One of the country’s most famous organists and choir masters stands down from his post as Director of Music at Canterbury Cathedral this month. David Flood has been one of the greatest influences on the performance of sacred music in the country since he began pulling out the stops as Assistant Organist here in 1978. Cerys Keen interviewed him in his almost-empty house in the precincts this month.
What would you regard as your main legacy as you leave the cathedral?
Over all these years, I’ve seen a lot of things come and go, and a lot of wonderful major occasions. I hope the legacy I leave is that the music in Canterbury Cathedral is recognised at the highest international standard. I trust that I’m handing over to the next guardian, whoever that may be, something which the cathedral and community can be really proud of.
The second legacy that I shall leave is having had the opportunity to provide the Cathedral with a world class organ installation. We now have an instrument which causes people’s heads to turn because it is state of the art in every way and suits the building so perfectly. The project is not yet finished, the organ project has another major section to go in the nave of the cathedral, but what we’ve managed to achieve has certainly attracted the right kind of attention.
How have you developed the approach to music at the cathedral?
The role of the cathedral choir is one of the most important things because at the services when there is music, we have many more worshippers, visitors and congregation members than at other times. So, the way to develop it is to try and broaden the repertoire. When I choose music for the cathedral, I view it like a restaurant menu. What I’ve tried to do throughout all the years is to provide something which the people who attend a service can identify with. They will look at a music programme which is published and say, ‘I really want to be part of that’ or ‘that’s something I don’t really identify with, I’ll go the following day’. Or they can say, ‘I didn’t look before I came and the music, I heard was a bit challenging, but I feel better for it and I’m very pleased I came and had the challenge because now I’ve had a broader outlook than I had before.’ I’ve encouraged my colleagues in the music department to be ready for a broad canvas of music. Six years ago the Dean and Chapter introduced the girls choir. That’s a very important thing to have done. For many hundreds of years it was boys and men, but we’ve added on to it the vast and relevant role of the girls’ choir. You’ve added this extra width to what we can achieve. Even though I don’t direct the girls choir (that’s delegated to my assistant) it’s something in which I’ve had a role to play. It’s one of the most important improvements and expansions that the cathedral has had for a very long time.
What we like to have is that many people can hear and see us in action. I say ‘see’ because they do like to see the machinery of the choir running. They like to see the way in which we interact with everybody. Many come back to us and say that was really important to them, and that they’ll come back again. That’s an important part of the cathedral’s outreach and mission.
What sort of additional challenges come from conducting both the boys and the girls together?
I don’t prepare the girls’ choir from the basics. My assistant prepares them to the level where they’re ready for the final polish. I will have prepared the boys choir from the bottom upwards. It brings about a mutual trust between myself and my assistant which we’ve had for ten years. That means that when I direct the whole lot I trust in what he has done, and he can trust in the fact that I will appreciate and understand where the girls’ choir are coming from when we join together. Then actually in performance I just have to be sure that I’m inclusive and that everybody feels appreciated because I don’t have a significant role with one half of the team.
That must be really rewarding particularly with the boys to see them grow.
The most important thing is to lead a small child to the achievement of something he or she could never have imagined. I will audition a boy aged seven and he would start in the team at the age of eight. It’s my job to spot potential. What they can do when they’re seven is nothing like what they do when they’re 12. When you have a whole team of 25 children in that vast area they’re all so energised because they can feel that they’re achieving something. The number of times they say, ‘I can do this!’ It takes guts when you’re 12 years-old to stand up in front of a full cathedral and produce a solo which is perfect — not alright, but perfect — and be proud of it. Sometimes in later years they come back to me and say, ‘I never thought I’d have achieved it, but I did.’
Tell me about the new organ. How does it compare to other cathedral organs?
We’ve been able to turn the heritage of the Henry Willis organ of 1886 into something which is meaningful for the liturgy and the work of the cathedral due to the development of technology over the past 100 years.
The intention with the new organ was that we would produce an instrument which would enhance any activity the cathedral might do — such as services, ceremonies and concerts. It took 15 years of planning, but we now have an instrument which serves the needs of the cathedral far better than anything previously. The organ now works on two sides of the cathedral which it didn’t before. The two sides are connected and controlled from the same place. That is one of the biggest advances. The new organ is also much bigger than it used to be and much more versatile.
