Lincoln Cathedral music

Words by:
Alan Middleton
Featured in:
November 2016

For 70 years starting at the end of the 19th century, Lincoln Cathedral music was dominated by two towering figures in the shape of its organists, who were largely responsible for the direction of its musical events.
It all began in 1896 with the appointment of Dr George John Bennett, a dynamic figure who proved to be so enterprising that he became known all over the country. On arrival, Dr Bennett was warned by the Precentor that the organ was a “queer old instrument”, but that the Cathedral had no funds to fix it. Thanks to a generous donation by Lincoln industrialist Alfred Shuttleworth, and other contributions collected locally, the organ was rebuilt in 1898 by ‘Father’ Willis, a name enshrined in the history of organ building – and Lincoln’s was said to be amongst his finest work.

In addition to all the music for the church services, Dr Bennett presented oratorios, cantatas and orchestral works supported by choral societies and the Cathedral choir. One of the high spots of his thirty-five years at Lincoln was the visit of Edward Elgar who, in 1910, came to the city and conducted his The Dream of Gerontius.

Dr Bennett was succeeded in 1931 by another lively personality, Dr Gordon A Slater, known to the boy choristers as ‘Gassy’. After serving in the First World War, Dr Slater began as organist at Boston Parish Church in 1919. In 1927 he was appointed to Leicester Cathedral before moving to Lincoln four years later. Dr Slater was already widely known as a man who really loved his music and felt that the Cathedral should lead the way in the city’s musical life. He was dedicated to the challenge; no great event, no festival was allowed to pass without the Minster’s musical involvement and frequently in a leading role.

During the Second World War many special musical services were held and Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Brahms’ Requiem and many other pieces were performed, despite the obvious difficulties at the time. All these events attracted very large congregations, among whom were thousands of RAF and other servicemen stationed in the area. Many would recall the memorable Purcell orchestral choral music, which was played at the thanksgiving service after the war, followed a year later by the first performance ever in the Cathedral of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Organ recitals and annual performances of great works were interspersed with special commemorative productions.

In 1961 Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra paid a visit and played Dvorák’s New World Symphony and Dr Slater was the soloist in a Handel organ concerto. The next year Sir Adrian conducted the same orchestra in a complete performance of Holst’s Planet Suite when, during the course of the impressive finale of ‘Neptune, the Mystic’, the chorus, which was composed entirely of ladies of the Lincoln Music Society, unseen by the congregation moved slowly in the last dying minute towards the east end of the Minster. The effect was described as “supreme”, “ethereal”, “brilliant” and “unforgettable”.

Dr Slater retired in 1966. Thanks to a large extent to the late Viscount Crookshank, who sponsored an appeal and contributed to its success, the organ had again been rebuilt in 1960, this time by Harrison and Harrison of Durham and a further restoration was carried out by the same firm in 1998 and it was then regarded as nothing less than magnificent.

The musical tradition continues at Lincoln Cathedral of course with regular organ recitals, performances of Jesus Christ Superstar and the annual visit of the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder.

Never miss a copy!

Big savings when you take out a subscription.