Music

Meet the new director of music at England's Coventry Cathedral

Canada's Rachel Mahon, 30, becomes one of only a handful of women to hold such a job at an English Cathedral.

Canada's Rachel Mahon, 30, becomes one of only a handful of women to hold such a job at an English Cathedral

Rachel Mahon will assume the music directorship of Coventry Cathedral in September 2020. (Bo Huang)

"We work Christmas, we work Easter, we work evenings, we work holiday Mondays. You have to be devoted and your heart has to be in it as well."

Organist and conductor Rachel Mahon, who hails from Toronto, is undeterred by the demands of life as a church musician. That's a good thing because hers is about to get a lot busier: starting in September, she'll take on the music directorship of Coventry Cathedral in England's West Midlands. She's the first woman to hold the position, and one of only a handful of female music directors at England's 50-odd cathedrals.

Today's Coventry Cathedral was built amid the ruins of the original 14th-century Gothic structure, which was bombed by the German Luftwaffe during World War II. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

"I'm absolutely thrilled," she told CBC Music recently. "I know that it's a big job. There's a lot to do and it's going to be a big change, but I'm really looking forward to mucking in and getting things done and shaping the way the music department is going in the future. I think that's a really exciting prospect."

Mahon, who turned 30 in December, has been assistant director of music at Coventry Cathedral since 2018, working alongside outgoing director Kerry Beaumont, and says having an insider's perspective, in addition to her passion for church music, will help her in her new role. 

"I particularly love the liturgy of the Anglican Church and the music that the church has produced and I love performing it," she reflected. "I love working with children — that's a big part of the job. We have a boys' choir and a girls' choir, and I love interacting with them and helping them to achieve their best results."

'Join the choir!' There's a lot of recruiting that happens here.- Rachel Mahon

Before working at Coventry Cathedral, Mahon held positions at three other English cathedrals: Truro Cathedral, St. Paul's Cathedral and Chester Cathedral.

"Some of them had a choir school attached, and to be a chorister [at the cathedral], you had to be a student at that school which, in some ways, made it easy finding children to join the choir because, you know, the school is right there.

"Coventry is one of the ones that doesn't have a school, so you really have to go out into the city and present yourself and say, 'Join the choir!' There's a lot of recruiting that happens here. We visit about 80 local schools and publicize the choir and let people know that there's this huge opportunity to have a world-class music education."

'When you look at the front of the cathedral, you see the organ on either side,' says Rachel Mahon of Coventry Cathedral's interior, which is dominated by a ceiling of Canadian cedar. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition to recruiting choristers, Mahon will choose, rehearse and perform the music at four services per week. "And then, of course, we have special services on top of that," she noted. "At Christmas we're a lot busier. We do concerts on top of all this. We also have other extra things like funerals, weddings and university graduations happening." She'll also be in charge of the instruments in the cathedral — several pianos, plus the world-famous Harrison & Harrison organ.

"It's a stunning instrument. It's lovely to play as well. I think most organists are in agreement that it is one of the top organs in the U.K.," she said.

"They got it completely perfect for the building. The way the organ sounds, it completely fills the space and everything blends — every different set of pipes blends with all the other stops and you can play so many different genres of music on there. I mean, you can play modern, you can play Baroque, you can play French and German. It all sounds great. And you really have to be here to experience it. If the organ is playing on full, it rumbles, you can feel the floor shaking. It's an experience, really."

Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by bombing during World War II, and when it was rebuilt in 1962, significant funds from Canada went toward the Cathedral's new organ, a fact that Mahon only discovered once she moved there.

The new Coventry Cathedral was consecrated in May 1962. (Cleland Rimmer/Getty Images)

"After the war, [British–Canadian organist and composer] Healey Willan went across Canada playing concerts to raise money for British organs that had been destroyed in the war," she explained. "And in the end, once they'd raised all this money, they decided to give all of it to Coventry Cathedral, and that almost paid for the whole organ. Also, the ceiling of the cathedral is Canadian cedar. So that's another gift from Canada, and to commemorate this, there's a big bronze Maple Leaf in the floor at the west end of the cathedral."

To celebrate the close ties between Canada and Coventry Cathedral, Mahon released her solo debut album on Feb. 29 on Delphian Records, on which she plays Canadian music (Willan, Gerald Bales, Ruth Watson Henderson and Rachel Laurin) on the famed instrument.

While Mahon belongs to a minority, she said career prospects in music at England's cathedrals are gradually improving for women.

"Obviously, people's attitudes have changed. But, over here, boys' choirs were a thing, and the boys were around an organ and it was a natural thing for them to want to play it. Whereas, if there are no girls choirs, well, the girls aren't going to be around an organ, so they're not going to want to play an organ. But now, most cathedrals have girls' choirs, so they're doing just as much as the boys. And there are loads of young female players now. So I think it's just trickling through and it will take time, but yeah, there's a lot more interest in it from the female side, I think."

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