The Master’s Newsletter, February 2020

It does not seem possible, but it is already three months since my Installation as Master. In diplomacy, one would wait perhaps six months before writing a “first impressions” despatch, but then one would be staying in post for three to four years, not nine more months!. So here are some impressions from events so far.

It might be expected that I would write about the lunches and the dinners, as that is very much the received view of the Livery movement. What might be less expected is how very interesting these occasions are. Livery Companies are extraordinarily diverse – in their origins, their composition, and their ways of doing things. But what they have in common are fascinating, accomplished people, from the most varied backgrounds, all using their influence and finance, in one way or another, to support a huge range of worthy charitable causes. It is said that Britain is towards the top of the lists of countries where people give most – money and time – to charity, and if that is true, the Livery movement is an outstanding example of both. As the City toast says, long may it flourish, “root and branch”.

What might also be surprising is the very considerable admiration and respect there is for the Musicians’ Company and for our work. We punch well above our weight. The Master Musician is often included in a guest list when there are very few other Masters present – the other guests being professionals from the same world as the hosting Livery. Even though we are 50th in the list, the Master Musician is always on or very near the top table.

I should at this point also note the crucial role played by the Clerk in helping maintain and develop the profile of the Company in the Livery movement. A Clerk as well informed, experienced, and adept at networking as Hugh is an essential asset for the Company. It is clear that through his work he enjoys a very special position amongst his fellow Clerks: and that reflects on the Company as a whole.

As to what we do, there is huge interest in our charitable work – notably the Yeomen Programme – and several Companies, having seen how our Programme is put together, are considering their own versions of it. The attraction of the Programme is its practical nature, its clarity, coherence, consistency, and its ability to involve many Members of the Company in so many different ways – from funding to volunteering, to organising.

There are also the enormous number of events that we run: from concerts to Livery Club functions, the Honorary Fellow evenings, the Prince’s Prize: the list is endless and although the burdens on the Office can sometimes seem insuperable, our events list considerably enhances our attractiveness to new Members.  We have nearly 30 new Freemen joining us in 2020 – and the age profile is dropping as more young people come into our ranks. Given the widely shared concerns in the Livery movement about the difficulties of recruitment and age profiles, those are figures that other Companies would give their eye teeth for. We are the fifth largest Company overall, and the largest without its own Hall. It is some achievement.

Individual highlights of the last three months? In no particular order:

  1. Attending the last Prize Day at the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall before it closes this summer and moves elsewhere. Sitting outside in December in freezing, driving rain while the massed bands played in front of the building, then giving some of the Prizes, and finally having a buffet lunch in the Museum, with the walls covered in boards headed “Musicians’ Company Prizewinners” dating back to the turn of the 19th and 20th I hope that wherever their new home is there will be space for those boards.
  2. Listening to the competitors for the Harriet Cohen Bach Award and realising that Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” is a lacuna in my musical knowledge – then trying to fill the gap by buying the Edwin Fischer recordings and bingeing on them as one might on a box set of videos.
  3. Attending the Honorary Fellow event with Sir James MacMillan – another lacuna in my musical experience, as so many of his works were premiered when we were abroad – and deciding to catch up, starting with the St John Passion coming to the  Barbican in April. This was a fascinating evening, due to both the relaxed and skilful interview technique of Lord Berkeley and Sir James’s full, reflective, and straightforward answers, discussing the influences on him, the composition process, and performance history.
  4. Using part of the Master’s Discretionary Fund to make a “pump priming” donation of £500 to Mark Boden’s planned Oboe Concerto for James Turnbull. Mark, of course, composed the wonderful “Dormi Jesu: The Virgin’s Cradle-Hymn” for the Carol Service last year, and became a Freeman this year. James was an outstanding Yeoman, doing wonderful Outreach work, before joining the Company as a Freeman and continuing his commitment to us through committee work. They need around £4,500 more in funding before the work can be completed. I am so looking forward to the premiere.
  5. Arranging the latest extension to the Yeomen Programme: a series of 10 Outreaches for those suffering from Alzheimers and dementia. These Outreaches, each involving two Yeomen, will be held once a month until the end of the year in the Merton dementia hub with an audience of between 30 and 50 for each session. I am indebted to the generosity of two Liverymen who have made this programme possible.

As I have been so involved with the Yeomen Programme for so long, you will not be surprised if I say that a future highlight will be attending our “Schubert in Schools” project’s final concert in March with Roderick Williams at St Matthew’s School in Westminster. Liveryman Jan Yerbury, who has done so much wonderful work on the Outreach programme, has led a team of three Yeomen: William Cole, Katie Coventry and Henry Neill. William is using the “Hurdy Gurdy Man” from Schubert’s “Winter Journey” song cycle as the starting point for the project and is building in songs for the other seasons of the year based on the words created by the children in Year 5 (9 and 10 year olds).

Roderick attended a session recently, in between rehearsals at Covent Garden, and was profoundly impressed, saying:

“It was so hugely inspiring, genuinely enjoyable and a terrific continuation and development of the Schubert in Schools project.  I thought the work that Will has done on adapting Winter Journey to suit the age of the school children was really inspired – I loved it! The way he had used the material from the children and blended it into Schubert’s music was wonderful. And it was lovely to see him, Katie and Henry so engaged. Really great stuff.

This was not just a worthy successor to our SiS project of a couple of years ago, this was an improvement! Congratulations to everyone. I can’t wait to see the final concert.

 Now how on earth do we roll this out nationwide, I wonder…?”

 The last line contains our starter for the next 10 years of Outreach work! Suggestions welcome…..

As for future events – I look forward to helping to judge an International Prize for the Turners’ Company, where the subject is “Music”. And Bernard Haitink becomes a Freeman of the City shortly, and the Master Musician will be representing the Company. More in another Newsletter later in the year.

I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible at future events.

Warmest best wishes,

John Nichols