Martin Neary (Class of 1958)

Martin Neary LVO (Class of 1958) is an internationally renowned organist and choirmaster. He served as Organist and Master of the Music at Winchester Cathedral (1972-1987) and, then, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey (1988 to 1998). As conductor, performer and choirmaster, Martin has graced many of the world’s great stages, from London’s Royal Festival Hall to New York’s Carnegie Hall, and even the Kremlin. His musical career, though, began while he was still at City, when, as a Chapel Royal chorister, he sang at many state occasions ­– including the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Can you tell us your memories of singing at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation?

My memories really go back to February 6 1952 - a Wednesday afternoon, when we had sport or just went home at lunchtime. I was leaving the school and saw the Evening News headline: “The King is dead”. It hit us all immediately. We had been conscious of the King being ill, as we had sung at a number of extra services at Buckingham Palace that winter; the Royal Family had not gone away to Sandringham or Windsor, as was their normal custom, because the King had been too ill.

We practised the Coronation music for four months. The rehearsals with the other singers began in May and we each had a card that had to be stamped at every rehearsal. Anyone who missed a rehearsal wasn’t allowed to sing. One or two of the adult singers, even famous singers, had to miss a rehearsal and were then told their services were no longer required!

Our Coronation Day began in rather unusual circumstances. The night before, we slept on mattresses on the floor of the chapel of St James’s Palace. I’m afraid there wasn’t the best of behaviour; perhaps it was the first and last time there have been pillow fights in the chapel!

When I first started in the choir, one of the things that had made us feel that we were a part of history was that we were taken in horse-drawn carriages to Buckingham Palace or, on Remembrance Day, to the Cenotaph. But by the time of the Coronation we had, unfortunately, been moved on to a modern motor coach.

The service itself lasted around two and a half hours but we were in the Abbey for more than four hours.  On arriving (before 8 am) we heard that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing had conquered Everest. (I discovered later that this exciting news had been deliberately held back until the day of the Coronation.) We had a practice with the Abbey choristers, going through the Litany, which we were to sing in Procession before the service, as the Regalia were carried from the High Altar to the West End.

At this year’s Coronation, I think the boys will feel even more privileged than we did, as they will probably be in the choir stalls, quite close to the action. In 1953 there were nearly 400 singers – the Abbey had galleries all the way from the west end down to the altar – and we were in the second row, just beyond the organ screen. The choir stalls were filled with foreign dignitaries.

The singing of ‘I Was Glad’ as the Queen passed through the choir was unforgettable. But for me the most memorable music was William Walton’s thrilling setting of the Te Deum for choir and orchestra, with a flamboyant solo part for the organ and fanfares played by the state trumpeters. It took a lot of learning!

Who do you remember seeing?

The most eye-catching person I saw was the Queen of Tonga. She was very tall - and quite wide - and she had a hat which made her look even taller. She was smiling away, very happily. We weren’t allowed to leave until all the dignitaries had gone. The service finished at ten to two, but we had to wait for everyone to leave. Later, we were given a medal which we used to wear for the CCF inspection at school – which often caused the visiting inspector to ask us about our active service!

How had you become a part of the Chapel Royal choristers?

I joined when I was eight.  I was too young to come to City at that point and my parents had to get special permission from Middlesex County Council for me to leave my primary school in Palmers Green an hour early three days a week so that I could practice with the choir.  My father was in insurance, but he was also a fine part-time professional singer. He had friends who suggested his son try out for a choristership.

That was 1948, the year King Charles was born, and one of my first engagements with the choir was singing for his Christening at Buckingham Palace. When I got home, my mother wanted to know what the Queen and Princess Elizabeth had been wearing. I couldn’t remember, but the chocolate éclairs they gave us were wonderful!

We also sang at the opening of the Royal Festival Hall in 1951, including Zadok the Priest with orchestra.

The first Christmas that we were in the choir we were given a Bible signed by the monarch. I believe they now get one when they leave, which I think is better – they’ve earned it! Years later, in 1979 when the Maundy Service was held at Winchester, I met the Queen afterwards. I told her I had been in the Chapel Royal and how nice the tradition of giving the Bible signed by the monarch was. “Oh,” she said, “have you still got yours?”.

At the other end of your career, you were in charge of music for another historic occasion – Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral. Can you tell us about that?

The challenge was putting it all together in six days. It was still the school holidays, so at the start of the week some of the choir were not even in the country. One was in Brazil and another was in Canada. We called them all back.

I was quite one-track minded for that week. On the Thursday morning, I had to write a new arrangement of Make Me a Channel of Your Peace. We had tried to find something suitable for the Abbey, but all the settings seemed to be for guitars. So, I quickly wrote an arrangement and rehearsed it with the choristers at nine that morning, and it seemed to be alright.

Then, on the Friday afternoon at the main rehearsal, we realised that the music was too long for the incoming procession, and we needed to find a solution.  I suggested that the procession would take longer if we walked in smaller steps; luckily this worked!

At one point did Elton John get involved?

There were various suggestions going round and it emerged that Elton, who had been reconciled to Diana after an argument relatively recently, could be considered. The really big question was what he should sing. The idea of Candle in the Wind was only going to work if the words were changed. I had a series of telephone calls with Elton to work this out, and he got his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, who was in California, to write some new words.