How does it compare? It’s right at the top in comparison to major instruments in other cathedrals around the country. People look to the organ here with a lot of admiration —particularly the fact it serves all the demands of such a vital place. Canterbury Cathedral is in two acoustic halves, the quire (which in normal times is where most of our services are sung or where the monks would have had their services) and the nave (which is where more ceremonial things and the bigger services happen). But it’s just not finished yet.
What have been the highlights of your time here?
I’ve produced music for more Lambeth conferences than anybody else. The first Lambeth conference I did was 1998. It’s a major thing to produce music for because it lasts for two or three weeks. I’ve also done more Enthronements than anybody else. I played the organ for the enthronement of Robert Runcie (1980), I directed the music and conducted the choir for the enthronement of the next three — George Carey, Rowan Williams and Justin Welby. Those are very memorable occasions.
You can also think of highlights as days when a performance took fire. You might not remember when it was, but there’ll be an odd day when you’re working with the team you know so well and all of a sudden something clicks and magic happens. You can’t explain it, but there are times when somebody might have sung a solo that you didn’t expect they could do or that you were hoping they would do well and they excel themselves.
How has the country changed in terms of cathedral music during your time?
One of the main things that’s happened is that we used to get a high proportion of young choristers who had already served in parish choirs or sometimes school choirs. That’s much rarer these days. Parish choirs can be strong, but for various reasons the opportunities are fewer than they used to be. That’s why we have to keep our profile high so that we are actually beaming this attractive prospect to people. As a reflection, what has happened is the appreciation shown by those who come to our services is stronger because there are not as many opportunities for people to hear them locally.
Over the last 40 years it’s as difficult as it’s ever been to underpin the creative resources you need. Life in the cathedral and in the community has stayed remarkably stable. We are maintaining everything we have done in Canterbury Cathedral ever since it was founded in the year 597 and the monks sang.
What would you like to see happen now with regard to national music issues?
I’ve been the guardian of this great treasure and now I’m handing it on to somebody else. It’s got to continue; it has to be maintained.
The second thing is the importance of creativity in people’s lives needs to be understood. There needs to be a resource whereby any talents young children have can be nurtured early. Many people will say, “Oh I know that hymn, I used to sing it at school”. That gets rarer and rarer these days. It doesn’t need to be a hymn; it could be any song. We need to be sure that creative life is enhanced and maintained. Some say that for the advancement of educational skills, children learning music, in some instances can be more important than maths or history. Creativity unlocks parts of their personality and they can develop confidence and build relationships. I’d be very keen that the creative life of children, especially in music, should be understood as an important part of their development.
I came through normal educational lines, but I was able to be supported through that and it’s vital that young people — particularly if they’re uncertain about the talents they have — can actually find ways in which they can grow and follow a path which might seem unusual. I can remember at the age of six I was tapping my fingers on tables pretending to play and my father said “better get this boy a piano, something needs to be done here”. I was the first person in my family ever to do that and I think it’s important that the educational establishment recognise it to support any kind of flair or creative ability.
I hope people appreciate the effort and commitment that goes into helping those who create the printed music and lyrics, the material that we actually perform. An amazing amount of new composition is going on all the time and some people do it like you might imagine Beethoven or Mozart did when they were little in a garret somewhere. Support for all the branches of creativity needs to be understood.
What will you be doing now?
I’m an examiner for the Associated Board, one of the enterprises that run all the graded exams for instruments and singing. I’ve only been able to do the minimum for that so I shall enjoy being able to support more and more candidates who come forward looking to find out where they are in their musical development.
I shall also be taking the opportunity to enjoy other people’s music. Being on the receiving side rather than always being on the producing side. There’s all my CDs and LPs that I’ve not had much chance to enjoy so I’ll be looking forward to that.
I’m fairly fluent in French and we have a house over there so we shall be enjoying opportunities in the local community in music and whatever else we might come across.
For the first time in my life, I will enjoy having weekends. The last time my wife and I had a weekend off was 42 years ago. I’ve got four children and give grandchildren, so having weekends off means we’ll be able to be with the family a lot more.
Cerys Keen is a journalist specialising in music. She has written for Classic Rock Society magazine and the Kentish Gazette. She is shown here checking the photographs she took of David Flood, a few minutes after she interviewed him.