Obituary by Hugh Kyte

(Hugh was a comtemporary of John’s at Oxford)

John Byrt (b.1940) died on 15th January 2022, shortly after his 80th birthday, from hospital-acquired Covid-19: tragically, his Covid injection a week before admission had not had time to take effect.

Bristol-born, John was one of the many successful pupils of the celebrated one-armed organist Douglas Fox, who taught at Clifton College. He was already a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1959 when he went up to St John’s College, Oxford, as organ scholar. Tutored by Edmund Rubbra, John went on to complete a doctorate on Form and Style in the Works of Sebastian and Emanuel Bach as a junior research fellow of St John’s.

In 1964 John succeeded László Heltay as conductor of the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, turning an already outstanding student choir into what was arguably the best in the country at the time. Alumni under his direction included Emma Kirkby and Andrew Parrott, the latter eventually succeeding him as conductor. Genial and greatly loved, John was a supremely gifted choral director, with the kind of enquiring mind that was never content to stick to the standard repertoire or to unthinkingly follow received performance practice.

Among the many concerts that he devised, two were of particular significance to the early music movement. On the first Sunday of the academic year 1966 he directed what would seem to have been the first complete modern performance of a festal mass by John Taverner, his Missa Corona Spinea, the movements interspersed with Messiaen organ works played by the late John Langdon. Following that charity concert in Oxford Cathedral the choir recorded the Mass for SagaPan Records, an LP which had incalculable influence – witness the number of admirable recordings which that till-then scarcely known work has subsequently received. The SCO also sang the Mass before the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society and at a concert in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, which moved the Times reviewer to compare the sopranos to the violins of the Berlin Phil. Among the audience at the Christ Church concert was Andrew Parrott, fresh from accompanying Evensong on his first day at Merton: his instant damascene conversion to the music of Taverner resulted in his eventual formation of the Taverner Choir and Players, and in many outstanding Taverner performances.

Another SCO concert changed the direction of John’s musical life. A fiery (unstaged) performance in the Balliol Sunday-Evening concert series of Les incas du Pérou, the second Entrée of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, aroused a fascination with the idea of notes inégales, a practice which John soon came to understand was not confined to France, as had long been assumed, but was ubiquitous throughout later-renaissance and baroque Europe. He demonstrated this conviction in a ‘dotted’ performance of Handel’s Dixit Dominus in the Sheldonian Theatre in 1968 which no-one who was present could possibly forget. (James Bowman was among the soloists. Two recordings of the concert are preserved in the National Sound Archive; another is on John’s website, byrt.org.uk, with his commentary on each movement.) This was followed by articles, performances and demonstration tapes, culminating in 2016 in the self-published book An Unequal Music (which is currently available via John’s website). George Malcolm was one of a number of prominent musicians who wholeheartedly supported John’s theories. These have been far from universally accepted, yet contain – many believe – a core of truth that remains insufficiently appreciated by performers.

The adrenalin rush resulting from that Sheldonian concert led to the first of a number of intermittent bipolar episodes that dogged John’s subsequent career, but he remained highly active after leaving Oxford. For several years he directed the pioneering early-music group Musica Reservata in London concerts and a successful tour of Soviet Russia. This continued when he joined the staff of a west-country Methodist boarding school for a couple of years. I dimly recall playing continuo for a dotted Messiah in Bath Abbey at this period, which was graced by Jantina Noorman as soprano soloist – with a vocal delivery very different from the plangent tones that delighted Reservata audiences.

In 1974 John settled in Tiverton for the remainder of his life, becoming music director of East Devon College, turning the East Devon Choral Society into a force to be reckoned with, and conducting and helping set up other local choirs and early music groups. In Tiverton he memorably directed the complete 1589 Florentine Intermedi for La pellegrina and a concert of ‘west gallery’ carols for Radio 3, most of the items receiving first modern performances.

John was an occasional composer, producing some beguiling and distinctive works in a variety of genres. His small-scale a cappella choral works included a setting of the 15th-century carol text All and Some, which was sung at a King’s College Carol Service. His setting of Hardy’s The Oxen was sung every Christmas Day by his Tiverton family. On a personal note, when I congratulated John on the way his The Jolly Carter so wickedly brought out the erotic double entendre of the revolving cartwheels of the folk-song text, his surprised response was ‘What double entendre?’

John is survived by his first wife, Linda Gosling, and their sons Simon and Matthew; and by his second wife Celia Boden and stepdaughter Meredith. The SCO plans to mount a memorial concert for John in Oxford when musical life returns to normal: details will be available nearer the time from www.schola-cantorum.net.

Hugh Keyte