Music at St Patrick's Cathedral: A Profile

by Geoffrey Cox


Charles Tracy’s
Laudate Dominum

Herr Felix V. Steinmetz

There has been music at St Patrick’s since 1858, when the first St Patrick’s Church was opened on the site of the present Cathedral. The organ installed in that year was later moved to the new Cathedral, but negotiations for a suitable Grand Organ began soon after the Cathedral nave was opened in November 1868.  By 1870, while the building still stood incomplete on the northern verge of Eastern Hill, the Cathedral’s first organist, Mr Charles Tracy, had formed both a small Cathedral Choir of ladies and gentlemen as well as the St Patrick’s Choral Society, which was designed to exist alongside it. The repertoire was modest for the Feast of All Saints in 1870, when the choir sang Webbe’s Mass in G. But by Christmas 1871 they were reported as singing Mozart’s 12th Mass, and by Easter 1875, the Kyrie and Gloria of Schubert’s Mass for the "first time in the colony", as well as parts of Farmer’s Mass in B-flat. The choir was conducted for various short periods during the 1870s by Rev. J. O’Malley SJ, Mr Albert Richardson and Mr P. Shanahan, but Tracy continued as organist and director until 1880.

The building of the Cathedral Organ was begun by Mr Robert Mackenzie in 1876. After a series of delays, Mr George Fincham was engaged late in 1879 to complete the work, and the organ was finally opened on 14 March 1880. The occasion was marked by the first performance of Charles Tracy’s Laudate Dominum. Mr Alfred Plumpton, Tracy’s successor as director of the choir, was also a composer of sacred works. His Mass in G (with orchestra), first performed at the Cathedral in January 1881, seems unfortunately to have disappeared without trace. Some of his organ works, however, have survived.

Music flourished in the Cathedral in those early years of Melbourne’s prosperity. There were significant additions to the organ in 1886, and it was further enlarged to three manuals in 1896. Alfred Plumpton was succeeded by William Furlong in 1884, and in turn by Herr Felix V. Steinmetz in 1896 and by Otto Linden in 1902. The St Patrick’s Vesperal & Hymn Book was published in 1891 with a commendation by Archbishop Carr as to its value in promoting congregational singing at Vespers, Benediction and other devotions. The choir’s repertoire reflected the prosperous times: Gounod’s Solennelle Mass was performed in the 1880s and 1890s, and at the consecration of the completed Cathedral in October 1897, there was a performance of Beethoven’s Grand Mass in C by a special choir of 120 voices, with orchestra. In line with the ideals of the Caecilian movement, Gregorian chant was introduced and strongly promoted in the late 1890s.

Cathedral Choir 1901. Herr Steinmetz seated (in chair), front row centre;
on his right Miss Anderson, Cathedral Organist.
(Photo courtesy of Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission)


Frederic Beard

One of the most significant musicians at the Cathedral in the early years of the twentieth century was Professor Frederic Beard, who served from 1907 to 1912 as director of the choir.  Beard introduced new music at Vespers using Westminster Cathedral as a model, and his Litany of Loretto (1909) still survives.  He died at the age of 46 in Colombo in 1912.  Beard was succeeded by Felix Steinmetz, who returned to take control of the choir, apparently remaining until around 1920.  Miss E. S. Anderson served as organist for a notably long period from around 1899 to at least 1922.   During the same years, there was a separate Vespers choir conducted by Mr F. B. Brady.

At least one attempt to form a boys’ choir in line with the directives of the Motu Proprio (1903) was undertaken by Rev. J. A. Bolger in 1922, when he was put in charge of a choir of boys from the nearby Christian Brothers’ College in Victoria Parade.  More than a decade later, at the time of the National Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne in 1934, Dr Gerhard von Keussler from Germany was appointed Director of the Cathedral Choirs, and attempts were still being made to establish an all-male choir at the Cathedral.

