History of the Music at our Church

Hampstead Parish Church has enjoyed an enviable reputation for the quality of its service music since Martindale Sidwell was appointed here in 1946. In the 200 years before his arrival, its musical history was typical of many Anglican parish churches: service music was slow to become established, but as the surrounding town grew in affluence and the building was enlarged and extended, it became increasingly important to the worship of the growing community.


There are no records of the early service music at Hampstead before the present church was built in 1745. A small chamber organ was installed in 1766 ‘to accompany the Psalmody only’, but there is no mention of a choir until in November 1790 the Trustees agreed to install seats in the Gallery ‘on each side of the organ’ for a choir of Charity Children. It was common in parish churches at that time for the singing to be led by such a choir. They were instructed here by Mr Adams the organist, but their standard of performance as described in the diary of ‘a Hampstead Lady’ in 1800 was said to be ‘not very good’. ‘At the ordinary Sunday services,’ she recorded, ‘nearly everything is spoken … the hymns are sung … but the only other music is the long drawl of the Tate and Brady psalms.’ There appears to have been a special effort however for funeral services. ‘When anyone dies,’ continued the diarist, ‘we have Vital Spark.’ The title of this anthem by Edward Harwood (1707-1787) was taken from the first line of an ode by Pope called ‘The Dying Christian To His Soul’: it was an undistinguished piece, but immensely popular for funeral services all over England throughout the 19th century. [?link to performance by Junior Choir]

The first reference to adult singers in parish records is in January 1849, when Richard Anson Firth the organist was told to ‘attend every Friday evening … to instruct Men and Boys belonging to the Choir.’ In 1853 Mr Firth was given notice (he had been absent on Good Friday and left the organ in the hands of a Deputy ‘without previously obtaining sanction of the Incumbent’) and a new musical era began with the appointment of Henry Willis as organist to succeed Mr Firth.


Willis built one of his early organs during his time at Hampstead and when he left soon after its completion the next organist was authorized ‘to spend up to £25 over 6 months to obtain a choir’. It appears to have been a choir of male voices and the usual Charity Children – both boys and girls – but there is little reference to the music which they sang.

As the local community prospered and the congregation grew, the church had to be enlarged and 30 years later Henry Willis was commissioned to build a new, larger organ for the extended building. It was first used at Divine Service on Easter Day 1884. It is probable that the grander organ was matched by a grander choir: in 1894 Dr George Aitken was appointed organist and there are references to fees paid to the Principal Bass chorister, Tenor, Alto and Solo Boy. We know little about him, but Aitken remained as organist and choirmaster for the next 47 years, and in the course of that time laid the foundation for Hampstead’s reputation as a musical church. He finally retired in 1942.


In 1946 Martindale Sidwell (website) was appointed organist and choirmaster, and over nearly 50 years established a high professional standard of music in Hampstead. When he was appointed, the existing musical tradition – along with so much else during the war - had evaporated. He set himself to rebuild it, and in so doing established standards well beyond pre-war times. He built up a choir of men and boys which was widely acknowledged to compare favourably with most of the Cathedral choirs - ‘one of the finest in the country’, said Andrew Green in his Independent obituary - in the performance of a wide range of service music drawn from the Anglican cathedral repertoire.. In the 1950’s they broadcast and recorded with Klemperer and appeared regularly at the Royal Festival Hall.

Martindale was one of the outstanding choirmasters of his generation, and his reputation attracted promising young musicians to Hampstead – James Bowman, Paul Esswood, Andrew Davis, Barry Rose, John Morehen, Malcolm Archer, Sebastian Forbes, Paul Brough, Geraint Bowen, Laurence Cummings, and many others. His musical legacy is commemorated in Hampstead by the annual Martindale Sidwell Memorial Recital, given by a member of the choir, and the standards which he established continue to be maintained by the present Director of Music and Choir.

Simon Lawford was appointed to succeed Martindale in 1993; he left after a year to take up the post of Organist and Master of the Choristers at St George’s Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia.

In 1994 Lee Ward was appointed Organist and Director of Music at Hampstead.