Profile of Peter William John Kirk
Custodian of the Anglican Chant Archive
I was born in Hamburg, Germany where my parents were then stationed. My father was a bandsman in the Durham Light Infantry. By the time I was about 3 the family settled in Aldershot, Hampshire.
I was educated at Newport Road School, Manor Park and Heron Wood Secondary School for Boys. My first musical experience was learning to play the recorder and to join in playing the morning assembly hymns accompanied by the outstanding John O’Keefe.
My interest in psalms probably began when aged about 9 I joined the choir of the local parish church, St Augustine’s, Aldershot as a treble, a formative experience shared by many boys of the time. My grandfather Percy (George) Briggs, who was a good tenor, encouraged me to join him as we only lived 100 yards from the church and was encouraged, no, told I was to come along and give it a try. I could never get to grips with psalms initially as we were never really given much training in the art of singing psalms, but after singing the Te Deum weekly, I gradually got the gist of the plot. The congregation joined in heartily in various octaves and the choir just did their own thing! Woodward, Smart and Turle stick in my mind even as I write this (see below). Happy days indeed; even the mouldy smell of those black covered Cathedral Psalters with Chants still stick in my memory. I also joined the school choir which I thoroughly enjoyed. We sang in many places locally and were even recorded for a programme on BBC radio.
When my voice changed I moved to the 'back row' and sang alongside my grandfather. I went from treble and shot through alto to a weird sort of baritone, my voice eventually settling to a pretty decent bass. Our parish priest, the Revd Alfred Rose, suggested I had singing lessons with the eminent retired local soprano Joan Coxon (she had her studio in Upper Hale, Farnham, Surrey. As well as being a recitalist, she had worked with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Pears was born two miles away in Farnham, Surrey). I commenced my studies with Miss Coxon at 14 and continued right up until I was 21, at which time I had to cease my tution as work commitments in Nottingham became more numerous. I still have an old fashioned telegram from her, sent to me on my 21st birthday.
Whilst at school we lived with my marvellous grandparents. I wanted to play the piano but there was no room for a piano. The then incumbent of the church, Revd Garth Long, allowed me to use the portable harmonium stored in the vestry. That agéd contraption was somehow moved from the church to my bedroom, a short distance up the road, by two poles inserted as if it were a spit-roast. To play a hymn I must have pedalled half a mile. The bedroom was on a slight tilt so the harmonium usually ended up at the other side of the room. I persevered and eventually took piano lessons with Mr Charlie Snow, a market gardener and organist of the church. There was a succession of organists but I really cannot remember too much, apart from the fact that Evensong was jam-packed, Matins was reasonably well attended and Communion had its own congregation. Sung Eucharist did not take place in the form we know it today.
Evensong was particularly well attended in the summer-term, the reason being that to attend St Michael’s School you had to have a form signed by the parish priest to say you had an acceptable attendance at church. Once the form was signed and posted to school there was a mass exodus from all local churches of year 6 children. This happened every year until things became somewhat less strict.
Whilst doing my GCEs and CSEs I did a summer holiday project (for GCE art) which involved drawing all five of Aldershot’s church organs. The clergy were so kind and let me have a play as well. I was hooked, took up organ lessons and used those pieces of music learned as part of my GCE music practical. I eventually took some diplomas and got to grade eight in organ playing whilst doing a few diplomas in singing on a more casual basis. I became an assistant organist whilst in my teens then eventually became a full time organist for ten years.
During the last year of my education at Heron Wood, it was proposed to join forces with the girls of Manor Park Secondary School for a joint production of the Pirates of Penzance. I was the Sergeant of the Police. It was great fun and I was amazed it even took off, as most of the boys were into the current Beatles phenomenon. I, alas, was then a great fan of the Rolling Stones. I still am a follower of the agéd rockers.
When I left school my parents wanted me to join the army and apply to Kneller Hall where my father had been trained. I felt it was not for me so I bought a moped with a friend of mine. I was a 'Mod' and spent many interesting weekends down in Brighton. I eventually joined Timothy Whites & Taylors (the now defunct chemists, bombed out of Portsmouth and re-established in Aldershot after the war). In 1968 Boots took over Timothy Whites and I had a great job there in warehousing and distribution; I remained with the company for thirty years. Eventually the huge depot in Aldershot closed and moved back to Beeston, near Nottingham.
