James Pollock wrote that members of the “Plain Song Choir” at Dr Oldknow’s Holy Trinity, Bordesley, assisted in setting up St Alban’s Mission in its first temporary church in Leopold Street, and since that time there has been a choir at St Alban’s.
A choir vestry and a wide chancel that included choir stalls were part of John Loughborough Pearson’s designs for the present church on the corner of Conybere Street and Stanhope Street, and the high nave provides excellent acoustics for congregational singing, and choral and organ performances.
The Pollock brothers used hymn-singing as a means of bringing people together at the church. Thomas Pollock wrote hymn verses and also served on the committee of Hymns Ancient and Modern, which was published by High Churchmen in an attempt to revive hymn-singing in the Church of England.
The strong choral tradition of the Anglo-Catholic church has developed from the plainsong choir formed at the first mission church.
Plainchant is still sung every Sunday during Choral Mass, just as it was in the Pollock’s day. Despite an attempt by the priest during the 1920s to replace plainsong with the spoken word, it was retained, and remains an important feature of St Alban’s worship that adheres to the ideas of the early Anglo-Catholics.
Psalms are still sung antiphonally, in the same manner noted by an early observer at St Alban’s.
Even in the early years at St Alban’s the choir’s repertoire was ambitious and its standard very high. In 1900 the choir performed Gounod’s Messe de Pacques, and in 1901 sang Stainer’s Crucifixion.
Performances with an orchestra were frequent, although this practice had to be discontinued during the First World War. The church’s assistant organist, a young student served three years’ active duty and remarkably returned to St Alban’s unharmed in 1918.
For many years, local boys were employed to sing regularly at services and pump the organ (a twopence fee in 1900). The choir provided the boys with social activities, and many of the boys were taught to read music and appreciate it through the choir.
Until the 1960s there were sufficient numbers of local boys to provide the choir with trebles, but the rebuilding of most of the parish during the late 1950s and early 1960s deprived the choir of an important asset.
Women were first admitted into the choir shortly after this, and are now a permanent feature of the choir. The inclusion of women allowed the choir to become much more flexible and to expand its repertoire considerably.
The choral tradition at St Alban’s remains as strong today as it has always been. The last few years have seen a number of early St Alban’s traditions restored, allowing the choir to perform more frequently, and to an impressive standard.
Early music has formed a significant proportion of the choir’s repertoire throughout its history, since it accords with the Anglo-Catholic ideal of the restoration of the early Anglican church. Many of the motets performed since the 1960s date from before 1700.
This doesn’t mean that music at St Alban’s ignores the contemporary. Our 10 a.m. Sung Mass and Masses for Holy Days will continue to preserve our traditional music, but our 5 p.m. Saturday Family Mass explores contemporary Catholic liturgy and music. We hope soon to restart our quiet Celtic-style Sunday evening service which used a wide variety music for example Anglican Chant, Taizé Chant, contemporary worship songs and music from other cultures.
We also plan to introduce Choral Evensong on some Sundays.
St Alban’s is also committed to developing community music projects. We started with an African drumming workshop and had planned a variety of activities, though these have been put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Vicar of St Alban’s is chaplain to Ark St Alban’s Academy and uses this role to introduce the students to a variety of traditional, contemporary, and non-traditional music.