Andy Smetham’s Address

Andy Smetham’s Address

In St. Paul’s Cathedral one can see the inscription to Sir Christopher Wren, its designer, “Si monumentum requieris circumspice”. If you seek his monument, look around. Tonight in another St. Paul’s, we have just heard once more Russell Burgess’s monument: The Wandsworth School Choir, and the directness and the firmness which characterizes the Wandsworth Sound.

The sound of the choir was matched in the early years by a similar sound from the school orchestra. I remember particularly – and I know others will, too, – the brass section. Above all, the trumpets, yesterday as today, one of the strongest sections of the school orchestra. In those days, in the school hall, what mattered at concerts was not so much whether one sat upstairs or downstairs, but whether or not one was in line with the trumpets! “for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible; and we shall be changed”. Changed indeed: Jolted out of our seats more like, by the sheer physical onslaught of it all. Who could forget the sounding brass and the clashing cymbal (and the cymbalist is still with us this evening with the old boys) in Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev”? Or the opening chorus of Carmina Burana; or that sudden burst of sound which heralded the choir entry in the Coronation Anthem, “Zadok, the Priest”?

I first met Russell in 1959 when I joined the school and the choir. He had already been here for five years, following training at the Royal Academy of music and two years of what I think he often thought was more appropriate training doing National Service, finishing up at a place beloved of those who have ever served in the Army, Catterick Camp, in charge of instrumental music in the Royal Corps of Signals Band. When he was first appointed, Wordsworth School was still a grammar school, but destined soon to expand into an Inner London comprehensive school catering for boys of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. I was at once struck by the dynamism of the man and the energy he seemed to have. He would do a mornings teaching, appear in the dining hall to snatch a ten-minute lunch, and then it was back up into the auxiliary hall where the choir would be waiting; three quarters of an hour or more of singing, and then into the classroom for the afternoon, followed perhaps by an after-school rehearsal of the orchestra. And what a joy those rehearsals were, and all at lunchtime, before school or after school; or, as now, on Friday evenings for old boys to come back and sing with us; but never during lesson time.

In those days he found time to coach cricket as well. Living in Leyton he was a lifelong supporter of Essex County Cricket Club, and how fortunate that they should choose this season to do so well and to give Russell so much pleasure. And of course this cricket gave him a very effective channel indeed through which to approach boys about the choir: as John Tobin has said recently: “In this way be built up one of the most musical cricket elevens in the whole of the country”. Peter Eastwood? who is here this evening, was a boy  in the school at the time; he wrote to me on Russell’s  death, and with his permission I am going to quote part of his letter to you. He says “I was at school when Russell joined the staff and got to know him very well. I used to practise batting in the nets during the lunch hour, and after noticing Russell watching once or twice, I asked him if he wanted to join us. He said he’d like to have a bowl and he put in many hours wheeling away at us. Later on he came to me and asked me of I would consider joining the choir. I protested that I had no musical background, but he said that if I with my varied sporting activities joined, it would encourage others to join as well. Bearing in mind my obligation at the many overs that he had bowled at me, I agreed. Those early days in the choir with Russell did not give an indication of what was to come, but he taught me an appreciation of singing that ls with me today. His technical skill was evident and choir was essentially fun. Nothing escaped him. I remember in ‘Ding Dong merrily on high’ a few of up substituted an irreverent last line in place of ‘Hosanna in excelsis’. We thought that Russell couldn’t possibly spot this, until he came to us, both his usual grin, and asked for a gentlemanly agreement that on the night of our performance we would not sing ‘Hosanna, Up for Chelsea”. I don’t know whether Doctor W.G. Grace ever sang on earth, but I should not be at all surprised if he had been asked to sing now.

The success of the choir, of course, stemmed very much from his work in the classroom. In his lessons he aimed at providing a wide musical education but both the accent always on singing – the inbuilt instrument, as he put it. And slowly the choir was built up. His appointment as assistant to Wilhelm Pitz, chorus master of the New Philharmonic Chorus, led in turn to the association with Benjamin Britten, our first patron, who wrote ‘The Children’s Crusade’ especially for this choir. “My favourite choir at my favourite school” Britten once wrote in a telegram to Russell. His death in 1976 was a tremendous blow to Russell, to the choir and to the school; and Russell at the time wrote “all that he transmitted to us lives on, and our pride in our association with him knows no bounds”. Sir Charles Groves, sadly unable to be with us this evening, as he is conducting ‘Aida’ at the Coliseum, brought us very great pleasure indeed when he agreed to be our new patron.

Above all, of course, Russell was a professional. He was a musician’s musician, accepted by leading conductors and leading orchestras as such, and just as at home on the platform of the Royal Festival Hall or the Royal Albert Hall as he was in cathedrals, churches and village halls up and down the country, in which the choir has performed.

He was an accomplished pianist and organist (for a time organist and choirmaster of the parish church in Leytonstone) and his mastery of the keyboard made even the most difficult accompaniments seem easy and straightforward. But more, he was a gifted teacher with a sense of humour and an infectious enthusiasm for music which, together with his persistence and his determination inspired a tremendous response from boys of all sorts of backgrounds.

