Music at Westminster Cathedral is ‘untenable’

Music at Westminster Cathedral is ‘untenable’


norman lebrecht

September 10, 2020

A quiet resignation letter by Madeline Smith, Music Administrator of Westminster Cathedral, is roaring around church circles. Ms Smith accuses the cathedral of undermining its choir and shouts out at the ‘inexcusable’  treatment of the last master of music Martin Baker, who quit at the start of this year.

We don’t yet have a full text of the letter: right-click on this image to read it full-sized in a new tab.





  • Edward says:

    still too small to be legible

  • Edward says:

    Thank you DML for the link. It is a very sad state of affairs that such a premier ensemble is suffering from such poor decisions which, it seems, could have been challenged much sooner and hopefully prevented. It would be a tragedy if the music at the cathedral were to deteriorate, and it seems that, with certain people hostile to upholding it, it would be a brave and/or foolhardy person that would wish to take on the Director of Music position, so the quality of candidates will most likely not be of the standard the cathedral has enjoyed in the past. It seems to be locked in a downward spiral. Very sad indeed.

  • Lorelei says:

    These people sing about an imaginary god and a book full of hateful fantasies. I could not care less about this kind of music disappearing. If anything, the world will probably be better when that happens.

    • 18mebrumaire says:

      Truly heartwarming to know that one’s life’s work is so appreciated. Ciao bella, Giannetto Prenestino, Roma.

    • Maria says:

      Maybe an imaginary God to you but by major composers who matter and of a standard that is recognised by the whole music world and beyond as one of the finest choirs by Christians and atheists alike whoappreciate the finer things in life. Your remarks say far more about you and your twisted sad heart.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Careful, your own hatred and jaundice are showing.

    • Maria says:

      Total idiot and full of selfish hatred – as if anyone is asking you to even go there unless you want to. Some of us have given our lives to the performance of classical music, and so much of it was written for the church not the concert hall. Get a life!

  • View From A Bridge says:

    Far too emotive and sentimental a missive and very misjudged as a parting shot. Clearly there are serious problems to be addressed but this sort of thing doesn’t help at all. If it matters so much, you stay and fight for it – or at least wait until the review is complete – you don’t ditch out the minute your furlough finishes.

    • christopher storey says:

      View from a bridge : it is plain that you have no experience of the type of situation which Madeleine Smith has had to deal with . There is nothing emotive, nor sentimental ( whatever that means ) about the letter. It sets out the position very clearly and in a factual way. Are you saying that she should have been party to keeping alleged dishonesty with choirboys’ parents away from the public gaze ? Is that your idea of probity ?

    • A Worthington says:

      VFAB – a few comments on your own sorely misguided observations:

      – It appears you haven’t read the Music Administrator’s letter very closely. If you had done, you would have seen that the problems stretch back years, and have become unbearable in the last 18 months or so – do you recall Martin Baker ignominiously disappeared from his role, then there was a settlement and NDA to hide it all. This letter gives some context to the stress he was placed under, and also the impact on the others in the music department. In essence, the assertion is that School and certain members of the hierarchy created a “bullying and threatening” and “frightening and toxic” climate – surely you are not saying one should remain within such an environment? (Actually, that is exactly what you are saying – good heavens, how twisted you must really be).

      – Far from not staying and fighting, it appears that the Music Administrator held on for as long as her own well-being allowed for it. An heroic effort, I would say. So did Martin Baker – the letter says he tried to stop the ill-conceived changes to the choir’s singing and boarding patters, and was told to but out by the Cardinal no less!!

      – Re the Review – the website says it was supposed to be done by Easter – we are now in September – how long do you suppose she should have to wait around while the Review drags its feet, in order to meet with your approval?

      The above points all demonstrate of fatuous and plain wrong your observations are. But they do illuminate what appears to be a mean streak within you, such that you would probably fit in rather well with the upper echelons of the School and Diocesan management (if you are not one of their stooges already). For instance, how do you know she was on furlough (if indeed the Music Administrator was)? Such information is not contained within the letter. Again, are you connected internally with this matter? Almost certainly – you could not have known this fact (if it is indeed a fact) unless you are on the inside. How disgraceful, and little wonder the Music Administrator felt she had no choice but to remove herself from you and your ilk. It is you who should be removed from your post forthwith, whoever you are (and if you are not someone connected to the school / clergy, then you are simply a nasty troll – commenting from your View from a Bridge).

