“John was an incredibly talented musician, composer and choral conductor” – these words, from one of the many cards and letters sent to Celia after his death, encapsulate a recurring theme. But how did it come about?
John was born in the darkest days of the war, a late and only child of two Methodist lay preachers. Not the most obvious start for a musical prodigy. But his own notes on his life record how he spent hours listening to his mother and Uncle Ron playing piano duets at home. As time went on John replaced his uncle as his mother’s playing partner.
After early years in Cheddar, escaping German bombing, the family moved back to Bristol where John went to school, and then Clifton College where he was a contemporary of John Cleese and Richard Hitchcock. There the Head of Music was the eccentric one-armed Dougie Fox, who taught John the organ.
John also played clarinet in the CCF band, where Captain Palmer the bandmaster taught him to play all the Wind instruments over the years, which proved very useful in later life. Even at school he was involved in choirs, setting up a Madrigal Quartet to perform at a Modern Languages Society evening.
A school friend remembers John’s birthday parties well, on Christmas Eve of course. His mother was a great hostess and there was a lot of singing and music. On one occasion John played the ﬁendishly fast and difﬁcult cadenza from Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto on the piano from memory – then turned round and played it again behind his back!
In 1959 he took up an Organ Scholarship at St John’s College, Oxford. After graduating with ﬁrst class honours, he went on to complete a D.Phil. and stayed on at St John’s as a Junior Research Fellow, conducting the Oxford University Opera Club and the University Orchestra. During this period he showed his versatility by playing the clarinet in one Britten opera at the Playhouse, and the bassoon in the next.
When he took his exam for the Royal College of Organists he discovered that he had been told to learn the wrong movement. After discussion with the examiners, they said he would have to play the set movement to qualify, so he did – sight-reading it as he went – and still passed.
Whilst at Oxford he became involved with choirs, including the amateur Cumnor Choral Society, for whom he wrote his Christmas carol All and Some, published in 1963. One member of that Choral Society, who also played in the University Orchestra, writes as follows:
“He had an exceptional gift for imparting the sheer joy of music-making, and for turning people into musicians whether they were funny old villagers or gifted but chaotic young students”
In 1964 he became conductor of the famous Schola Cantorum of Oxford, being chosen to take over from its founder. Under his direction the choir made the ﬁrst ever recording of the medieval John Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea. One of the choir members, Andrew Parrott, was inspired by this to set up his famous Taverner Consort in 1973, and has remained a friend and supporter. Another, the brilliant soprano Emma Kirkby, rated John’s abilities so highly that in 2000 at the height of her fame she was prepared to come to Devon to sing the Florentine Intermedii with the amateur East Devon Choral Society under John’s direction.
In 1968 John directed Handel’s Dixit Dominus, entirely inegale, with the Schola Cantorum in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. He was clearly at the start of a brilliant career as a composer, conductor and choirmaster.
But soon after this his career received a serious setback with illness and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. A spell in hospital and strong medication made him incapable of taking up a position as coach at Glyndebourne. Nevertheless, he did manage to conduct the early music group Musica Reservata from 1974, which regularly performed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and toured the USSR. The Musical Times advertised a concert on Sunday 16 May 1976 consisting of – “The High Renaissance frottola, madrigal and chanson”.
By then John had moved to Tiverton, and started conducting the East Devon Choral Society in the autumn of 1974. He also founded his own small choir, The Lowman Singers, which reached the ﬁnals of the BBC Let the People Sing competition. As Music Lecturer at the East Devon College, he put on student productions ranging from West Side Story to Grease to Godspell, in which a girl played Jesus.
His choir members remember him with great fondness and admiration, as three short quotations show:
“It was a wonderful challenge to try to meet the demands he made of us when singing for him – and it was fun too”
“My most abiding memory of him is the ability he had to turn a concert into a soirée, with the audience — no matter how big — being made to feel like individual guests welcomed in a halo of warmth and kindness”
“I often felt that life had not been very kind to him, but he achieved some remarkable things, and in the process enriched many people is lives”
The East Devon Choral Society went from strength to strength, with increasingly adventurous programmes. In Spring 1987 it performed a piece commissioned from John entitled Exaudi Domine, at Christmas 1988 the ﬁrst performance of John’s Hereford Carol, and in Summer 1993 the ﬁrst performance of John’s Missa Brevis. John continued as conductor until about 2010.