Part of my training was at the Beeston and Nottingham complexes. For one month I worked with a chap named Ken Esswood (sometime conductor of the Boots Male Voice Choir). He was a warehouse manager then, if my memory serves me correctly, on the Island Street site. Ken took me home once for an evening meal and I met some of his family. We started talking classical music with the guests. One young man there, his nephew, was talking about Handel (my favourite composer). He turned out to be Paul Esswood, the renowned counter-tenor! Ken also introduced me to that splendid town of Southwell and of course the ‘Pepperpots’ of the Minster. I was spending increasing amounts of time up in Nottingham, mostly on my own, so made regular trips to the Minster.
I met the inspirational Kenneth Beard, Rector Chori of Southwell Minster in the Saracen’s Head Hotel, Southwell and got to know him really quite well. He kindly gave me two of his chants which you will find in part 2 of the Archive (when complete). One of them is in Volume 6 of the Priory Complete Psalms, 2nd Series. A chance meeting with him several years later, in a tea shop, ended up with me singing Evensong on several occasions.
I met another man at a charity bookshop in Lincoln later that year. He was looking in the church music section alongside me. I’d found a copy of 'Reminiscences of a Musician in Retirement' by Dr Frank Bates which I then purchased for several pounds. The man immediately asked me if I was a cathedral organist, so I informed him that I was an assistant organist in Aldershot, Hampshire. This gentleman turned out to be Dr Joseph Philip Marshall.
A year, later I deputised for a couple of evensongs as an emergency lay clerk at Lincoln Cathedral but when asked if I was available next week, I had to refuse as I was back down south at the Aldershot Boots depot. In addition, the long walk up the hill from the station made me think that Lincoln was too much of a challenge. Two weeks later he kindly sent me the Lincoln Cathedral Chant Book in his own beautiful handwriting. A friend of mine, via the Facebook Anglican Chant Appreciation Society (I hope you've all joined!) recently told me that whilst compiling the Lincoln Chant Book, Dr Marshall approached various local organists and composers for chants to be included in the pending book. I also had the chance of deputising in four nearby midland cathedrals a few times.
I was spending more and more time in Nottingham and I had a long term relationship resulting in two sons, Matthew and Stephen. There were many visits to the Strathdon Hotel in the city centre and the Rufford Hotel in West Bridgford where years later Matthew had his 18th birthday party with every rugby player in Nottinghamshire! I had plenty of free time in the evenings, so this is probably where I started my love affair with psalms and their accompanying chants. I physically copied out all the chants from the Southwell, Lincoln and the beautifully produced chant book of Leicester Cathedral, a copy of which was given to me by Peter White, the Director of Music there at the time.
In 1982, on the departure of our magnificent organist (Paul E. Rhodes) back in Aldershot, I was suddenly asked to take over as full time organist. Obviously I was delighted but as my son Matthew then was only four months old and 152 miles away I could only do it until after Christmas. I could not do weddings as I was on 'father duties' in West Bridgford. The then priest of the church, Fr Michael Harvey, was fantastic. We used to go trout fishing at Alresford, Hampshire. We had a swear box in the car. On our days off we decided to get away from all church politics. We had only been on the road a short while when Michael looked decidedly angry. In went a pound and did he let rip. It did not help that I caught two 6lb rainbow trout and he only caught one, not much bigger than a minnow. We had a fabulous working relationship. We had a fund running to get the bellows of the church organ replaced. I was given permission by the warehouse manager Ray Coggin to put swear boxes in all the departments at Boots Aldershot Warehouse to help support this fund. We suggested ten pence for b****y and one new pound for the unprintable. There were even the odd five pound notes in the boxes (I dare not go down that line)! It ran for the six weeks of Lent and raised much needed money. I continued playing there for ten years!
Around 1990 my mother developed breast cancer. That obviously restricted my travelling somewhat and I had lots of free time. My mother died in 1993. Later, around 2003, the Aldershot depot of Boots closed and moved to the huge Beeston site and around 1000 people were made redundant or found jobs within the organisation elsewhere. I was made redundant after thirty years of service. I received my lump sum, cleared the mortgage at both Aldershot and West Bridgford and invested money for my sons who were still at school… and had a thousand pounds left over.