    • J Gibbs says:

      Maybe, but Westminster Cathedral has form for getting rid of people in it’s music department who are seen as being too much pro-music, rather than toeing the diocesan line.

      • Maria says:

        Colin Mawby springs to mind years ago, and then in come the Anglicans, Stephen Cleobury and David Hill, to run it all as no Catholic would apply! And that was three or four Cardinals ago when Colin started, not in the time of the present one at all. Same with Westminster Abbey when Neary was sacked, in comes the Catholics, aka James O’Donnell, a walk down Victoria Street from Westminster Cathedral, and up walks Martin Baker, as no Anglican would apply to the Abbey. They all forget that people from the outside look in at them all.

  • J Gibbs says:

    This is a tragic tale of how lack of support from clerics and a headmaster who doesn’t consider the cathedral choir to be important to a choir school (!) can cause massive damage.

    As for the cathedral getting itself a new Master of Music, good luck with that.

  • derek siemens says:

    When my three boys were unceremoniously kicked out of their choristerships and school by Nichols, McLaughlan, Heminway et al, Madeline Smith stood alone at Westminster in showing us any concern – especially remarkable as her role was not directly involved with the school (as far as I understand). She has shown herself to be loyal, compassionate, and honest. I am amazed she had the strength to stay there as long as she did – exactly because she does believe it is a cause worth fighting for!
    I witnessed first hand the bullying and toxic atmosphere – especially in the school. After the former head of boarding (a very good man – who made the curriculum excellent and cared very well for the boys) left a few years ago, care for the choristers plummeted. Since then I can attest to a culture within the school whereby if you are not the son of a rich family your complaints go unheard. When your possessions go missing the rich boy(s) who steal go unpunished, when other boys’ ‘play’ makes you very uncomfortable you’re told it’s child’s play and to get on with it… and if as a parent you make too much noise your children(s)’ places are put under threat.
    With any luck Nichols will soon be removed from his office, and the head sacked along with key members of his staff. Otherwise there is no hope of the situation there improving for a very long time.
    These are the types of men at the helm:
    and this from the guardian: ““focused too much on the reputation of the church during his tenure, rather than the welfare of children and the impacts of child sexual abuse on victims and survivors” (,-This%20article%20is&text=Lawyers%20acting%20for%20child%20abuse,has%20treated%20survivors%20with%20disdain.) – which is true in our case. Nichols took responsibility for kicking out my sons (and others) but refused to meet with us. He and the diocese are now treating Madeline with the same contempt he has always treated sexual abuse victims.

    • Maria says:

      Would have thought it was more the headteacher’s job and the Dean’s/Administrator’s job plus the director of music to do the sacking, not Cardinal Vincent Nichols’s job, who is in charge of Westminster Diocese, not in charge of the Cathedral, and head of the Catholic church in England and Wales – strange how he should get all the blame as if he were a sex abuser himself.

  • F Traynor says:

    As an ex-chorister parent of two sons (2014-2019) I have to say that the musical education they received under the directorship of Martin Baker has been exceptional. Tragically I feel, and a view shared by Mr Baker, is that they were the last of the true choristers at Westminster Cathedral.

    In our time at the school we never saw any marketing campaign to recruit choristers until post the announcement of the boarding changes. When parents requested recruitment statistics to back up the school’s and the Cardinal’s claims about a crisis in recruitment none were forthcoming. I would hardly call the video, I’m a chorister, referred to in Ms Ferros’ comment, incidentally produced at significant cost, as being true marketing material. As Ms Ferros rightly points out it really says nothing about the life of a chorister.

    When considering the choir school our family were living between countries and even for our sons’ first year were so doing. For the duration of their remaining time we lived about 90 miles from London. Only for boarding our sons could not have become choristers. As a family our motivation for sending them to Westminster was that it was the only Catholic Cathedral in the British Isle that offered a boarding chorister programme and we also wanted them to be able to be part of that additional dimension that music brings to worship. We had, I hope, what was referred to in the parent handbook at the time, the generous spirit, that the school was seeking. This was later changed to families that would work with the school. There were several times whilst attending mass at the Cathedral at which the Choristers sang and whilst giving my sons a sneaky wink as they processed out, congregation members around me would comment on how exquisite the boys sounded and how inspired they were to hear them sing during the Mass. Believe me this came from about 18 hours of music every week, most of which was singing between song schools and singing at Mass. The boys sang seven services a week. Now they only sing on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Martin Baker was a believer that boys singing regularly only enhanced their competence.

