St Thomas’ Cathedral Choir A Memoir (1955-1963) by Dr Thomas Chung
It was always my childhood dream to be a member of the St. Thomas’ Cathedral Choir. Imagine the excitement I felt in 1955 when the Choirmaster, Mr. Chin Shin Sen accepted me. I was inducted as a treble (boy soprano) and sat between Lydia Chan (now Mrs Lydia Ng) and Lily Kong (now Datin Lily Hardin). I took to music and Anglican hymns like a fish to water. The beautiful old wooden Cathedral was in the process of being dismantled and services were being held in the ‘new’ Cathedral after its consecration. The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer was sung to Merbecke.
At Evensong we sang the Magnificat, Nunc Dimiitis and Psalms to chants in the Parish Psalter. The Versicles and Responses and the various Collects were also chanted. In the old Cathedral the hymn-book used was the green-covered ‘English Hymnal’. When we moved to the new Cathedral, we began using ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised’, which is still used today.
Special music would be sung for Holy Week. When Fr. Anthony Parry was Dean of the Cathedral, he would sing the role of narrator of a simplified Passion set to music and sung on Palm Sunday. He had a wonderful tenor voice. At the time, the Choir sat way up in the Gallery Mr. Wan Thau Fen was the regular organist at most services and all three of his children sang in the choir: Michael, a bass; Steven, a tenor; and Violet, a soprano. Mr. Ted Corby would play at Evensong, and Billy Yapp, the young organ scholar- then would also be given the opportunity to play, accompanying the Choir in the hymns. On Saturday evenings, members of the Choir who could attend would sing at the beautiful service of Compline.
We were not robed, but sat in the Chancel and led the singing.
Christmas was always an exciting time for the Choir. What with car-oiling, Midnight Mass and concerts with the Kuching Music Society. Mr. George Freeth of the Sarawak Constabulary Band conducting. We even sang Handel’s Messiah! The Choir would also be ferried across the Sarawak river to the Astana to sing carols for the Governor, H. E. Sir Anthony Abell.
On ‘Remembrance Sunday’ the Choir would process to the Central Padang singing ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past‘. All Souls Day would see the Choir processing from the Cathedral to the graveyard (next to St. Thomas’ School Boarding House) with the Dean leading the way. The Litany would be chanted in procession. At the graveyard itself the Choir would sing the (English Hymnal No. 744,) Russian Contakion of the Departed and ‘Abide with Me‘.
In Mr. Chin Shin Sen’s absence, Miss Audrey Oldfield conducted the Choir. Miss Ruth Duncombe, Principal of St. Mary’s School, was a powerful alto with a rich contralto voice. She held this part for many years. When my treble voice deepened, I sang alto and sat between her and Rebecca Chan. Mr. Harold Woodall, an Australian who taught English at St. Thomas’, sang bass. He was also my General Paper teacher at St. Thomas’, a kindly man, a fine bass and an excellent educator.
The highlight of the year was the Annual Choir Picnic, over a weekend followed by a public holiday. The most popular-spot was Kerangan; the Senior Service Bungalow in Santubong was second choice. The trip to Kerangan would take about three hours by motor launch. Ee Poh Teck had access to Mr. Tan Boon Tian’s launch “Be-Be”. Slow but safe. Dean Parry would always come with us and Holy Communion by the sea was particularly meaningful. The liturgy would be sung followed by the communion hymn ‘Faithful Shepherd feed me‘. Meal times were fun and Mr. Ted Corby would be looking forward to his pineapple salad, only to discover that it was pineapple rojak. He would attempt to wash off the prawn paste, “an impossibility” he would say. “It’s like trying to get rid of the taste of durians in your mouth!” We never discovered what Miss Duncombe and the Dean thought about rojak.
Evensong was most memorable : the sun setting, the tide going out and the Choir singing ‘The day thou gavest, Lord is ended‘. Mr. Chin the Choirmaster would never fail to bring to the notice of one of the altos that she had sung a wrong note in the third line.
Once a month, the Choir would have a recording session at Radio Sarawak and this would be aired over the radio on the Sunday evening as part of Christian worship. Every other Christmas, the morning service would be broadcast live over the radio. When my voice was finally that of an adult, I sang tenor and sat between Steven Wan and Robert Jacob Ridu. I remained in this part until I left Kuching for Canada to further my studies.
My time with the Cathedral Choir in Kuching enabled me to discover the unrivalled beauty and richness of Anglican church music. I continued to sing in Canada and also during my time in England. The memory of my singing days at St. Thomas’ remains fresh because my time in the Choir, over eight years, was both meaningful and enjoyable.
Very little has been written or published about music in the Anglican church in Sarawak. Mrs. Harriette McDougall, wife of Bishop McDougall, mentioned in her memoirs that she had taught the children how to sing hymns. Brian Taylor in his book “The Anglican Church in Borneo -1848-1962” mentioned that “At Quop Abes musical ability was showing its usefulness” Today many Anglican churches in Sarawak can boast of a choir. And hopefully, with increased musical literacy in time the repertoire will expand to include the very best there is in Christian music.
