A touch of genius

A tribute to Stanley Vann on his 90th birthday from Barry Ferguson

One sure sign that a work of art is outstanding is that it seems to get better as time passes. The same is true of musical recordings. When I listen to records of the Choir of Peterborough Cathedral (UK) made in Stanley Vann's s time (1953-1977) I am increasingly amazed. How did he achieve such excellence, such vivid diction, such lovely phrasing, such expressiveness?

I was Stanley's assistant from 1964 until 1971, and part of the answer seemed to me at the time that he had a very clear vision of what he wanted, and had the single-mindedness, determination and patience day after day, week after week to enable his singers gradually to turn this vision into reality. But now I also think that Stanley had a touch of genius as well.

His choir-training methods were methodical, painstaking, and gentlemanly. He never shouted. Bright tone was important to him: a 'lugubrious' sound was to be avoided, he often said. Without fail he thanked his choir after every service. If they had sung particularly well he would say 'Thank you very much, Gentlemen and Boys'. That 'very much' meant a lot to us. But if we fell short he simply said 'A pity about bar 7' - or whatever the problem had been.

A Leicester man with a Second World War military background, he had a natural air of authority: the boys knew it - the men too. Whereas most choirtrainers will stop after two or three minutes if they are not achieving results, Stanley just persevered and took us through the 'pain barrier'. He had to be satisfied that the balance, or the tuning, or the vowel sounds, or change of speed - or whatever it was - sounded absolutely right. Thus it was that Sir John Betjeman described the choir as 'matchless', that people came from all over the world to hear the choir, and particularly to hear the psalms (sung to Stanley's own chants, if they were fortunate), and that the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred the Lambeth Doctorate upon him in 1971.

Stanley is still composing commissioned works, and directing the Parish Church Choir at Wansford near Peterborough, to the delight of the choir members who think he is wonderful! On February 15 he will celebrate his 90th birthday. Many, many people will rejoice with him and be thankful for the inspiration of his supreme choir-training, the beauty of his own compositions, and the experience of having worked with such a friendly, modest and gentle giant of music. Happy birthday, Stanley - and thank you.

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