    Additionally when we joined the choir, the choristers had members from Liverpool, Dorset, Wiltshire, The Isle of Wight, Essex, Wales, Staffordshire and ourselves Ireland. During our time no new members came from outside London unless they were the sibling of an existing chorister or a relatively recent ex chorister. I really do wonder why there was such a “sudden drop in interest” from outside London. Without access to recruitment statistics and prospect correspondence this remains an unknown.

    Also during our time, existing parents were never part of the recruitment drive during an open day. We were all “politely” requested to vacate the premises to allow the head speak to prospective parents. Whilst attending other chorister school open days for our daughter there was no shortage of existing parents available with whom prospective parents could discuss their hopes and concerns.

    A recruitment crisis to me seems a dubious claim when there is no evidence of any recruitment drive by the school for the choir across the island of Britain prior to April 2019. Additionally why are St Paul’s extending their boarding provision and other Cathedral Choirs do not seem to have difficulty in attracting children with musical potential. Did the school not consult with its nearest neighbours, St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, prior to making the boarding changes!

    Admittedly as parents of choristers we never experienced the five day boarding ritual, as for us it would not have worked. Despite this we did manage quality time with our sons on a Saturday and Sunday afternoons. When we met with them they did not have homework or music practice to fit into their free time. This was despite the fact that we did not have time to return home during visiting. For the boys it was a real break. From what I now understand from existing parents, their Friday evening and Saturdays are not quality times with their sons as they are trying to manage homework and music practice. For some it has lead to an increase in homesickness and for one family the decision to remove their son as a chorister. Parents however have been threatened that if they speak out their son’s future at the school will be in jeopardy. For us it was fantastic to have our sons home every six weeks, and yes they were tired, but then they were professionals but in their breaks they could have real quality, special family time because school was school and home was home. Being away from home only enhanced the quality of what they produced.

    In summary as a result of the boarding changes the school has lost five boys who had been choristers when there had been full boarding. Three of these boys were treated like an excess despite the commitment that their family had provided to the choir. They had had another son who had gone through the choristership programme at Westminster. These numbers take no account of the countless others who might have explored choristership if seven day boarding was available.

    At present there are 17 choristers. Over a six year period the choir went from almost 30 to 17. How can a choir make the sound it once did and sing the numerous parts with so many less boys. The drop in numbers has more behind it than parents not willing to explore choristership. Many families cannot explore it if they never hear of the possibility.

    Maybe Mr Murphy’s claims that his son rates his experience as 10/10 after a week are true but to what can his son compare his experience. Some other parents may say the same but out of last year’s intake two boys have already left. Additionally his son is a probationer and is not involved in a full schedule.

    I have read Ms Smith’s full resignation letter and as I can only speak from our perspective, do not find one word of her letter as ‘tosh’. We experienced the cancellation of recording week which consequently led to no recordings being made for two of the years in which our sons were at the school. The school claimed that the boys voices during recording week were “scratchy” as recording week was at the end of the summer term. To judge this I would advocate one listens to the Media Vita recording made by the boys and released on the Hyperion Label. We experienced the cancellation of a US trip which was completely funded and organised. When we challenged a governor on this matter we were told that if we wanted our sons life at the school to be ‘easy’ then we should not question the school. This same governor said that she could not organise cover for her ageing parent(s), her dogs and her business at ten weeks notice. (Apparently she would have wanted to accompany the choir but why should a choir trip be cancelled because a parent governor could not attend). Despite the promise of fantastic tours our sons had only one and that was to Ravenna in 2016. Since then the choir has had an overnight trip to Paris and a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Not really matching the claims made by the school as to wonderful touring! During our time too, two choristers from Liverpool, were removed from the school. The school were in dispute with the parents as they (ie the parents) challenged what was happening with their sons and the decisions by the school affecting the choir (recording week for example). The parents were asked to remove their sons!

  • Susan says:

    Bit late but I copied the letter to ‘photos’ and could then enlarge it