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elough.gif (47955 bytes)The boy who sang O for the Wings of a Dove

Ernest Lough, the most famous choirboy in the world, died on February 22nd at the age of eighty-eight. There can be few who have never heard at some time in their lives his great recording of Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer; I expect we all remember where we were when we heard it for the first time. And how many boys were inspired to seek a choristership after hearing his voice? Certainly, Sir David Willcocks claimed it was Lough's voice that stirred his love of music as a small boy. It was all a long time ago now: seventy-four years to be exact. But justly famous as he became, Ernest Lough's voice was not unique. Many people believe this, perhaps because his is the only record they have heard from that period. His voice stands as perhaps the finest example of the English boy soprano sound we have on record. A sound which was once the envy of the world but now is sadly now out of fashion. It is only recently, with the publication of The Better Land, a CD featuring the voices of fifteen boy sopranos who were singing in the 1930s and 40s, that we are beginning to realise just what has been lost over the past fifty years and to question the training methods employed by the present generation of choirmasters. What more beautiful sound than that made by Lough and his contemporaries: it was pure head tone. One of his fellow choristers, Jack Salisbury, said: "It was not Lough's voice, it was the use of his voice that made him unique".

To a great extent, Ernest Lough was in the right place at the right time, and the record made for him a place in history. But that place was the Temple Church in London under the great and beloved 'Doctor', as he was always known, Sir George Thalben-Ball. In fact, the story of Lough cannot be told without the story of Temple and Mr. Ball, as he then was.

Prior to 1842, the standard of music in cathedrals was generally in a poor condition. It was at this time that the Temple Church, the private chapel of the Benchers of the Inner & Middle Temple, was in the process of restoration. It was decided, almost by accident, that a surpliced choir should be introduced for the first time since the Reformation. A choir of six boys and three gentlemen sang at the reopening of the church on 20th November, 1842. Shortly after that, on 7th. May, 1843, Dr E.J. Hopkins was appointed Organist and Choirmaster, and it was he who set the high standard and began a tradition of choral training which was to last for one-hundred-and-forty years.The influence of the Temple on the choral revival of the nineteenth century cannot be over estimated.

By this time, the choir consisted of six boys and six gentlemen, and it soon soon created a sensation. Prince Albert caused some consternation in 1843 by turning up unannounced and on foot to attend a choir practice. A letter in The Manchester Guardian in 1848 said: 'If the visitor lay down his prayer-book he would not miss it, for he will hear every word distinctly pronounced, every sentence clearly and reverentially enunciated.'

From the outset, the Temple Choir was renowned for its soloists. Perhaps the greatest boy soprano of Hopkins' day was Master Henry Humm who later wrote of the music: 'Very little was new, and nothing was very ambitious, but much of it was beautiful'.

In 1897, Hopkins handed over to the great Henry Walford Davies who soon proved to be a real friend to all calling the choristers by their Christian names or appropriate nicknames. Years later, Dr. Thalben-Ball described Walford Davies as the finest trainer of boys he had ever known. One of Walford Davies' boys wrote: 'Doctor sometimes held us spellbound . . . he taught more by his manner than by precept. His eloquence at rehearsals secured Sunday performances which attracted many of the eminent musicians and artists of his day to the church. I remember Ellen Terry sitting in the congregation and weeping during a certain boy's solo. Long before Master Lough's time there was a succession of boy soloists trained by Doctor.' (R.G.Minnion).

Alfred Capel Dixon was one of Walford Davies' first new choristers, the eldest of six brothers who followed one another in the choir. He was described by a colleague as the greatest chorister both, as man and boy, ever known and is especially remembered for his singing of I know that my Redeemer liveth. Decades later his tenor solos were much admired. Dixon and Frank Hastwell can be heard singing with Master Lough in the September 1928 recording of Drink to me only with thine eyes (H.M.V. B 2770). Hastwell and Dixon were both founder-members of the Templars Quartet in 1910 which soon gained a fine reputation.

George Thalben-Ball came to Temple in 1919, aged 23. Australian by birth, he had lived in Muswell Hill from the age of four, and as a small boy joined G.D. Cunningham's choir. At the age of fourteen he gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. Having fallen ill, Dr Davies was suddenly in need of a good sight reader just prior to the performance of a cantata at Temple. Mr. Ball was sent for at very short notice. Knowing that Father Smith's organ was a semi-tone sharp, he transposed the work into the key of D.

Describing the incident years later, Dr Ball recalled Walford sending for him afterwards and saying: '' ' Why, Mr Ball, are we not allowed to sing the music in the key Brahms wrote it in?' Ask yourself that, I replied, It's the key you always play it in! "

Soon after that, Mr Ball attended his first choir practice at Temple. George Dixon was then head boy, and years later recalled that Dr Ball had played some Chopin to the boys, saying: 'I loved him from that moment: I love him still'.

