Choir  Director  George  Guest

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The material in the box above is taken from the St. Joh
n’s Choir website.  There is, of course, more information, including a complete list of their recordings under each of the various Directors, but this should serve as an introduction to... I was going to say my guest, but will refrain from that obvious pun.  However, it should be noted that he, himself, used it as the title for his book, which is shown farther down on this webpage!

hen the Choir of St. John’s College was on tour in September of 1986, it was my great pleasure to arrange for an interview with their director, George Guest.  I knew their recordings, and it was a privilege to speak with the man responsible for their growth throughout this period.  We had a very limited amount of time, but he was interested in answering my questions and considered his responses carefully. 

Here is that conversation . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    How do you go about selecting which boys will and will not sing in the choir?

George Guest:    As far as the little boys are concerned, we have, each year in early January, a voice trial.  It’s rather like a cattle auction.  If you were to go through the courts of Saint John’s College on the first Saturday of January, you’d see a lot of ladies clutching the hands of small boys, all with freshly combed hair and brushed shoes, wearing their best suits and carrying miniature violins and miniature cellos with them.  They would be coming to the Saint John’s choristers trial.  We have about thirty or forty of these boys each year, for about, on average, four places.  They come up to my rooms in college and they’re all just a little nervous, although it’s true to say that the parents are more nervous than are the children.  They are given some arpeggios so that one can listen to the sound they make and for quality of their voices.  We give them ear tests.  We give them two- and three-part chords, and they have to pick out the middle note or the bottom note or the top note of these.  We hear them play their instrument, and quite a lot of them, in fact, play two instruments.

BD:    Is this a requirement that they also play as well as sing?

guest GG:    No, it isn’t a requirement, but it’s obviously a help to them if they do.  They are aged seven or eight, not really over nine.  Quite a number of boys play a keyboard instrument, which is obviously the piano, plus one other.  So they play their instrument or instruments, and then they have to do some ordinary reading — not music sight reading, but reading of a piece of prose, because the words, for instances, to the Psalms are very, very difficult, particularly with their archaic English, and quite often are particularly difficult for anyone, especially to little small boys.  So a boy has to be pretty good at ordinary reading.  Then he goes off and is given an academic test by the headmaster of our Choir School because the choristers have a great deal of singing to do and it’s important that they don’t get behind in their general studies.  So to be a chorister at Saint John’s, a boy has to be very quick and very intelligent, quite apart from his musical attributes.  He has to have something of a brain to get in.

BD:    Do you scale your expectations down for the seven-year-olds, or do you expect them to do even too much for their age?

GG:    I hope that one doesn’t expect them to do too much, because if one does that, one is always going to be disappointed.  [Both laugh]  But you find a boy’s level, and you expect rather more from an eight-year-old than from a boy who is a year his junior.  We don’t altogether like to have boys from other choirs because they’ve been taught different habits, and it’s always very difficult to get a boy to unlearn a habit that he’s got into.

BD:    How much are you looking for potential?

GG:    In every way we are looking for potential.  You have to try to judge the sound you hear and the ability that is displayed before you in terms of what it will be like when that boy is thirteen, in four or five years on from that time.

BD:    Once they get into the choir, then are they a part of that choir for several years?

GG:    Yes.  They come to our choir school.  The college owns a choir school, which is not part of the college.  It’s in a sense a part of the college in that the college own it, but it’s in a different place.  The system is that there are some four hundred in that school, of which twenty are the singers.  The singers have scholarships of two-thirds whatever the school fees for that particular year are.  The fees of the non-singers are put up just that little bit in order to pay for the scholarships to the choristers.  The college would have no interest in running a school just for its own sake, were it not for the fact that it needed to provide choristers for the college choir and for the college services.

BD:    How do you get around the time when the boys’ voices begin to break?  Are they immediately put out?

GG:    No, no!  It’s always a sad time for a boy when his voice breaks because generally — not always, but generally — he realizes that for the first time he’s going to lose something which he will not regain this side of the grave.  That is a rather somber realization, a sadness for him.  One can tell when a boy’s voice is going to break by looking at him developing because the breaking of a boy’s voice is the onset of puberty.  Another thing to say is that the breaking of the voice isn’t, as you know, like dropping a plate on a hard floor where things get shattered.  It’s a gradual process.  The voice begins to break first of all in the middle
not with the top notes and not with the bottom notes, but in the middle.  When that time comes, we stop them singing with great reluctance because we don’t want to damage any adult voice that may be there.  But of course they’re not turned out of the school.  They’re kept on at the school until it’s a propitious time for them to leave according to their own academic standards, and a good time for them to move on to their next school.  So sometimes we are a boy light because of this fact.

