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Epic 1953 choir tour of the USA and Canada recalled

December 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the return from a tour of the United States and Canada by the St Paul's Cathedral Choir. This 1953 tour was remarkable in many ways not least in that it took two months and involved no fewer than 41 concerts.

Here, former Chorister Peter Chapman recalls that epic North American tour:

In today’s fast-moving world of budget airlines and online check-ins, it’s easy to forget how complex international travel was in the early 1950s - in its many centuries of existence, the Cathedral Choir had never before sung outside the UK.

Canon John Collins, the Cathedral’s Chancellor, wrote at the time of the tour: "The Choir has played a specially significant part at many vital moments of English history, not least among these was the occasion of the service held in the Cathedral on 4 July 1951 to commemorate the 28,000 and more Americans who, from the shores of Britain had given their lives in the second Great War; then it was that General Eisenhower, now President of the United States of America, handed over for safekeeping to the Dean and Chapter the Roll of Honour which is to be kept in perpetuity in the American Memorial Chapel. No one who was present at that service could doubt that it manifestly symbolised the best which binds our two nations in friendship which can never be broken so long as we share those common aims for which the sacrifice commemorated was made.”

The notion of the tour was sparked in November 1951 when Justice Owen J Roberts, then a member of the United States Supreme Court, had visited St Paul’s for Evensong. The Dean had showed him the Roll of Honour and the plans to build the chapel. It was then that the suggestion of a tour to promulgate the existence of the chapel was made.

On his return to the US, Justice Roberts linked with the English Speaking Union and Dean Sayre of Washington National Cathedral to form a Committee to organise the tour and to consider the challenge of financing. It was an enormous undertaking. The Choir was to travel by ship (The Queen Elizabeth) and spend eight weeks primarily in the USA taking in Washington DC, Philadelphia and Boston in the east, but also visiting Montreal and Ottawa in Canada before travelling to New Orleans via Chicago. A schedule of 41 concerts was planned which were to be arranged and managed by Columbia Artists Management. It would start in St John the Divine, New York and end two months later in Carnegie Hall, New York. There was even to be a concert in the White House.

The tour would involve the thirty boy Choristers, eighteen men, two organists and necessary support. It was to be led by Canon Collins.

New York - arrival and Service in St John the Divine
President Eisenhower’s invitation to the White House
The Return to New York and final concert in Carnegie Hall

Looking back, 60 years later, the organisational achievement was, and remains, astounding. The tour required travelling some 8,500 miles by bus and train, staying in numerous hotels for short periods with the associated logistical problems for dealing with laundry and moving music and equipment. These challenges were overcome and the tour proved a resounding success. Without doubt it enabled the Choir to achieve new heights of musical excellence. Certainly the choir received many outstanding press reviews.

The last words should belong to Canon John Collins who wrote: ‘‘Everywhere the Choir was received most enthusiastically, both as representing an historic and cherished part of British life, and also a superb musical instrument. The Choir went to America with its gift of goodwill, it returned to Britain the bearer of this same gift enriched a thousand-fold from the American people.’’

About the author
Peter Chapman, a Chorister on the 1953 tour, has maintained his association with St Paul's to this day and was later to become the Cathedral's first Lay Canon. His book, A History of St Paul’s Cathedral and the American People, is available to buy from the Cathedral shop.