Armagh Becomes a Fantastically Musical Place

Andrea Rea sings the praises of the Charles Wood Summer School

In the city of Armagh, across from St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral is a terrace of houses, known as Vicars’ Hill. The composer Charles Wood was born in one of these houses in 1866.

His father was a lay vicar and Charles became a Chorister in the Cathedral choir. He got his earliest musical education from the organist at St Patrick’s and went to the Royal College of Music to study composition.

He became an organ scholar at Cambridge University and eventually a university lecturer in harmony and counterpoint. He also taught at the Royal College of Music and was a founder member of the Irish Folk-song Society. In 1924 Wood succeeded Sir Charles Stanford as professor of music at Cambridge but died just two years later, at age 60.

Wood composed many different types of choral and instrumental music but he’s remembered mainly as a composer of music for Anglican services, so much so that his name is basically synonymous with church music. Along with a number of service settings and hymn tunes, many of his anthems are still in regular use.

The Charles Wood Summer School in Armagh began in 1994 as a way to perpetuate Wood’s memory and to create opportunities to perform his compositions. Because so much of Wood’s music was written for use in worship, the Summer School is also concerned with church music generally and how it can be developed and enjoyed.

The beginnings were small and at times maintaining the School has been something of a struggle, but the scope and activities of the Charles Wood Summer School have greatly increased during the past twelve years. That’s due to the commitment and perseverance of a small core of people who have a vision for the School, not least Aubrey McClintock, a committed music lover who works for Armagh City Council.

The Summer School takes place over seven days in late August and consists of workshops, concerts and services spread throughout the week in venues all around the small city of Armagh. Originally, classes and events were aimed at the more ‘serious’ side of music but recent years have seen the inclusion of workshops for musical theatre, opera, art song, traditional and folk song.

Although people who attend the Summer School are mostly interested in learning about choral and organ music and how to improve their own music-making, one feature of the week’s activities is the participation of celebrity guest artists.

Some very 'big names' in the world of choral music have been involved over the years like Barry Rose, a former organist and director of music at Guildford Cathedral and St Paul’s in London. One of Rose’s successors at St Paul’s was Malcolm Archer, a prolific composer himself and a frequent visitor some years back.

Indeed, the tradition of English Church musicians being very much part of the Summer School is continued by the present Director of the Charles Wood Singers, David Hill, who has been Master of Music at Westminster and Winchester Cathedrals and now Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge.

Hill is practically an honorary Irishman now, and enjoys the music, as well as the craic. Celebrity organists have also been a feature of the school, with recitals by some of the biggest names in the organ playing world.

Dame Gillian Weir has appeared, for example, and stocking-footed Carlo Curley added a touch of American bravado to the proceedings. This year, Adrian Lucas, who is organist and Master of Choristers at Worcester Cathedral did the honours. His programme included arrangements of popular orchestral classics.

The Charles Wood Singers are a choir formed especially for the Summer School. It has about sixty members. Some of them are drawn from local choirs but there’s also a number from English cathedrals and colleges.

They sing at a concert on the Friday night and at a number of services in both Armagh’s cathedrals. The singing of Choral Evensong, for example, is a vital and popular focus of the week. The Summer School is very much a cross community event with a committee made up of all denominations and most of the city’s churches, Protestant and Catholic, are used for concerts and workshops.

There have been some interesting developments over the past few schools. A boy’s choir has been set up, directed this year by Nigel McClintock, formerly organist at St George’s in Belfast. And that’s another feature of the Charles Wood Summer School: Ulster-born musicians, who are now working across the water, come back each year to contribute.

In 2005 the Summer School organised a number of vocal workshops in partnership with TOSINI – Teachers of Singing in Northern Ireland. This year there’s about 30 such sessions. Apart from opportunities for private tuition, these workshops have titles like, 'How to breathe better', 'An evening of light opera', 'Gregorian Chant' and 'Singing for absolute beginners'.

Organists are well served by the Summer School with workshops and opportunities for private tuition. One workshop is aimed at 'the reluctant organist', especially for the increasing number of keyboard players who are called upon to cover church services in the absence of trained organists. Sessions for choir directors focus on voice production for choirs, rehearsal technique and repertoire.

At the end of the week there’s a recital by some of the vocal students from the Summer School, held in the Rotunda Theatre of St Patrick’s Trian visitor complex. Chances are, the music presented then will represent only a fraction of the kind of music-making, formal and informal, that takes place during the Charles Wood Summer School.

Although the beginnings of the School can be found in church music, it has expanded to include many forms and genres.

So during the last week in August, the city of Armagh becomes a fantastically musical place, with a huge variety of opportunities to sing, play, listen and learn at the Summer School. One imagines that Charles Wood himself might turn up at any moment and hear something extraordinary.