Over seventy years ago, a 15-year-old boy recorded an anthem, ‘His Master’s Voice’. He never recorded another song after that but the enduring appeal of the song ensured the immortality of the composer to be etched in memory forever.
‘His Master’s Voice’ went on to become an instant hit. Did the boy then go on to make a lot of money in record deals? No. Unfortunately, it was not so easy to become rich then. No matter how talented one may be. So the boy continued to lead an ordinary middle-class life until his death. But his song continued to give pleasure to millions of people more than any pop song recorded by a teenage singing sensation.
The boy’s name was Ernest Lough. Recently, a newspaper, ‘The Hindu’ carried a report on him. Ernest was born in East London to lower middle-class parents in November 1911. As a child, Ernest had a clear, high voice. Boys with such a good voice usually join the church choir. A choir is a group of singers organised by the church to sing during church service or at weddings. Church choirs are often made of teenage boys, called choristers, whose voices haven’t been broken, that is, become slightly gruff and harsh as happens in their teens.
But what sort of songs does a choir sing? They sing various prayer songs, which are known as hymns, psalms and anthems. The anthems are superior musical pieces, drawn from a very wide repertoire. The best boy-choristers are often called upon to sing solo for anthems.
Until recently, girls were not allowed to sing in church choirs. So thousands of boys who enjoy singing and can do so well, join choir groups. For many of them without money or connections, it is the path to a musical career and a good education.
In 1924, Ernest joined the choir of the famous Temple Church located near the river Thames. Temple Church, built during the early Middle Ages almost 1000 years ago, has an illustrious musical tradition.
Dr George Thalben-Bell, director of music of Temple Church, heard of the promising singer Ernest was and approached the Gramaphone Company, HMV, to allow Ernest to record the song, ‘Hear my Prayer’. Ernest was summoned from school to make one of the first electrical recordings in the world. Two other choristers were present too but Ernest’s angelic voice was the best. The session lasted three hours with many retakes before HMV were satisfied. The result ‘His Master’s Voice’, a sad, melodious song was a shorter anthem from the original.
Not only was ‘His Master’s Voice’ a runaway hit, it also made Ernest a celebrity. Long queues formed on Sunday mornings outside the Temple Church to see Ernest and hear him sing. Elderly ladies were especially fond of the anthem. One day when Ernest was playing outside the church with his friends, a couple of them approached him. They wanted to know if they could leave a donation for the Ernest Lough Memorial Fund! And for years afterwards, Ernest received gifts from his fans, addressed to ‘Master Ernest Lough’.
One mistaken belief was that the angelic singer had died as soon as he had sung his song.
The royalties from his song though did not make Ernest Lough rich. They were divided between authorities of the Temple Church and the whole choir. As he grew up, Ernest found his fame embarrassing, but was good-humoured about it. Though he continued to sing for the church, he never found the sort of fame that visited him when he was a boy, again.
But Ernest didn’t mind. He had sung a classic and he knew it. And the song in turn, had immortalised Ernest the choir-boy, forever.