I think Elton’s involvement was a reflection that the service really had to have something that was appropriate for the public mood at that time, and not be just a confined and introspective Church of England ritual. We needed to open it out and to combine tradition with something new. It’s one of my strongest beliefs that you best keep tradition alive by using your knowledge of it but also by getting new works written that represent what is being felt at the time. I think that is a philosophy that comes through in the music King Charles has chosen for his Coronation too.

Did it all come out exactly as you wanted in the end?

Well… I think we were lucky!

What else did you enjoy about school apart from being a chorister?

I played Fives and on a few occasions my partner was [later-legendary England cricket captain] Mike Brearley who was two years behind me. His father taught me maths. Mike caught me out in a house match once – that’s my claim to fame! We are still in touch.

I was in many school plays – Sheridan’s The Critic; The Merchant of Venice; Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion; and J B Priestly’s An Inspector Calls. I always played women! There were no ‘real’ girls in our plays then. The performances were in the theatre of the Guildhall School of Music, which was amazing.

How did your music career progress after leaving City?

I was thinking of becoming a priest and had a place at Oxford to read Theology, but then I got an organ scholarship to Cambridge, which took precedence for me. I spent five years as organ scholar at Gonville and Caius College,  Cambridge, after which I had a two lucky breaks: I came second in the first international organ playing competition in St Albans in 1963, when one of the prizes included a recital for the BBC, which really set me on my way. Another ‘break’ was being awarded a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), where I spent the summer on a conducting course, which was an eye-opening experience.

Then, I went to study the organ in France with André Marchal, a remarkable blind French organist who only knew two English phrases – ‘Good’ and ‘Not Good’! But they were quite enough. Also, Geraint Jones, a brilliant Welsh organist, helped me an awful lot with learning how to play baroque music.

You have played – as organist, conductor, leader of choirs – at the Festival Hall, the Kremlin, Carnegie Hall, as well as so many Cathedrals. Which space have you most enjoyed?

I think I would say Carnegie Hall. It is a lively hall, and it does have an amazing acoustic. When we played there, it was the last concert of a north American tour marking the 900th anniversary of Winchester Cathedral. Twenty minutes before the start the organ wouldn’t work and we had to radically adjust the programme. There wasn’t time to panic! In those circumstances, everyone’s concentration levels shoot up.

At my first [organ] recital at the Royal Festival Hall in 1966, I played a very modern piece of Messiaen and at the end there were boos. One person walked out.

An unusual venue was 10 Downing Street. I was organist at St Margaret’s Westminster and when Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970, he asked me to conduct a grace and some madrigals at some of his state dinners.

You embraced many contrasting styles of music in your career. Can you tell us about the Early Music movement, playing pieces on period instruments?

There was a move to get closer to how the original performances had sounded. It goes backI think to about 1951, to a performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, conducted by Geraint Jones, (my future organ teacher) with a small group of instruments, letting the music speak for itself. That approach developed and by the time I got going in London in the 1960s I’d been playing with other instrumentalists who were period-players, and I learnt so much from them.

In 1978 I conducted one of the first complete performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on period instruments in England – people said the choir sounded completely different; they sang more precisely and articulated more, in keeping with the period instrumental accompaniment.

But, especially at Winchester, you commissioned many new works, too…

A few months before I became Organist and Master of the Music at Winchester Cathedral my mother had met John Tavener, a leading young composer of the day. Soon afterwards John came to see us and I asked him to write a Missa brevis for the Southern Cathedrals Festival. In the event John wrote a Little Requiem for Father Malachy Lynch.  John and I just hit it off. The following year we did another of his longer settings, Celtic Requiem. Both works had complimentary reviews. John became really in love with Winchester, and we premiered more of his pieces. In 1975, we staged a performance of his work Ultimos Ritos, with choirs in four parts of the building, four sets of timpani and orchestra in the middle and the audience somehow fitting in between.

I also worked a lot with Jonathan Harvey. A new bishop of Winchester asked if I would set some words of TS Eliot to music for his Enthronement Service, but I had the sense to recommend a proper composer – whom I had known a bit at Cambridge, and who was now a lecturer at the University of Southampton in the Winchester diocese. He was very avant garde and into electronics, so I wondered if it would be to everyone’s taste. But the way he used the space and the reverberation and the resonance of the choir within the building was brilliant.

Having been a chorister and then directed so many choirs, what is the key to a successful rehearsal?

I think the way to get things moving is to think about how the boys are going to enjoy what they are singing. If the piece is a bit dry you don’t want to rehearse too much of it at the same time. You try and vary the menu and to communicate what is special about the text.

I also found that it paid to use language which the boys would appreciate; e.g. to achieve a greater sense of legato I would say: “Can we cream it through the covers”!

Our job is to deliver the musical goods and that is a responsibility. But it’s easy to be too serious about it.

A reunion for all former choristers of Chapel Royal will be held on Sunday 25 June 2023 during and after the morning service. 

Top: Martin today
Middle Martin as a Chapel Royal Chorister
Below: Martin dressed as Portia for the school production of The Merchant of Venice