Earliest known Recording of a Live Cathedral Choir Rediscovered

20th May 2024

Listen. A chance discovery has uncovered, what is believed to be the earliest live recording of a Cathedral choir.

Earliest known recording of a live cathedral choir found at Rochester Cathedral

The recording of the Rochester Cathedral choir was rediscovered by Michael Curling, a member of the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society. It was recorded nearly 100 years ago in 1926 and is due to be played in a special Choral Evensong on Sunday 19th May at Rochester Cathedral.

In 1926, Columbia Records sent technicians down to Rochester Cathedral. Electronic microphones were set up so they could record the Cathedral Choir. This recording was transferred, live, by telephone lines to the Columbia Studio in Westminster.

These were then cut into a 12 inch, 8 revs per minute, shellac record. Although some earlier recordings of cathedral choirs were made, these were recorded in Columbia Studios in front of large sound horn. This recording is believed to be the earliest recording of a Cathedral Choir singing in their own Cathedral.

Take a listen here.

When Michael Curling found the record he contacted Jeremy Lloyd, Assistant Director of Music at Rochester Cathedral. The Archivist of the Rochester Cathedral Old Choristers Association, James Strike, visited Michael Curling who kindly gifted the historic and fragile record to the Cathedral.

The recording features the Magnificat in B flat by Charles Standford on one side and  the Old Hundredth hymn, All People that on earth do dwell on the other. The Cathedral choir was conducted by Charles Hylton-Steward, Director of Music from 1916-1930. Remarkably, the Organist in the recording is Percy Whitlock, the famous 20th Century composer. He had been a Chorister at the Cathedral from 1911-1918 and then was Assistant Organist from 1920-1930.

Earliest known recording of a live Cathedral choir rediscovered.

Adrian Bawtree, Director of Music at Rochester Cathedral says

“We are delighted to be sharing this historic recording with you all. To hear the choir in such good heart back in 1926 and to hear the famous Percy Whitlock at the organ is just simply fantastic. We will do our best to continue to sing with the Spirit when we combine with our Old Chorister’s on the 19th May.”

To preserve this record for future posterity, Alistair Taylor, owner of a specialist record shop in Rochester High Street has transferred the old shellac recording to a CD so it can be played over the Cathedral sound system at a special Evensong on Sunday 29th May. This will be the first time in nearly a century the voices of those old choristers will fill the Cathedral once more.