The Honourable Company of Air Pilots incorporating Air Navigators

Music at St. Michael's

St-Michaels-Jonathan-RennertPray Come to "Guild Sunday"
by Jonathan Rennert, Organist and Director of Music at St Michael's

You’ll always enjoy the Air Pilots’. That was one of the first pieces of advice given me by the then Rector of St Michael’s (Canon Motley), when I first came to the church. And so it has proved. The Company's visits to St Michael’s are highlights of the calendar. Who could not look forward to the magical beginning of Annual Service: the introit composed by my predecessor Harold Darke? Or to the thrilling selection of congregational carols and music for the choir during the Carol Service? Or the ‘end of term’ Sunday service on the last Sunday in July, Guild Sunday? The party in the garden following that service allows those of us in the regular congregation a welcome chance to meet members of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots.

The musical tradition of St Michael’s is an old and distinguished one. As long ago as the early 1500s our choir (or at least, the choir which then sat in the choirstalls!) sang daily services and seems to have had a high national reputation. We still have the choirmaster’s employment contract from the year 1509. The choir was for many centuries all male, with boys singing the highest part. However, that changed during the Second World War and, for more than sixty years now, women have been allowed into the choir stalls to sing soprano, and sometimes alto, too. (A bit dangerous, actually; I auditioned one of them, then ended up marrying her!)

The regular professional choir consists of five women and five men, the majority of them still in their twenties. Six of the present group were Oxbridge choral scholars; three are post-graduate students at London music conservatories. All are fine musicians, but not necessarily full-time performers: Will runs a jazz club in the East End; Douglas is a widely read journalist and author (whom you may have seen recently as a panellist on the BBC’s Question Time); Richard manages a wine shop. Most live in central London, though one commutes from Winchester. All are single and presumably eligible, apart from Jennie who is engaged.

Do you remember that tantalisingly sensuous contralto solo in ‘Three Kings from Persian lands afar’ at the carol service? That was Nicola on fantastic form. And you won’t have missed the compellingly resonant tenor solo in ‘Be merry, I pray you’ from Adrian, a 23- year-old from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama who was also chosen to sing the solos in Handel’s Messiah under Sir David Willcocks in the Royal Albert Hall. Then there was Jane’s traditional solo verse for ‘Once in Royal David’s city’: clear-toned and reliable as ever. But it is not fair to single out individuals. Every member of this choir has the ability to be an excellent soloist; but most of their performing is a team effort, to which each member contributes knowledge, experience, sensitive musicianship and much concentrated preparation.

St Michael’s takes seriously its educational role within the Church of England. Young singers who gained experience in our fine choir before moving to other posts include Patrick Craig (who, having been our first Choral Scholar in the early 1990s, is now a Vicar Choral at St Paul’s Cathedral), and Biraj Birkakaty (who now sings at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle). Some have strayed from the church like lost sheep and ended in the opera house: Gerald Finley is an international baritone who appears frequently at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Ben Thapa took a different route when he helped form the boy-band G4. One of our counter-tenors abandoned the choir stalls to become a prison chaplain.

The organ is normally played by the Organ Scholar, who is encouraged to treat his time at St Michael’s as an apprenticeship. Ex-scholars are now running (or helping to run) the music at St Albans Abbey, St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh, Coventry Cathedral and St Sepulchre, Holborn, and one is a repetiteur at English National Opera.

The organ itself is a very famous instrument, parts of which date from the year 1684, when the composer Henry Purcell was invited by the Church Wardens to test the new instrument (by giving a short recital) and to join them afterwards for dinner. It was on this instrument that Harold Darke gave recitals which, in the 1920s, were broadcast weekly ‘live’ on BBC wireless. The recitals still take place every Monday at 1.00pm. I have given 375 of them, but that figure pales beside the 1,800 recitals performed by Dr Darke during his fifty years as the church’s Director of Music. As many of you are aware, this wonderful historic instrument is now in poor condition mechanically (though musically it remains undimmed) and an appeal has been launched for £450,000. The Company’s extremely generous response to this appeal is enormously appreciated.

Whilst on the subject of finance, it has to be said that maintaining a firstclass choir places a considerable burden on the church’s funds. We therefore run a scheme which allows supporters to back the music at several different levels. For example, it costs £2,500 per annum to sponsor one of our young Choral Scholars; or £600 to sponsor a Sunday service (which can be dedicated to the memory of a loved one for whom a particular date was significant); or £100 to sponsor an organ recital. Gift-aided donations are particularly welcome. If you would like to discuss any of these schemes, please do contact me ( or on my mobile: 07799 641 699). Alternatively, I know that the Rector or Michael Berry (Chairman of the church’s Music Trust) would be delighted to talk to you.

You can hear the St Michael’s Singers on several CDs, which are available from the church. Perhaps my favourite is a recording of music by Sir George Dyson (Choral Music by George Dyson: HIERUSALEM) for which the Singers are accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (CDH55046). A friend recently obtained one from the Amazon website for just four pounds! The complete organ music of Harold Darke, played on our organ, is on PRCD374; and a lighthearted selection entitled ‘Organ Music for Fun’ is on PRCD375 (both on the Priory label). 

Finally, your editor asked me to provide details of myself. This is the boring bit...

Briefly, I am a Londoner who won scholarships to the Royal College of Music and St John’s College Cambridge; was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists at the age of eighteen; have written books and articles on music; have appeared as organist, conductor, lecturer and examiner in many countries on four continents; have been a regular broadcaster and recording artist. Bizarre moments include playing the organ for a boxing match in the Royal Albert Hall and for an episode of the television ‘Grange Hill’ series; and dressing up as the 19th century composer Felix Mendelssohn and donning a German accent for a ‘return recital’ by the great man! Here in the City it was a very great privilege to serve as Master of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

Enjoy St Michael’s!

Sing up in the hymns!


first published in The Guild News June 2007