New Chichester Cathedral organist Charles Harrison has just enjoyed his first Christmas in the city with the feeling that already Chichester is home.
Charles took up his post as organist and master of the choristers – in succession to his Cambridge contemporary Sarah Baldock – at the start of September.
“I really have had a tremendous welcome. There is the most wonderful support for what we are about with the choir, and I have got wonderful colleagues. People really couldn’t have been more helpful.”
Charles had only ever visited Chichester once before: “But already I feel very much at home here,” he says. “These sorts of jobs coming up are very few and far between. There are just over 40 cathedrals in the UK that have these sorts of professional choirs, and I was looking for a more senior position than I had at Lincoln where I was assistant director of music. Naturally enough, after a certain time, while the music-making was still highly enjoyable, I was looking for a bigger challenge.
“I had been at Lincoln for 11 years, but I was looking for the chance to exercise some more managerial skills and also to take responsibility for the running of a department.”
All in accordance with the future Charles had mapped out for himself at the tender age of eight.
“I am from Nottingham, and I was six when I took my first piano lesson. The family inherited £50 from a grandmother who died, and with that my parents decided to buy an upright piano to see if my brother and I would take to it.”
Shortly afterwards, Charles auditioned for Southwell Cathedral where he stayed for ten years: “Pretty quickly I fell in love with cathedral music and the sound of the organ. I decided that was what I was going to do. My career path was mapped out for me by the time I was eight. I even decided that I wanted to be a Cambridge organ scholar at that time. I was quite focused!
“But it was just that the sound of the organ really thrilled me. I think it was the idea that one person sitting at this amazing machine has at his disposal this extraordinary range of colours and sounds. I found it so intriguing. I was fascinated by these different sounds, the fact that using different stops you could get this infinitely-kaleidoscopic range.”
As Charles says, some children will get fired up by fire engines or space ships; for him, it was always the organ. Quite naturally, it’s a passion that goes hand in hand with faith.
“The two feed off each other. People have different routes into faith and different ways of expressing it. For most people, there is something that stirs up a sense of wonder. Some people might focus on the wonderful language of the Bible; some on the community elements; some on the architecture and the history. What music can do is bring a lot of these things together.
“We make our music in wonderful spaces, in these medieval cathedrals where there is a strong community element and where there is also an educational element. The choristers are learning professionalism, performance, discipline and camaraderie – and the music we sing sets some very, very beautiful texts.”
As for making his mark in Chichester, Charles is happy to look and learn first: “I was very aware of the danger of just importing what I know from my previous appointments. It really would have been a mistake to do that. The first thing is to listen to people, to listen to the sounds of the choir and to observe the atmosphere and only then start to consider how my own interests could be put to that services.”
Already, however, people have remarked on the choir starting to sound different under his direction: “Having a wide dynamic range at my disposal is something that is really important to me. It gives you the opportunity for a lot of drama in our music-making, and some of the texts we sing are really quite dramatic.
“I do also like the feeling of quite a lot of spontaneity. Not everything has to be prepared or agreed in advance. I like to feel there is the potential for spontaneity in the way we sing the psalms, and the choir is quite responsive to that. We do have that possibility. You can actually generate the performance as you go along. I like to feel we can do something a little bit unexpected which makes it more exciting for the performers – and for the audience.
“There is also quite a lot of repertoire I would like to introduce. The choir does have quite a large repertoire of 700 pieces, but we are singing eight times a week during term time, 100 performances a year, and in each service, we perhaps sing three to four pieces. And we don’t like to repeat too much, either for the choir’s sake or the audience’s sake. So there are things I would like to introduce. I do feel it is important to keep up a varied repertoire.”
Charles will also be looking to build on the Chichester Cathedral Choral Foundation Fund: “I would like to see a time when nobody is denied the opportunity to become a chorister because of his family’s financial circumstances.”
Currently 100 per cent scholarships are available, but not for everyone.
“I am very eager that Chichester Cathedral choir maintains and develops its profile as a performing arts organisation locally and further afield as well. With my colleagues, I am beginning to think about how we might do that and bring the choir to a wider audience. One of the things we can do is perhaps make more people aware of the enormous benefits of chorister life. I do want to get the message out to parents of musical children that the cathedral choir really is a fabulous opportunity they should consider. The Prebendal is an independent school so there is a cost, but as an organisation we are working extremely hard to lock down the funds that will provide for scholarships.”
Charles stresses he would be keen to speak to parents of potential choristers (year three, aged seven to eight) at any time of the year. Contact him via the cathedral.