Remembering St Mary's - Neil Heywood

It will be sixty years ago this September that I went up to London, aged just 18, to become a student at London University. Fresh from the sixth form and a bit adrift in this huge city, I looked for something to do, and as a keen singer at school and in the Hull Bach Choir, I found the University Madrigal Society at a freshers’ evening and went to a couple of meetings. I wasn’t a great madrigal fan and I didn’t stay long, but it was a way into the university’s musical life, and it introduced me to a tenor, Lawrence Pateman, who asked if I would be interested in joining his church choir, which I decided would be a good idea.

The church was up beyond the north end of Camden High Street and its name was St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill (SMVPH). I sang there for four years and thoroughly enjoyed it. Musically it was a very lively place, although it took me a little time to learn why this was. The church used the English Hymnal, and in fact Saint Mary’s was the place that splendid hymn book was born in 1906. Its begetters were Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), SMVPH’s third vicar, with Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) as Musical Editor. With that parentage, no wonder it’s such a musically excellent book, and I like to think that RVW must have played that fine organ many times. The liturgy was what’s commonly called ‘high’; officiants’ vestments were varied and gorgeous, clouds of incense billowed round us at communion, and our priest was always addressed as ‘Father’. It was very much a ‘bells and smells’ sort of place, which had the advantage of introducing me to much good music and to the remoter parts of Anglican liturgy, such as our late night celebrations of Compline, often in an otherwise dark and empty church. St Mary’s had been a pioneer of the use of plainsong in English in the late 19th century.

Conrad Noel, sometime assistant priest at St Mary’s, records Dearmer’s like of congregational singing and their frustration at the rigidity of the then organist, Dr Goldsmith. ‘When I said to Goldsmith one day: “I think, at last the people are beginning to join in that hymn,” he answered “Oh! Then I’ll change it.”’ Dearmer had pioneered regular congregational practices on Friday evenings and it was in the context of such practices that new hymns and tunes were tried out before their inclusion in the hymnal. The parish records for December 1905, for example, record the debut of Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Mid-Winter as a Christmas carol. The editors had specially commissioned Gustav Holst to write a tune for it, which he named Cranham, the village outside Cheltenham where he was born. It is strange to think how this Christmas carol, now an established part of the English repertoire, along with many other famous hymns, began its life on a Friday evening congregational practice in North London.*

It was quite a musical education, and a joy to be part of a young and capable choir which took its music seriously, but joyfully too. The choir included one or two other students of my age. One Cambridge undergraduate I remember especially came from a family who lived nearby, so our paths only crossed at the beginning and ending of our university terms. He sang well and was a keen organist; his name was John Rutter.

*This paragraph is an edited extract from the St Mary’s web site.

For more on Primrose Hill and St Mary’s, click here