BD:    You don’t immediately try to put someone in to replace him?

GG:    Oh, we do that.  Yes, of course!  You see, of those twenty boys which I spoke, sixteen are choristers and four are what we call probationers.  When a boy is successful in one of the voice trials which I described earlier, he becomes a probationer.  He stands in or deputizes when one of the top sixteen is ill or away for some reason.  Then when a chorister leaves or when his voice breaks, every one moves up one or two, as the case may be in the choir, and the bottom place is filled by the best probationer.  That’s the way it works.

BD:    It seems very regimented to know who is the number one boy and the number two boy all the way through.

GG:    Yes, we do have this, as does every choir in England.

BD:    Do you always move the boys along when the voice breaks, or is it an age requirement?  Have you had any late-bloomers that have stayed in the choir until they’re fifteen or even sixteen?

GG:    No.  The educational system in England is such that our choir school
indeed, any choir schoolis one of a group of what are called “preparatory schools.”  The system is that at thirteen and a half or thirteen and three-quarters — certainly not after the fourteenth birthday — they move along to what we call “public schools,” but are what I think you call private schools.  These are the schools which take them between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, that is to say, just prior to coming up to the university.  So no boy is ever in the choir when he reaches his fourteenth birthday.  He will have gone.  In the case of a few their voices would have broken anyway, but in the case of the majority they will just leave and their voices will break subsequently, within six months to nine months or so.

BD:    Is there a system of challenges where if a boy, say in the thirteenth place, feels that he can do better than the boy in the twelfth place, can he re-audition and perhaps move around this other boy?

GG:    Not really.  If a boy is really quite outstanding and the boys above him tend to be completely mediocre, one might consider putting the good boy up a place, which inevitably means downgrading the person that he’s jumped over.  I don’t really like to do that.  The senior chorister is a very important person.  He is a boy of about thirteen because they’ve all gone by the time they’re thirteen and a half or thirteen and three-quarters.  So this senior chorister is in charge, or responsible to the organist for the discipline of choristers.  The choir school is situated about three-quarters of a mile from the college, and they come over for choir practice every morning of the week except Sunday, at half past eight in the morning.  They walk over in twos, and the head boy, the head chorister, keeps them in order.  If you were to try and surprise them by suddenly appearing behind a bush, you would find that they would be walking quite decently and unsupervised except by the senior boy, through what are called “the backs” in Cambridge into the college.  It is one of the loveliest walks in England.  Then, if for some reason I was delayed by traffic or got up late
which I don’t normally do — and delayed a choir practice, I would come and find that it was being taken by the senior chorister.  So he has quite a lot of responsibility.  But that in itself is one of the good things about being a chorister under this kind of discipline, because you do learn — or he does learnall sorts of lessons that many people, if they ever learn them at all, don’t learn them until they’re adults... things such as the taking of responsibility, the polishing away at something for its own sake without any kind of reward, the business of making the very best use of limited time, and all the benefits that come, almost unconsciously, from listening to the best of literature and the best of music day after day after day.

BD:    In some press material it said that the choir also develops character.  This is very important, then, in the development, as well as the development of the voice and the intellect?

GG:    It is.  I’m not exactly sure what you mean by
character in that sense.  I think character includes partly those attributes which I have just described, about the taking of responsibility and so on.  We spend a lot of time, not consciously, but an outgrowth is that one of the very important things with any choir is to get everyone the sense or the feeling of belonging to something.  They cease to be individuals, unless they’re singing solos, of course.  They are part of one instrument, the choir, and because they are good readers of music, the director, the conductor, can play upon them as he plays upon one instrument, say the organ or the piano.  So performances and interpretations are not regimented and not prepared in a mechanical way.  They may differ from day to day as the wind takes the conductor.  The choir is able to do that because it can take its technique for granted, and therefore the whole essence of the performances of our choir lies in the differing interpretations.  So in that sense, it certainly has a character of its own.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    There seems to be this great tradition of doing this in England.  You’ve been director of the choir since 1951?

GG:    Yes.