Walford Davies, although still in charge at Temple, took up a position in Wales in 1919 and George Thalben-Ball was appointed organist but not choirmaster. Things did not get off to a good start: nearly all the boys had broken voices and there were no probationers. Mr Ball was called upon to resign at once! He wrote to Walford to explain the difficulty. Davies immediately replied: 'It's all my fault: I will come back and take the blame for everything that's wrong'. Davies eventually resigned from Temple in 1923. By this time the reputation of the choir had been restored and the transition to Dr Ball's leadership was remarkably smooth. And it was to Temple and Dr Ball, or 'Pill' as he was affectionately known, that the twelve-year-old Ernest Lough was taken after failing his audition at Southwark Cathedral.

Ernest Arthur Lough was born on November 11th 1911 and entered the choir of the Temple Church in 1923. 'I remember having to read an extract from a murder trial in the News of the World. Doctor accepted me with a warning: "You're getting a bit old," he said "you had better hurry up". I was only twelve years old!'

Lough became a pupil at the City of London School which has traditionally educated all the Temple choristers, and every day except Wednesday they would leave school at 3.30pm to rehearse at Temple. After practice on Sundays there was normally half an hour before the service, so the boys would go down to the Temple gardens to run around before Matins. Lough always believed that this 'run-around' actually helped their singing. 'We would return to the church exhausted with sweat running all over our collars. Maybe it was some kind of treatment'.

The first two attempts at recording the choir were on 4th December, 1922 and 25th February, 1924 under Walford Davies and assisted by Mr Ball. These recordings were destroyed because a good balance could not be achieved between choir and soloist, using the old acoustic recording methods.

By 1927, Lough was one of the soloists in the choir which was then blessed with several fine voices. Microphone recording had recently replaced the old acoustic method and H.M.V. had just invested in its very first mobile recording unit. On the morning of 15th March, 1927 the van, on its first outing, parked in King's Bench Walk and cables were run down to the church where Lough and the choir were assembled on the decani side of the stalls. Perched on two bibles in order to be nearer to the single microphone, Lough waited for the engineer to drop his hand indicating that the recording wax was turning in the control van. Due to several interruptions, the piece had to be recorded several times, but at last the engineers were satisfied .

The record was issued a few weeks later and its success was due in some degree to the fact that it was issued on H.M.V.'s cheaper plum label. Nevertheless, the sales figures took everyone by surprise and it was H.M.V's biggest seller for 1927. Six presses had to be set aside at the Hayes factory for its production. Later, it was to sell a million copies and in 1962 Doctor and Lough were presented with a golden disc to mark the occasion.

It may surprise many people to know that this March recording may not be the one that they possess on 78rpm neither is it on the Pearl CD, which is still available. The fact is that the masters of the original recording quickly wore out and a second record was made in the November of 1927. By this time Lough was sixteen and his voice had taken on a fuller, richer tone from that of the earlier record. Although the boys had not changed from the March recording, there had been two changes in the men's line. Lough always preferred the first record, describing his voice as 'crisper'. But it is the second recording, featuring the older Lough, that we know and love so well. Several copies of the original do survive, and to establish which copy you possess, listen carefully to the second 'Hear' of 'Hear my prayer'. In the first recording, Lough exaggerates the aspirate - a fault which he corrects on the later record.

During the November recording session, Lough and Ron Mallett, another fine soloist, recorded the memorable I waited for the Lord from The Hymn of Praise. This is my personal favourite, and the one which inspired me as a boy.

No one was sure how long Lough's voice would last, and Doctor reported to H.M.V. in August of 1927 that there were definite signs of his voice breaking. In fact he managed to keep him singing for another sixteen months during which he made some of his finest records including Who is Sylvia in June 1928.

One of Lough's records, I will sing of Thy great Mercies O Lord was never issued at the time due to the fact that his voice had broken before a track for the reverse of the disc could be recorded. It was issued many years later on an LP.

Ernest Lough is indeed one of the great soloists of the Temple Church. But we must not forget the others, and these are generally agreed to be Denis Barthel and Thomas Meddings.

Denis Barthel became a probationer in November 1927, the same month in which Ernest made his famous recording of Hear my Prayer. ' Ernest was a very kind individual, and he helped me enormously during my early days at Temple', Denis told me. When Tom Meddings became a probationer in 1932, Lough was a smart young man a few years out of the choir and was seen only occasionally as a fleeting presence in the organ loft. 'That caused a buzz among the boys. What did he think of us? Were we up to standard?'

Denis Barthel and Tom Meddings featured on several fine recordings made by the Temple Choir in the 1930s. Denis's recordings have just been reissued on The Better Land, Volumes One and Two. This compilation of over forty tracks recorded by boy sopranos of the period helps us to put Lough's voice into context. Readers must be left to draw their own conclusions, but in my opinion there were several boys who could stand alongside Lough as one of the great boy sopranos of the century. But there is no doubt that Lough was special in a way that is difficult to quantify.

Like many boys of the period, he was emotionally involved with his singing. There was the use of portamento, so common amongst boys in those days. He was perfectly trained by Dr Ball, who recalled how Lough was always remarkably cool under the pressure of a long recording session. But most of all, like so many others, he was dedicated to Temple and to 'Doctor' and remained so for the rest of his life.

