nicholls wanting to maintain face for a bad decision. Poor old Basil Hume especially will be looking down with dismay. As others have said I think the move is away from a choir school to creaming it from rich urbanites.

  • Innocent Googler says:

    I came across this correspondence as a result of Googling Martin Baker to learn more about him following his short notice excellent Proms performance on 1st August. What a can of worms I unearthed! All very sad for the future of choral music