There are few towns where music is as embedded in the very fabric as Beverley. The Minster and St Mary’s have two of the richest collections of musical carvings in the country, mostly from the 14th century, signifying the importance of music in the town. Particularly enchanting is the Minster’s angel with his fingers in his ears! Following the fall of St Mary’s tower in 1520, individuals and organisations sponsored the rebuilding of pillars: of the musician carvings on their pillar, Simon Jenkins writes, ‘These five minstrels, with idiosyncratic costumes and hairstyles, might have been England’s first pop group.’
Beverley was the headquarters of the Northern Guild of Minstrels for centuries: all minstrels ‘between Trent and Tweed’ gathered in the town during Rogation days to elect their leader, which 16th-century records tell us had happened here ‘since Athelstan’. Singing was at the heart of monastic life at the Minster, with daily sung services from the 900s; and in c.1067, Archbishop Ealdred commissioned the French monk Folcard to write an anthem, ‘Life of Archbishop John of Beverley’ – ensuring that, through music, the new Norman rulers of the country were aware of the town’s significance. The renaissance of cultural life in Beverley in its wealthy Georgian era saw subscription concerts in the Assembly Rooms in North Bar Within, with a particularly full concert calendar during race week; and in 1769 one of the first musical festivals in northern England took place, an elaborate celebration of the music of Handel, to mark the Minster’s new organ, built by one of the finest builders of the day, John Snetzler.
But music is more than a museum piece in Beverley: it is a living tradition. The streets are regularly filled today with festivalgoers – for folk music, chamber music, the long-running Early Music Festival, and more recently New Paths Music. These events bring world-class musicians and thousands of visitors to the town each year. Two of the town’s oldest pubs, the Sun Inn and the Monk’s Walk, host regular live music nights, and the East Riding Theatre’s season includes much music. Beverley is the focal point of the musical life of the region, and houses the county’s Music Education Hub.
For hundreds of years, church music has been a route to education: both the Minster and St Mary’s have thriving parish church choirs, opening up valuable musical and cultural horizons to local children, singing weekly in a cathedral-sized building (without attending choir school). The Minster’s burgeoning Junior Choir and scholarships for instrumental tuition help to secure this heritage. The case of the Minster organ, built by Gilbert Scott, is surely one of the most beautiful organ cases in Europe; the organ at St Mary’s meanwhile is now on its last legs. The ambition is to build a world-class contemporary instrument to complement the Minster’s magnificent historic one, thus consolidating the town as a significant centre of music-making: it is a heritage that stretches back through the centuries, and one that enriches the lives of townspeople and visitors alike today.