How have the boysthe applicants or the choristers — changed over thirty-five years, if at all?

guest GG:    The choir has changed to a certain degree because it’s taken all this time to build it up.  Of course, public recognition always comes some ten years after an actual reality of a standard of a choir or of an orchestra, but now the fame of the choir does attract more and better boys than was the case, say, thirty-five years ago.  Overseas tours also help a great deal.  In the last five years we’ve covered Australia twice, and Japan, and been to the USA on a number of occasions, as well as Canada, Greece, Sweden, Spain, etcetera.

BD:    Does this realization change the attitude of any of the boys?

GG:    Well, no, because they will not have known what it was like thirty-five years ago; they wouldn’t have been born.  But they are very proud of the choir, I think, rather like the members of a good football team.  Of course in Cambridge we’re very fortunate to have, just less than a quarter of mile down the road, the choir of King’s College, which is not unknown throughout the world.

BD:    [Laughs]

GG:    There’s a very nice and healthy rivalry, but a very friendly relationship brought upon largely by the fact that the Director of Music at King’s, Steve Cleobury, was once my organ scholar at Saint John’s.  [Note: Nicholas Cleobury, the brother of Steven, is also a conductor.  To read my interview with Nicholas, click here.]  It really is very heartwarming.  Lots of people have the idea that we are somewhat bitter about one another, but it’s not the case at all!  We lend each other music.  We lend each other men singers when some in one choir are ill just before a broadcast.  We borrow men from them and sometimes we’ve borrowed boys from them.  I well remember, probably about eight years ago now, an Ash Wednesday broadcast from Saint John’s and we were decimated by influenza.  The then-organist of King’s heard of it and telephoned me.  He didn’t say, “Take some of my boys.”  He said, “Would you like to come and audition some of the King’s boys, and if there are any that you like, do borrow them to see you over this broadcast.”  This was great courtesy and a great kindness, and this is typical of the kind of relationship which we have.

BD:    Is the repertoire for the choir only sacred music, or is there also some secular music as well?

GG:    Very little secular.  Indeed, it’s a large repertoire.  It consists of about 1300 items and includes some seventy Latin masses.  We sing a Latin mass every Sunday of term time.  That is to say, the ordinary mass is in Latin, the rest in English.  The men, on their own, or sing as a group which they call somewhat fancifully the Gentlemen of Saint John’s.  They sing at what are called functions and dinners, and make a few pounds here and there.  They have a very large repertoire of arrangements of popular songs, many of which are very, very clever indeed.  So in that sense there is secular music, but the full choir as such, with the boys, don’t touch secular music.  This is largely because most secular music has to do with love in some form or another, and I’ve always thought it grotesque to have boys of nine, ten and eleven singing about an emotion which they can hardly have experienced in their tender years.

BD:    Keep the trebles away from it?

GG:    Yes...  It’s not so much keeping them away from it.  It’s when they do sing about all their loved ones, it does sound somewhat insincere to my ears.  Anyway, for whatever the reason is, they don’t do it.

BD:    Amongst all the sacred music, though, are you constantly adding new pieces to the repertoire?

GG:    Yes, yes.  It sounds rather pompous to put it this way, but it’s true.  The repertoire is limited not by the music which we happened to have learned, but by the music which we happen to have.  Because they are all quite good sight readers, we would reckon, to give you an example, to broadcast or record any piece written in the 16th and 17th centuries ten minutes after having received it for the first time.  We’d go through it once for notes.  There’d be some comments about shape, about dynamics, maybe just a couple of minutes spent on a few points, and then we should be ready.  So that in that sense we have a very large repertoire, but it’s not conditioned by what we are able to learn.

BD:    Is the same true of a contemporary piece, that you could do it after just ten minutes?

GG:    Oh, no, because they’re much more difficult.  Of course the choir are very familiar with 16th century style.  We sing about sixty motets of Byrd alone, and some twenty of Tallis.  So they feel that they’re very familiar with the style.

BD:    Are they not familiar with the 20th century style(s)?

GG:    They are, yes, but not to the same degree.  There is such a diversity of styles.  We haven’t done any aleatoric music.

BD:    Why?

GG:    I don’t know why.  Not for any particularly good reason, I suppose.  I’m not a good judge of it.  I suppose I’m old-fashioned.  We go as far as people like Michael Tippett.  We do everything that Tippett has written for the church.

BD:    How do you select which new pieces you will do and which new pieces you will set aside?

