By Tim Fanning

MARTIN Baker, the Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, is relaxing the day after performing an organ recital at the church of Sant Francesc in Palma to an enthusiastic audience.

He's happy at the way the performance went. The organ in Sant Francesc is very versatile, according to Baker, suitable for playing early music, Bach or contemporary music. The best thing about Friday's night's performance, however, was the audience. “I wish we could get crowds like that coming to our organ concerts at Westminster Cathedral. There's a lot of organ music in England and the audience, therefore, gets spread rather thinly across the venues.” Most of Baker's time in his role as Master of Music is spent on overseeing the choir and administrative work.
The assistant master of music is the one that tends to play the organ. So Baker's sabbatical from the Cathedral is an opportunity to get back to playing the organ. “I'm in charge of the overall musical programme of the cathedral and the main focus of that is the cathedral choir. We sing every day two services, throughout the week, Mass and Vespers.” It's a unique tradition in the Catholic Church. The cathedral dates from only 1903. “Our choral tradition comes from the Anglican choral tradition, which has been the custodian of the ancient Catholic tradition. Unfortunately most Catholic cathedrals have lost that daily tradition, singing daily services.” Baker previously spent eight years at Westminster Abbey as sub-organist, acting organist and master of the choristers. He was in the U.S. in 1997 when he got a phone call to return immediately. It had been decided to hold Princess Diana's funeral in the Abbey and Baker was to play the organ. “I just focused on the job. Sportsmen say the same thing, don't they. If you're on centre court at Wimbledon and you think too much about the crowd you're not going to watch the ball. And I had to learn quite a lot of music I didn't know for it. So it was, ‘Right, take it as it comes, get on with it, I'm a professional, I'm paid to do this kind of thing.'” “I was aware that the whole world was watching but you keep that to one side and make sure you do the best job possible.” The switch from the Abbey to the Cathedral was a bit of a cultural shock. For one thing, Baker felt like he was at the centre of the world in the Abbey. “You couldn't get to the organ often without muscling your way through hundreds of tourists.” “I was hesitant about the change because I knew that working at Westminster Abbey, as part of the Anglican network, there are many other establishments and it's expected that there will be a choral evensong every day.” Of course, there wasn't the same tradition of organ music within the Catholic Church either and Baker confesses to having felt “lonely” without the same sort of infrastructure behind him as he had in Westminster Abbey.

Often Baker finds he has to educate incoming clergy about the Cathedral's musical programme. “You get people with a completely different take on what liturgy and music is about and who might be hostile. You have to try and educate them to see that this really is not taking over the Mass. It's not the musicians being gods. It's actually fundamental to the Catholic faith and the Catholic liturgy that music like this should exist.” When Baker was first appointed eight years ago, the outlook for Catholic music was a “little bit bleak”. However, things are looking brighter for the musical tradition in the Catholic Church, according to Baker. He cites Notre Dame, where until 1992 there was no musical programme. “They now have a very developed music programme full of children and adults.” Audiences across Europe are growing and Baker hopes to attract more people to the annual Grand Organ Festival, which the Cathedral reintroduced last year. Baker, who is a Catholic himself, believes that the Church made a mistake by throwing out a lot of its best traditions in favour of gimmicks such as “chatty homilies” and “the priest who is more of a game show host than a man of God”.

The music at Westminster is presented as part of the liturgy. “The purpose of the music is not to be heard as music but to aid people's worship. I think that anyone that comes to Westminster Cathedral for one of our choral masses would find that. If you come off the end of Victoria Street at the end of a busy day or a long week, you've got something that draws you out of the turmoil of the modern world into something more lasting.”