As Ian Kellam put it in a letter to me after his death: “A man who took the ordinary and from it fashioned the extraordinary, or as Kipling said a man who could walk with kings nor lose the common touch”. In his task he was supported firmly by his mother, Mrs. Burgess rarely missing from a performance of the choir, by loyal and very devoted colleagues in the choir, the music department and in the school, and of course by parents and by his own close friends. Russell was an original, a ‘one-off': they don’t come like him any more and he will be impossible to replace. He had a rare instinct for knowing when to put the pressure on us singers and when to relax it, when to criticise and when to encourage. And how we respondent! old men going blue in the face and little boys going positively pink with the exertion. In this he must have had a lot in common with Henry Purcell on whose premature death at the age of 36 the poet John Dryden was moved to say:

“The Heav’nly Quire, who heard his Notes from high
Let down the Scale of Musick from the sky.
They handed him along,
And all the way he taught, and all the way they sung”.

Russell took particular delight in those boys who went on to embrace music as a career, and on their behalf Adrian Thompson, now with the Glyndebourne Opera Company, will pay his own special tribute later on in this service to a man whose inspiration created the choir and whose personality electrified every performance. Stanley waistcoat was chairman of the governors of Wordsworth School for three years, 1970-1973, and I have permission to quote from his diary an entry made shortly before he died. ”December 15th, 1972: Music for Christmas at Wordsworth School. A great evening. It was more than a good concert. With the choir and audience face to face, and waved on by the wand of that magician Burgess, the whole show went up in a shower of sparks. It was a happening and the most exciting evening for months”. For the choir too, such performances left us with a sense of elation, wherever we were singing, which lasted often well into the night, particularly valuable on those occasions when at l o’clock in the morning we were still walking up and down some highway because the coach had broken down.

In 1970 the choir and Russell were awarded a ”Grammy”, – the recording companies equivalent of the ”Oscar” for a recording of the Berlioz Requiem. In 1972 a resolution according civic recognition to the choir for the renown which it had brought to the Borough was passed by Wandsworth Borough Council, represented this evening by the mayoress and the Deputy mayoress. In 1975 Russell received the MBE from Her majesty the Queen for services to music.

Wandsworth School, founded in the last century has, in the course of its long history, had only four headmasters. Russell Burgess, at the school for 25 years, worked with three of them, and all three are present this evening. It is my privilege to express the gratitude of these three, as well as of the London Education Service as a whole, and of the school, but particularly of hundreds and hundreds of Wordsworth boys over the years for the richness of the musical experience given to them by Russell. He admired the boys and loved working with them. He treated them as partners, discussed programmes and future developments with them, encouraged and inspired them; and it is appropriate therefore that the money which we have received in response to the appeal in his memory should be used to promote the cause of music amongst young people.

Most of the music this evening is special to the choir in some way or another. You may remember, some six years ago now, a film made by Sir Peter Hall called ‘Akenfield’, the story of a Suffolk village as recalled by its oldest inhabitants. One of the most moving scenes in that film was set in the local church, where the faithful few had gathered for evening worship. They rise to sing their closing hymn: ‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended’, that great hymn which stresses the continuity and the permanence of God’s creation. – “The sun that bids us rest is waking our brethren neath the western sky” – and as the village organist fumbles slightly over the introductions and the few figures rise to sing, so they see in their mind’s eye, and we see on film the pews filling up again with people and faces long departed, – young men and women in uniform, who had gone off to fight in world wars and not returned; older people, friends, family, who had passed on. And as the hymn is sung, so the church becomes fuller and fuller until by the final verse, all the pews are filled, the singing has swelled into a mighty shout of praise and the organ leads them all with its majestic sound. The actors and actresses were the villagers of Akenfield, but the singers were the Wordsworth School Choir; the majestic organ was that of St. Paul’s Church, Augustus Road – this organ – for it was recorded here, and the organist, whose fingers were asked so uncharacteristically to fumble the introduction, imitating a village organist, but who, by the final verse was playing with the mastery of a true professional, was, of course, Russell Burgess. And as we sing that hymn again in a moment we too may perhaps be forgiven for looking round this church and seeking in vain the face of one whom we all dearly miss.

And then later on we shall close our service with a hymn chosen by Benjamin Britten to close his cantata ‘Saint Nicolas’ which the choir has performed on several occasions and our film of which won for Thames Television the Prix d’Italia in Rome in 1977. Having traced the story of Saint Nicolas from birth to death, the choir sings the words “For forty years our Nicholas, our Prince of Men, our Shepherd and our gentle guide walked by our side ……….. We keep his memory alive in legends that our children and their children’s children treasure still”. We keep Russell’s memory alive not only in legends – and goodness knows there are enough of them, – but also thankfully, on over thirty gramophone records and on film.

But Russell leaves not only a legacy: he leaves a tremendous challenge, and the choir under John Tobin’s able direction is determined to continue the work which Russell has begun. We shall be here again in two weekly time to sing the Faure Requiem; in December we shall once again sing, as we have done for some years at the Commonwealth Service at St. Martin in the Fields in the presence of Her Royal Highness, Princess Alexandra; we shall sing our Christmas carol concert in this church in December; next Easter we shall again take part in a St. Matthew Passion under Dr. Paul Steinitz with the London Bach Society. Russell has done the hardest part; now, it’s up to us.

In John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ the time eventually comes, when after a long pilgrimage Mr. Valiant-for-Truth is summoned to cross the river. Calling his friends together he says: “I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the troubles I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage. My courage and skill to him that can get it”. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the riverside into which as he went he said : “Death, where is thy sting.” And as he went down deeper, he said: “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.