Georg Gruber
(Photo from The Australian Musical News, 1 June 1939)

Success in this venture was not finally achieved until twenty boys of the Vienna Mozart Boys’ Choir (a breakaway group from the Vienna Boys’ Choir) found themselves stranded in Australia at the outbreak of World War II in 1939.  They had performed in a series of concerts at the Melbourne Town Hall in July that year, and reached Perth on their way home to Austria when the situation in Europe deteriorated. At the invitation of Archbishop Mannix, they returned to Melbourne with their director, Dr Georg Gruber, and formed the nucleus of the new Cathedral Choir.  They were soon joined by boys from Parade College and the St Patrick’s Jesuits College in East Melbourne. The tradition of an all-male choir in the Cathedral has been unbroken from that time. Equally remarkable is the fact that all but one of the original twenty Viennese boys remained to live in Australia on a permanent basis.

Archbishop Mannix pictured with members of the newly-formed Cathedral Choir
at ’Raheen’, The Advocate, November 2, 1939.
(Photo courtesy of Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission)


AWP Martin

Rev Percy Jones

Brian Fitzgerald
(Painting by Paul Fitzgerald)

John Mallinson

Geoffrey Cox
(Photo by Gavin Blue)

Georg Gruber was succeeded as director of the choir in 1941 by A. W. (Paddy) Martin and in turn by Rev. Dr Percy Jones in 1942. Jones served as choir director until 1973, and was a monumental figure in the development of Australian church music. His publications included The Australian Hymnal (1942), The Hymnal of St Pius X (1952; new edition 1962), and numerous other collections of service music, motets and plainsong adaptations designed to keep pace with the liturgical changes of the time. Beyond the Cathedral, he served in 1964-1975 as a member of the Advisory Committee of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), making a significant contribution to the music of the worldwide church.

The Grand Organ, which had stood in the west gallery from 1880, was removed in 1937, and replaced by a succession of electronic instruments. The present Cathedral organ of four manuals, built by George Fincham & Sons and opened in July 1964, incorporates a substantial portion of the 1880 organ. In association with the 1997 centenary celebrations of the Cathedral, a number of modest additions and improvements were made to the organ. Organ recitals became a part of the cultural life of the Cathedral under Sergio de Pieri (Organist 1963-72), and continued as an important feature under John Mallinson (Organist 1976-99). These included a series in 1994 covering the complete organ works of C. M. Widor.

Dr Percy Jones was succeeded as Director of the Choir by his former assistant, Mr Brian Fitzgerald, in 1973, and in turn by Mr John Mallinson in 1986. The positions of Organist and Director of Music have been combined since 1986, and have been held since 1999 by Dr Geoffrey Cox, who had been Assistant Organist from 1995.

The Cathedral’s musicians over many years have sought to provide the best possible model for the realisation of current liturgical norms. In the tradition of Percy Jones’ work of earlier decades, Fr William Jordan (Assistant Choirmaster, 1973-1985) edited the Catholic Worship Book (1985), which has continued to provide appropriate congregational music for the Cathedral and for many parishes well into the 21st century. The Director of Music and Cathedral musicians now comprise a team serving a broadening number of Cathedral liturgies, which, since the early 1990s have included all of the major Sunday masses. The choral resources of the Cathedral were increased in 1996 with the formation of the Cathedral Singers, a small adult choir that sings each week throughout the year for the Sunday evening mass. The position of Organ Scholar was created in 2000 as a means of providing training and experience for a tertiary student studying organ performance.

Music week by week in the Cathedral over recent years has involved a liturgical repertoire well beyond the core of Gregorian Chant and classical polyphony by Palestrina, Victoria and their contemporaries. Alongside these, regularly heard choral works from the European tradition include those by nineteenth- and twentieth-century masters such as Vierne, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Howells, DuruflĂ©, FaurĂ© and Britten and contemporary works by Colin Mawby, Richard Proulx and John Tavener. Masses by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert are performed, not as ’musical masterpieces’ imposed upon the liturgy, but tailored to serve post-conciliar liturgical norms. Chant maintains its pre-eminent role, and the Gregorian Introits and Communions are sung weekly. The chant tradition is fostered also in adaptations to English liturgical texts, and congregational singing is strongly encouraged.

Old and new sit harmoniously together in the music of the Cathedral, in much the same way as the Cathedral’s new sanctuary is accommodated happily within Wardell’s magnificent architectural space. The building, its liturgy and its music speak of timeless values that are ever expressed in new ways, though invariably rooted in tradition. Let these stones resound with joy for many centuries longer!

Cathedral Choir in Concert, October 2010