All Saints’ musical traditions

All Saints has a strong musical tradition going back hundreds of years. By the sixteenth century All Saints had a choir which walked in ceremonial processions and sang at special services. The ‘quyer’ at this time was probably made up of priests who participated in chanting and plainsong, perhaps with ‘fabardon’ harmonisation. There was an organ in the church by 1509 at the latest which was used to accompany plainsong at the main Sunday mass. By 1527 there were apparently two organs in the church.

After the reformation, from 1570, there is no reference to the organ in the churchwardens’ accounts for more than 200 years. There is also no specific evidence of a choir from the 1580s. Music in All Saints was probably restricted to the congregational singing of metrical psalms, led by the parish clerk. By the eighteenth century these were probably supplemented by hymns, which were permitted to be sung before and after the service. The clock in the tower was fitted with a carillon which played the tunes ‘Hanover’ (O Worship the King) and ‘Easter Hymn’ (Jesus Christ is Risen Today).

A new organ was installed in the west gallery in 1793, paid for by the parishioners. The organist employed was Mary Varden, a local girl from a musical family notable for her young age of 13. She was employed as organist for 40 years until her death. Organists continued to be appointed as necessary, with Louisa Varden (Mary’s sister) succeeding her in 1833. They were generally selected by competition, and were always local women, until Elizabeth Kensett (organist from 1849) was replaced. After Elizabeth, only men were appointed to the role of organist. This is part of wider trend across England, fuelled by the growth of a profitable music ‘profession’. Some said that larger, modern organs were too physically challenging for women to play.

There was a choir of children and adults by 1817 at the latest, and probably considerably earlier. A new organ by Willis was installed in 1867, although almost immediately a new vicar reduced the scope of the music and the choirmen decamped to Hampton Court chapel. In 1877 the musical tradition was restored. From 1893 to 1954 Percy Alderson and then his son Philip, who are commemorated in the south porch, were successive organists. In the past half century the range and quality of music has continued to develop. In 1958 an organ by Comptons replaced the much-altered Willis organ.

Over the past half-century the range and quality of music has continued to grow, and in 1988 an organ by the distinguished Danish builder Erik Frobenius was installed, securing All Saints as Kingston’s leading venue for concerts as well as other dramatic and artistic events.

The choir continues and is known nationally for the quality of its music making and sings an extensive repertoire. As well as contributing to the worship of the church, it makes broadcasts and recordings, has excellent connections with local schools and has regularly produced choral scholars at Oxford and Cambridge Universities