GG:    I get sent so much music by so many people, and if I like a piece I say, “Yes, let’s do it,” and I buy the copies.  It’s as simple as that.  But I do have one rule of thumb.  If the music is such that one thinks the congregation will say, “What extraordinary music,” and forget all about the words — in other words, if the music is not music which illustrates the words and exemplifies the sense of the words
then I think it’s bad church music and I won’t do it... particularly if one gets the idea that it is a composer trying to be clever.  You get that quite a lot with responses and praises.  All sorts of people set them these days with great degrees of elaborateness, and they seem to me to destroy any sense of the mood which the words attempt, or should attempt, to convey.

BD:    Is this the advice, then, that you would give to a composer who says, “Dr. Guest, I would like to write something for you”?

GG:    I think so, yes.  That’s not to say that it’s correct advice because it’s such a personal thing, but inevitably the choice of music has to be a personal thing.

D:    Where is sacred music going today?

GG:    Well, I don’t know.  That’s such a wide question; it’s almost like the title for a dissertation of a master of literature or even a Ph.D. three years thesis.  I don’t know where it’s going!  It depends not so much on the musicians as on the church itself, and on those who are constantly bringing out new liturgies and addressing the almighty in terms of familiarity, which they would not dare to use either to the Queen or even to Mrs. Thatcher!  This is the trouble.  If you have a new liturgy, it does presuppose the fact that you’ve got to have new settings.  We at Saint John’s don’t come under any bishop at all, so we can do exactly as we like, exactly as our dean likes, or our college council.  We tend to be old-fashioned because we’ve found amongst young people at the university that they largely resent the innovations that are going on in the United States as well as in England.  They think that they’re being patronized.  They feel that all this business of addressing the almighty in everyday, modern language, and all the other gimmicks that are used in church services
like guitars and dancing and all the rest of itare rather pathetic attempts to increase congregations.  We have found most definitely that young people are now turning back towards dignity in worship, and they dislike the feeling that they are being patronized.  I suppose it may well be thus in a changing and often frightening world.  Lots of young people are frightened.  They’re frightened by the rulers of the United States as much as they are frightened by the rulers of Great Britain.  They’re frightened by the possibility of a nuclear war.  They’re frightened by the rulers of Russia.  They wonder if they will ever be able to live a full life such as their fathers and grandfathers did, or whether they’ll reach the age of three score years and ten.  In this frightening and turbulent world, it’s as if they’re turning back to something which has the appearance of stability.  So church services, with a fresh gimmick each week, are not things which have, to the modern young mind, any kind of stability at all.  I may be wrong in all this, but you put the question to me and that’s the best way I can answer it.

BD:    It’s a very fine answer, it really is.  It’s a visionary answer, which is what I’m looking for.

GG:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us talk a little bit about recordings.  Do you perform any differently before a microphone than you do before a public?

GG:    Yes.  If we are singing in a big concert hall, like the Sydney Opera House or something like that, we are singing to 2000 people in a large hall and we have to try to reach the ear and the mind and get the attention of the person who sits in the furthest seat away from us.  Whereas if we broadcast or if we make a record, we are actually singing to a person in their sitting room, in their drawing room, and therefore what we have to do is to fulfill the needs of the instruments which are recording us.  It doesn’t matter.  Sometimes the kind of sound and the kind of balances which would make a first-class recording would not be the right thing for a live performance, and vice versa.  So in that sense the things are different, and particularly is this true with speeds.  If you’re singing a hymn in huge cathedral, it tends to be dignified and rather slow, but yet when that appears in a small drawing room of an old lady listening to a live broadcast of Evensong, if it is too slow she feels that it is dragging because there is not the atmosphere in her drawing room that there is in a great cathedral.  In that sense, there’s a difference.

BD:    Do you ever broadcast live concerts that are being given to thousands of people?

GG:    Yes, we do that.

BD:    Then is there not a schizophrenic kind of problem because you’re performing for so many people and yet you’re also in the drawing room?

GG:    I must confess that if I started worrying about that, I think we should never go on.  One just conducts the performance for the live audience, and takes it for granted that the engineers will be doing their job properly by adjusting their instruments so as to provide the best possible reproduction for those listening over the air.

BD:    In recordings, of course, you can go back and fix things by cutting and splicing.

GG:    Yes.