In 1976 John married Linda, and their two sons Simon and Matthew have continued the family musical tradition. Simon remembers waking up each morning for years to the sound of his father’s beautiful piano playing coming up through the ﬂoorboards. John and Linda would play piano and oboe together, including pieces which John composed for Linda like the sonata for Cor Anglais.
Both Simon and Matthew became choristers at Exeter Cathedral, and in due course both went on to study music. Matthew remembers his father accompanying him for his Grade 8 singing exam, and realising that he would do better singing the Bach piece a tone lower — so John simply transposed it by sight during the exam.
For the last 30 years John has been with Celia, whom he married in 2010. Meredith remembers John taking them out in his big old estate car for bike rides near Culmstock – perhaps not far from his final burial place.
When the children were quite young, John would organise musical afternoons for Simon, Matthew and Meredith, together with a number of other children of similar ages and varying musical ability. He arranged pieces for them all to play and perform to their parents in due course.
When the children had grown up and left home, John and Celia would plan to meet up with them at one of the Proms at the Albert Hall, with the selection of suitable concerts going to a popular vote. All the family looked forward to this annual event.
Simon’s musical interests were much more modern than John’s, and he worried a little about what his father would make of it all. But they developed a mutual love of jazz. The rhythmic use of swing tied in with John’s love of music inégale from 400 years earlier. A highlight for Simon was the last Oscar Peterson UK concert at the Albert Hall, which both father and son enjoyed together.
Whilst his health allowed, John would take himself oﬁ from time to time to return to Bristol; or to see Simon and Zoe; or Matthew and Sam and their three children, Layla, Edith and Alma.
Over the last few months, as John’s mental abilities went into rapid decline, his boys have visited him in Tiverton more often, and it has been a delight to see his eyes light up when talking and making music with them.
This short appreciation is not the place for a full musicography — that would take far too long, and still probably be incomplete. But I could not omit the piece composed on Christmas morning 2002 — The Oxen, shown in manuscript on the back of the service sheet — which has been sung by the family every Christmas since then until the last, when John was sadly in hospital. Another composition with family links was a recorder piece written in Cornwall called Reﬂections.
John also played the piano to accompany his brother-in-law David Robinson on the cello. Even though by then very ill, David found enough strength to play with John for as much as an hour — perhaps the last time he was able to play his cello.
Nor could I leave out John’s work on Notes Inégales, which totally consumed his attention during many of his later years. His book, An Unequal Music, dedicated to Celia, was published in 2016 with, remarkably, a supplement appearing as late as November 2019.
John’s sense of humour, and ability to improvise any style of music, come through in many reminiscences. For his friends Roger and Sarah Nichols’ wedding he unearthed John Dowland’s Mrs Nichols’ Almain to play as a voluntary on the organ, following this with improvising the theme from Steptoe & Son in the style of Bach (because her father had been complaining that his morning suit was shabby and moth-eaten).
When John played the organ at weddings, which was quite often, he would start quietly and gradually build up the volume so that people’s voices would rise to be heard. Suddenly he would return to playing quietly and people would be left shouting.
Throughout this time John was afflicted by his bipolar disorder, and no appreciation of his life could ignore the devastating effect that this had on his career, and his ability to cope with life, or his need for constant support. Celia’s care for John, and the importance of that to his ability to cope with his bipolarity, and later his Alzheimer’s, has not gone unnoticed. Three short passages from letters to Celia express this well:
“John’ s best piece of luck Was you. Where would he have been without your unstinting support over the years?”
“I know you’ve given so many years to caring for him and giving him a quality of life he wouldn’t have had without you. He always spoke so highly of all you did for him. It Can t have been easy, I know, having had experience of both of his conditions”
“Yet behind John, for so many years, you were aIways there, patiently helping him manage his expectations and enthusiasms, something I Can certainly appreciate will not have been at all easy. Hats off to you Celia”
We now say farewell to John, and retain our own memories of him as he goes to a quiet resting place in the Devon countryside. I will end with a few words written by John’s coincidental namesake, the poet John Clare:
All nature has a feeling: woods, ﬁelds, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
6th February 2021