When the Temple Choir was fully re-established after the war, Lough returned as a 'gentleman' . Indeed, so great was this loyalty to Temple that throughout the war several of the choir assembled in the ruined church week by week to 'keep a song in the Temple'. Two of Lough's sons, Robin and Graham followed him as boy soloists. Robin in particular had a fine soprano voice, and Denis Barthel was struck recently by the similarity of Robin's voice to that of his father "All thanks to Dr Ball", he added.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Robin and Ian Le Grice made several recordings and broadcasts with the choir. There are many examples of Ernest's fine baritone voice and he sang a number of duets with Robin. Several commercial recordings were issued, but it is in the broadcasts of the period that Ernest and Robin are best heard together. It is thanks to David Lewer that these recordings still exist.

Ernest Lough retired from the choir in 1971 but continued to sing on an occasional basis until the retirement of Sir George Thalben-Ball, ten years later.

Lough was a very modest man with an infectious sense of humour. Some years ago, he wrote to me: 'You say in your letter that much of the credit for how we sang at Temple was due to Doctor. I do assure you that it was all due to him and the wonderful Walford Davies'.

It is a fitting tribute to Ernest Lough that the records of his fellow Temple Choristers are now available for the first time in many years. As Denis Barthel said: "He will be long remembered by all of us at Temple who knew him and were influenced by him."

Stephen Beet February 2000.

I am grateful to Mr. David Lewer, (in my opinion) the greatest living authority on Temple, for his permission to quote from his various writings on the Temple choir.

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Ernest Lough and his family.
Taken when he was awarded a gold record.

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The Temple Choir in 1955
Ernest Lough is third from the left, back row.

His son, Robin Lough, is second from left, front row.

From the liner notes of "The Better Land - Volume IV"

I am quite sure that no boy’s voice has ever been recorded nearly as well as this, and I am equally sure that I have never heard such a beautiful voice. ...Sir Compton Mackenzie, The Gramophone, July 1927

Ernest Lough, the most famous choirboy in the world, died on 22nd February, 2000 at the age of eighty-eight.  It is only fitting that we include two of Lough’s fine records on The Better Land. In fact a compilation of boy sopranos that did not include Ernest Lough would be sadly incomplete.  His voice stands as perhaps the finest example of the English Boy Soprano sound we have on record, and his twice-recorded Hear my prayer by Mendelssohn has never been out of print, selling over six million copies since it was recorded on 5th  April 1927 and again on 30th March 1928.  Lough never let his fame go to his head and like so many other Temple boys, he always attributed his success to his mentor and Choirmaster, the legendary ‘Doctor’ as Sir George Thalben-Ball was known.

We shall feature more of Lough’s records, together with a comprehensive history of the choir and its soloists on Amphion’s The Glory of the Temple Church, due to be released shortly. Meanwhile, on Volume lV of The Better Land we include the original test pressing of Lough’s favourite record, Hear ye, Israel from Elijah, which he learnt from scratch in half an hour to fill up a spare wax. Recorded in May 1927, it has never been heard before and was discovered recently by David Lewer . A  later complete version, recorded in August 1927, was issued by HMV.  It exemplifies so splendidly one of the boy’s greatest gifts - the marvellous precision of his attack on exposed high notes.

There can be few who have never heard at some time in their lives his great recording of Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer.  And how many boys were inspired to seek a choristership after hearing his voice? Certainly, Sir David Willcocks claimed it was Lough's voice that stirred his love of music as a small boy.  But justly famous as he became, Ernest Lough's voice was not vocally unique. “It was not Lough’s voice, but the use he made of his voice,” fellow chorister, Jack Salisbury said.  Lough's record captured the popular imagination as none other.  In some ways he was in the right place at the right time: he was made for the moment he recorded Hear my prayer.

Ernest Arthur Lough was born on November 11th 1911 and entered the choir of the Temple Church in 1923.  By 1927, Lough was one of the soloists in the choir which was then blessed with several fine voices.  Microphone recording had recently replaced the old acoustic method.  The first recordings of Lough were made on 15th March of that year, but it was during the December recording sessions that he made perhaps his most taxing record, I know that my Redeemer liveth, from Messiah.

No one was sure how long Lough's voice would last, and Doctor reported to H.M.V. in August of 1927 that there were definite signs of his voice breaking.  In fact he managed to keep him singing for another sixteen months during which he made some of his finest records including Hear my Prayer in March 1928.

Like many boys of the period, Lough was emotionally involved with his singing.  He was impeccably trained by Dr. Ball, who recalled how Lough was always remarkably cool under the pressure of a long recording session. 

The phenomenal success of Lough’s records was probably responsible for the fact that recording companies were so keen to sign up boy sopranos in the 1930s; and it must be acknowledged that without Lough’s success, the voices of many of our boys of The Better Land may never have been committed to wax.  Few of our boys had heard of each other, but everyone had heard of Ernest Lough.

Ernest Lough returned to the choir as a baritone after the war.  His three sons were choristers and Robin, like his father before him, was a particularly gifted soloist, making several broadcasts and records with the Temple Church Choir.

The Boys

Copyright © 2000-2001 by Stephen Beet


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