BD:    Is there any danger that a recording would then become too perfect?

guest GG:    I don’t think so.  Again one’s playing with words, I suppose.  If one thinks of music as something which consists of two elements
technique and emotionone of the sad and irritating businesses about being a choirmaster is that the more you have of the one the less you have of the other.  The better the technique is and the more you work away at technique, the less spontaneous a performance becomes and the more artificial it becomes.  On the other hand if you say, “Right, let’s have a completely emotional performance of this.  We will get lost in the emotion of the words and the meaning of the words,” that is the time when some people tend to sing out of tune, and points of technique go out the window.  I suppose that’s the difference between various top-class choirs — the balance and the relative percentage between technique and emotion.  You’ve got to assume a certain basic technique, but there are many choirs that perhaps go too far in the business of technique and become timid in their interpretation.  If one really thinks about the words, for example, of the Agnus DeiAgnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi — not Lamb of God who takes away my sins, but the sins of the whole world, that is an extraordinary concept!  Now you cannot sing that, to my mind, in a cold, unemotional, matter-of-fact way, although some choirs with an excess of technique would tend to do that very thing.  It all depends on whether you wish to admire a choir or whether you wish to be moved by it.  You admire technique but you’re moved by emotion, and it’s nice to get the balance right, if possible, so that people are pleased with the technique that they have but are also moved by the interpretation.

BD:    Is this perhaps what you look for in new pieces, the balance between inspiration and technique?

GG:    Yes, I think so.  I think that’s very true.

BD:    Is everything you do a cappella?

GG:    Oh, no.  We’ve recorded a lot of Haydn masses with the English Chamber Orchestra and with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which is one of the very best orchestras in the world.  And we regularly, of course, use the organ in the chapel.  From time to time we do Purcell anthems with strings and so on, but we do a great deal of a cappella stuff as well.

BD:    Is conducting a choir fun?

GG:    Oh, I think so.  I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.  It’s very frustrating because of course you have to aim at perfection.  You have to have an image of the perfect performance, but if ever you think you can approach it, you’re a fool and you’ll end up in a mental asylum.  [Both laugh]  You’ve got to make do with compromise all along, and the higher one’s standards are, the more seldom one is satisfied with anything.  I’ve got to the stage now where I’m really moved, really moved, maybe to the extent of some half-minute’s music by our choir in a year... which is not to say that they don’t sing very well.  I think they do, but somehow you can never achieve the perfection that you have, or ought to have in your mind.  This is one of the frustrations of life, of being a choirmaster.  The other frustration, of course, is losing people because life goes on.  You have a superb boy or a superb tenor or something, and after a finite time he has to leave
which not so to such a degree in Cathedrals.  On the other hand, we have a great advantage over Cathedrals in that if we have a bad singer, we know that he’s not going to be with us for all that long!

BD:    It’s almost a built-in obsolescence, especially in the boys.

GG:    Yes, yes.

BD:    We have spoken about the boys, so tell me about the rest of the group — the men.

GG:    The men are all undergraduates, or students at the college, and just as there’s a voice trial for the boys, there’s also one for the men.  They put the colleges in their order of preference... perhaps Saint John’s, Kings, Trinity, Corpus Christi, Jesus, etcetera.  The college at the top of the list has the first preference, and if they don’t want them they then go down the line.  If no college wants them, there’s only one thing left for them, [with a wry smile] and that is to try and get taken on by Oxford.

BD:    [Laughs]

GG:    But their job is to learn the music, and I don’t care how they learn the notes since they learn them in their own time.  They come to what we call our song school, which is our choir room where all the music is.  If you went in term time, you’d hear them bashing out their part on a piano, which can be a difficult bit.  The rule is that we don’t want wrong notes at the full rehearsal; the whole of that time must be given over to interpretation.

BD:    Are there any of the boys who later wind up singing in the choir as men?

GG:    Yes, quite a lot!  I have rarely counted them out, but of our fourteen men at the moment, I suppose about eight or nine were choristers either at Saint John’s or in another comparable place.  So they all know the ropes.  They know what they’re in for before they ever come.

BD:    You have just the one concert here tonight?

GG:    Yes.  One here, then we’re at Minneapolis tomorrow.  We were in Cleveland last night.

BD:    I would think the touring would be terribly difficult, especially one night stands.

GG:    Yes.  We don’t like to do that, but we’ve got to do it this time for some reason.  It’s a different program, too, which is another thing.  Normally when we are on tour we do a concert and then the next day travel to the next place, and then the day afterwards another concert. 

BD:    Thank you for including Chicago on your schedule this trip, and thank you so much for this conversation.

GG:    Thank you.

George Guest

Musical master who revitalised England's cathedral choirs

By John Gummer, The Guardian, Tuesday 3 December 2002

George Guest, who has died aged 78, was the pre-eminent English choral director of the 20th century, responsible in large part for the survival of the cathedral choir and the astonishing quality of its output. A man of exuberant richness - a Welsh nationalist living in Cambridge, who revolutionised the performance of French music with one of the greatest English choirs - he drew on these apparent contradictions to sustain his vast creative talent.

