Durham Cathedral's Master of the Choristers and Organist James Lancelot has retired after 32 years. Gavin Engelbrecht reports.

AS Master of the Choristers and organist, James Lancelot presided over the musical life of Durham Cathedral for 32 years – and his retirement marks the end of an era.

This week as he packed his bags to move from his house at Durham Cathedral following his retirement, Canon Doctor Lancelot – or simply James as he would prefer – reflected on a rewarding career and the importance of attracting young people to keep choral traditions alive.

One of his own formative musical experiences was as a 12-year-old chorister singing at the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Recalling the moving funeral service, attended by five monarchs, 16 prime ministers and six heads of state, he said: “The cathedral got really hot, because the arc lights in those days put out a lot more heat.

“Outside it was a bitterly cold morning. I distinctly remember as we walked across from the choir school to the cathedral, seeing men who had slept out in doorways and on windowsills in that bitter cold, just to get what would have been no more than a minute’s view of the funeral cortege going past.

“I was very struck by that.

“We had to be in our places a long time before and the service itself was obviously very special.

“We sang Mine Eyes have Seen the Coming of the Glory of the Lord, which seemed a strange choice for him.

“The whole thing was tremendously moving. My mother came down from Birmingham to take me out that evening and she brought both the evening papers. I have still got those.”

He added: “I have been more awestruck since, because at that stage I didn’t fully understand just what Winston Churchill had achieved.

“Now to look back and think I that sang at the state funeral of somebody who was a cavalry man (riding in the last major cavalry action of the British Army at Omdurman), was a prisoner of war in South Africa and someone who did so much for us in the Second World War.

“To look back at that now, it really was history made real.”

James, 64, started playing music when his mother taught him some notes on the piano at the age of three.

“When she realised she couldn’t teach me any more she sent me to piano lessons a year later.

“My piano teacher, who was also my singing teacher, prepared me for a voice trial for St Paul’s Cathedral where I went on to sing.”

At 16 James was the youngest of his generation to attain the Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists. He went up to Kings College Cambridge, where he was organ scholar, before becoming sub-organist at Winchester Cathedral.

He arrived at Durham Cathedral in 1985.

Among his highlights since then were the celebration in 1987 of the 1300th anniversary of St Cuthbert’s death, when he persuaded the Dean and Chapter to commission a work by John Tavener - Ikon of St Cuthbert. Then in 1993 he helped mark the 900th anniversary of Durham Cathedral.

He said: “In 1997 we founded the Cathedral Consort of Singers, which was a big step.

“It was a volunteer choir but a good choir, which admitted woman into the official cathedral musicians for the first time.

“That was quite a moving experience for a lot of people to see that happen. And they’ve played an integral part ever since.”

And then the “big one” was 2009 when girl choristers were admitted to the cathedral choir for the first time. The girls and boy trebles take turns at singing with the men of the choir, all coming together for special concerts.

James said: “That was particular moving. A lot of the controversy had died down by then. Other cathedrals had proved it could be done so it wasn’t a political issue. There was a lot of gratitude that it had happened.

“Whatever the arguments about musical authenticity I don’t really buy them. There seemed no reason to exclude girls. I knew if we could do it, we do it well. It has been a great blessing.”

James was also instrumental in the Outreach programme. He said: “It has been fascinating to go out with teams of choristers into primary schools.

“We sing to them and they sing to us and we all sing together. Then they come in their hundreds to the cathedral for a celebration.”

James spoke of the importance of bringing fresh talent. He said: “It’s fragile because the junior members of the choir only work for four, at the most five years, so we have to continually replace them.

“Just because the choir stalls are full today, doesn’t mean they’ll be full in four to five years time.

“So it’s an ongoing thing, persuading families that it really is worth making this enormous step for the right child, including having them go away to board at a such a relatively young age.

“There are wide swathes in northern England and Scotland where if you are going to be a cathedral chorister, Durham Chorister School is the only option you get.

“It’s a major step, but I’ve seen so many families who have not regretted it - for whom it has really transformed family life, not just the children’s lives.”

James, who is moving to Gloucestershire, added: “It has been a privilege beyond words to serve for over 30 years in this community and in this building which is so transcendent and so greatly loved.

“My wife Sylvia and I shall miss Durham enormously, but it is time for somebody else with faith, vision and energy to take forward the wonderful musical tradition of this place.

“For ourselves, there will be new surroundings to explore and doubtless more music to make.”