Some in the Church will prefer the old to the new, while others will embrace the new and discard the old. Those who love the old hymns may find these being replaced by ‘choruses’ with a new beat, often weak in theology, repetitious and targeting the heart rather than the mind. Some are at home with sound of the choir and organ. Others prefer the tambourines, guitars, drums and synthesizers. Some find it more meaningful to clap and dance to a strong beat, The more ‘traditional’ are put off by what to them is the irreverent, experiential, superficiality of the charismatic service. Some ‘charismatics’ find little meaning in a traditional service. In some churches these tend to create tension, and confusion.
The potentially divisive effect remains between the traditional and the new but if seen positively can become a challenge and a means to unite old and new, young and old. In those churches where this has been resolved, it has served to only enrich the worship of the church. To quote Lionel Dakers, a former Director of the RSCM, “the changing world and the changing church do not necessarily imply a need to abandon proven and valid traditions“. Simone Weil had a very positive way of looking at tradition when she said, “tradition does not consist in keeping old ashes but in keeping the old fire burning by continually adding new fuel“.
Perhaps Lionel Dakers sums it up succinctly: “the completeness of our offering, so’ that worship can truly become the meeting place of earth and heaven, will without doubt be more nearly achieved through the enrichment which music uniquely offers and this will be realised if we have vision with one eye on the past, one eye on the present and both eyes on the future“.
In the eternal words of Our Lord Jesus, “therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure chest what is new and what is old“. (Matthew 13″5)
The 6.45am Sunday Service Choir is one of five choirs which serve during worship at St. Thomas’ Cathedral, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.
The Cathedral has a strong tradition of choral music and the 6.45am Sunday Service Choir’s objective is to “Serve God through the advancement and propagation of the Ministry of Choral Music”.
We have been singing at the 6.45am service every Sunday since December 4, 1994. During Christmas and Easter, services actually begin at 6.30am!
Before the end of 1994, there was no choir at the first service. The priest would lead the congregation through two hymns with the help of an organist each Sunday.
Originally there were no hymns at the first service.
Then one of the organists at the time, Evelyn Lim (who is our choir director) and an 8.15am Sunday Service Choir member, Francis Makam came up with the idea to add communion hymns to the service.
The initial suggestion was for a few members to come in during communion to sing.
However, the idea was not practical so Evelyn and Francis thought why not form a choir?
The idea was put to the Venerable Archdeacon Solomon Cheong, who was the Dean at the time and hence the 6.45 Choir, as we’re usually known, was born.
Initially a small group of ladies and a few members of the 8.15am Service Choir became our founding members.
Slowly but surely, God touched the hearts of more members to join this ministry.
Some were new to choir singing, others experienced members who had served previously and felt His call to use their talents again.
Taking small steps, the choir started off singing only in unison and then moved on to four-part harmony – Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. Though the transition was not easy, the hard work paid off.
Over the years, as part of our growth and development, we have visited many parishes especially in the rural areas.
In 2002, we initiated and organised a choir conference, which was attended by over 200 choir members from eight parishes, the furthest being St. Luke’s, Sri Aman.
Since 1994, our musical repertoire has expanded from just the set hymns.
Although many of us do not read music, it has not hampered our zeal and enthusiasm to master both modern contemporary anthems and classical pieces (even in Latin and Italian!).
In 2003, we sat for Trinity College London’s Bronze Choral Assessment and through God’s grace we managed to pass with Distinction.
Currently we have some 40 members ranging in age from teenagers to senior members in their golden years, who have been serving in choirs since they themselves were teens!
With God’s constant guidance we have truly grown together as a musical family.
God has shown us that no matter what our age, if we really want to serve Him through this Ministry of Music, He will equip us with the skills and capabilities to sing all the wonderful musical genres written to praise and glorify His name.
We especially hope to show that classical sacred music still has a place in worship today.
We believe that the depth and beauty of the words and music inspired by God centuries ago continues to touch people with a very relevant message today.
We hope that you too may be touched and inspired by the Almighty to serve Him in this very special ministry.
“Come before Him with joyful songs” (Psalm 100:2).
visit us at : http://645amchoir.weebly.com/
|Morning Services||6.15 a.m.||Except on Wednesday|
|Holy Communion||6.30 a.m.||Except on Wednesday|
|Evening Services||4.00 p.m.||Except on Wed. and Sat.|
|Sunday Services||6.45 a.m.||Holy Communion in English|
|8.15 a.m.||Solemn Liturgy in English*|
|10:00 a.m.||Holy Communion in Chinese|
|5:30 p.m.||Evensong in English with Sermon and Holy Communion|
|Monday to Friday||8.30 a.m - 4.30p.m|
|Saturday||8.30 a.m - 12.30 p.m|
|Sundays and Public Holidays||Closed|
|Prayer Meetings Clergy (every Friday)||9.00 a.m - 10.00 a.m|