Born in Bangor, Guest went to the city's Friars school, and was a chorister at its cathedral for two years. At the age of 11, he became a chorister at Chester Cathedral, and studied at the King's school. The severe reprimand he received for flicking paper balls across the cathedral nave during matins did not prevent his appointment as sub-organist in 1946, after four years' war service in the RAF.

It was entirely fitting that Guest should start his career in the cathedral city that straddles the English and Welsh border; he possessed an innate understanding of the Anglican liturgy and the choral tradition that articulated it, and yet it was a Welsh voice that sung from his heart.

Nevertheless, his tenure at Chester was short: in 1947, he went to St John's College, Cambridge, as organ scholar. Here, the choir had enjoyed 10 years of direction from two of the choral world's great luminaries, Robin Orr and Herbert Howells. When, in 1951, Orr decided to leave to concentrate on composition, he persuaded a reluctant college council to take on the young organist.

Guest was to surprise and stimulate the old dons: he proved himself a charismatic teacher and intelligent musician, well liked by the clergy and a healthy influence on the college council. He immediately started laying the foundations for a professional choir. The choir school moved into new premises, while, in the rehearsal rooms, Guest set to work improving the sound and ability of the 16 boys and 14 undergraduate choristers.

Down the road at King's College, Sir David Willcocks was also transforming choral standards. [Note: See my interview with Sir David Willcocks.  BD.]  The inevitable rivalry was seen at its best on the football pitch, when Guest and the choral scholars played a mean game, especially against the old enemy, when Guest and Willcocks made a point of marking each other.

Guest's inspirational - and often ruthless - direction took the St John's College choir to a new artistic level, so much so that, in 1958, it made the first of its 60 recordings, of Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer, for the Argo label. Guest's discography was to be unmatched by any other English choral director.

Recordings were important to Guest, as he believed passionately in taking choral music outside the confines of church and chapel. Thus, he also exploited radio, on which his choir sang regularly from the mid-1950s onwards; an Ash Wednesday service including Allegri's Miserere Mei attracted particular attention.

But it was the daily ritual of the college evensong that allowed Guest to develop a unique choral sound. He rejected the ethereal and breathy vocals that were prevalent in the great cathedral choirs, and were typified by the sound at King's. Instead, he developed a more gripping continental timbre - passionate, poised and direct. It was no coincidence that he came to champion the work of 19th-century and contemporary French composers, an association that culminated in two of his most celebrated discs, Duruflé's Requiem (1974) and Music By Gabriel Fauré (1975).

The former elicited a warm letter of congratulation from the composer, as did Guest's recording of the Messe Solennelle of Jean Langlais, by the great, blind organist of St Clothilde, Paris. Langlais ecstatically proclaimed: "I admire everything - the style, the tempi, the voices, the organist, and the conductor. Let me tell you of my deepest gratitude and admiration."

Guest's vigorous interpretations of the Haydn masses also won him much praise: indeed, prime minister Edward Heath chose the recordings made with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields as his gift to the Pope on his visit to the Vatican in 1972.

Despite the excitement of taking his choir to perform to a packed Sydney Opera House, or broadcasting to millions around the world in the Advent carol service, Guest never minded that some of his finest performances were heard by only three or four people shivering at the back of a neo-gothic chapel on a dark November evening: the choir performed for God, not for an audience. Informed by a quiet but profound spirituality, he was to direct the music for 40 years until his retirement in 1991, displaying a constant loyalty to St John's and to Cambridge, where he was university organist (1974-91) and lecturer (1956-82).

Under his tuition, Stephen Cleobury of King's College, John Scott of St Paul's, David Hill of Winchester, Adrian Lucas of Worcester, and Sir David Lumsden of New College, Oxford, began the careers that have produced a golden age in the English choral tradition.

Guest often remarked that you can only reach a man's head through his heart. It is not therefore surprising that, as the years went on, the chanting of the psalms became an ever more considered and thoughtful meditation. He realised that the Anglican evensong was the Church of England's greatest gift to the Christian world. It was his genius to give a unique and abiding expression to that liturgy that will live for generations to come.

He is survived by his wife Nan, son David and daughter Elizabeth.

· George Howell Guest, choirmaster and organist, born February 9 1924; died November 20 2002

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on September 3, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1989, 1994 and 1999.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.