Priory Records started recording the complete Psalms of David on CD way back in the 1990s. With my new found wealth I purchased all 10 CDs. I then had a collection of at least ten chant books and psalters. I was horrified that there were hundreds of chants not in my meagre collection. So, I wrote to all 10 Cathedral organists asking if I could possibly have a copy of the chants. I was delighted to say everybody responded and my collection of chants increased by a couple of hundred. Then the big task began. I like to think the Archive started up in earnest around 1995. I wrote to such as Andrew Seivewright, Russell Missin and many more organists for permission to use their chants. They all responded and thanked me for including their compositions. Alas, it is not always thus these days.
My oldest son, Matthew eventually became a chorister. He composed a nice little single chant in C major aged 12 and a bit. I treasure the manuscript and included it in my collection.
My personal life after Boots went in a totally different direction. In 1995 I was playing the organ at Aldershot Crematorium on Tuesdays, and after a couple of years added Mondays and then Wednesdays. I did that job for twelve years and then saw a teaching assistant’s (TA) job at a local junior school. The task was to support an eight year old quadriplegic lad in a wheel chair. I had to do everything including a crash course in basic physiotherapy and massage down in Winchester. I saw the young lad through his four years, and then at the end of year six he moved on to Lord Treloar’s School in Alton, Hampshire. I last saw him as an eighteen year old whizzing down Victoria Road, Aldershot, in his new hi-tech electric wheelchair.
I was for thirty years the treasurer of the Guildford Diocesan Choirs Festival. This was a twice yearly Festival that attracted large numbers of singers within and outside the diocese. There were some specially composed chants included in the superb festival booklets.
In May 1998 I married Tessa Ann Broughton (a retired QA officer) and had the privilege of playing the organ for my own wedding BUT Tessa insisted I walk out with her so a CD of the Exit of the Queen of Sheba was played! We had our reception within St Michael’s Church, Aldershot. We had the pleasure of the company of some family, friends and the lovely church cleaning ladies who made the church so beautiful for us. Matthew managed to come down even though he was in the middle of his mock GCEs and was given permission to complete his last exam with his teacher later that evening.
(photograph courtesy of The Aldershot News Group)
Tessa and I started visiting Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt and spent most of the holiday snorkelling, touring, eating and relaxing in temperatures of well over 38°C in late October. My sons and their friend Emma followed suit until a bomb went off in Sharm Old Town and security became an issue.
We also took up coach trips, one being to Derby and visited the cathedral where I once sang. We had a beer in a local pub at lunch time on a very cold February day, when I noticed some handwritten manuscript on several beermats. These were two single chants by Sir John Stainer, one of which I had been trying to find for ages. The pub must have been the haunt for the song men!
A turning point in the Archive was the meeting with the charismatic Dr John Henderson of the RSCM Colles Library (then based in Dorking and now in Salisbury). Tessa and I visited the library for years copying out all this fabulous music. John is always so accommodating and his immortal comment every time we met was ‘Have you got this one’?
Another great supporter was Richard Barnes of Cathedral Music, West Sussex. He has loaned me some fabulous books that I never knew existed. I now have around 18400+ chants from 550 sources and a very, very tolerant wife in Tessa.
I am having great difficulty in choosing my favourite chants with so many 'delicious' ones to choose from BUT the following really get to my soul. Dr Thomas Attwood Walmisley in F major for Psalm 49 and Samuel Wesley in G minor for Psalm 22 vv. 1-21. I first heard the Wesley in Southwell Minster all those years ago.
My other interests consist of growing chrysanthemums, angling (coarse, game and sea), travel and playing the organ for the odd funeral. Both Tessa and I have been worshipping at Guildford Cathedral for nearly 18 years, where we are now guides in the newly refurbished cathedral. We are very happy and have many close friends. The liturgy and music is of such a high standard. I belong to a small group of singers named Stag Montem Chorem who do cathedral cover for holidays under the expert direction of David P. Oldfield. Currently I am learning chaperone duties with the boy choristers.
I am involved with special needs reading with year 2 children which I enjoy and for the last twelve years have been doing chapel music for a preparatory school in Surrey.
I sincerely hope I live long enough to complete this Archive.
Myles Coverdale c.1488 to 20th January, 1569