Tribute to organ veteran

24 October 2007

Roderic Dunnett reports on celebrations of a 90th birthday


DR FRANCIS JACKSON, whose 90th birthday falls this month, was in his 20s when he succeeded his late teacher, Sir Edward Bairstow, as Organist of York Minster. That was in 1946: the young Jackson had already served as Bairstow’s assistant. While still in his teens, he mopped up the illustrious Limpus Prize for achieving top marks in the 1937 Fellowship exam of the Royal College of Organists.

Hearing him nowadays, one is hardly surprised. Francis Jackson retired in 1982. The last time I heard him play was at the funeral, at St Mary’s, Bampton, in Oxfordshire, of his old friend and colleague Bernard Rose. There, he rounded off with Dr Rose’s organ piece Chimes, an astonishingly original work, which, by superlative pacing, Jackson made deeply moving in that sober (although, this being a legendary chain-smokers’, gin-swillers’ wake, not too sober) context.

This outstanding nonagenarian was in action again at his sundry 90th-birthday celebrations this month in York Minster, briefly consulting with Philip Moore at the conclusion of a bracing recital of his own choral music by York Minster’s boy and girl choirs, before vaulting, dapperly, on to the organ stool, coolly switching combinations (there was just one amusing trumpet blip later on), and letting rip with a blistering toccata.

Maybe all that energy comes from being a son of Ryedale and the North Yorkshire moors and valleys: he was born in Malton in 1917. Earlier, with support from the Percy Whitlock Society, Francis Jackson had been toasted with an organ recital by his latter-day successor as assistant organist at York. John Scott Whiteley — a recitalist of international standing, one of the best we have — brought to birth, with the aid of York’s celebrated posaune, bombarde, sackbut, and ophicleide, a kind of “garland” or musical Festschrift. It consisted of music composed in Dr Jackson’s honour by a dozen eminent well-wishers, including Andrew Carter, Noel Rawsthorne, Philip Moore, Richard Shephard, Simon Lindley, and John Barry — a good many of whom were present in the Minster loyally to toast the subject.


John Scott Whiteley also conducted, characterfully, the York Minster girls’ choir in their contributions to this Jackson choirfest, made up entirely of music by Bairstow and Dr Jackson himself. It was good stuff, all of it, although parts of it fractionally reinforced the feeling I had at the Millennium, when they gamely launched Priory’s splendid hymns series (PRCD 701), that the York girls at times have the edge over the boys.

It was the former who gave us Bairstow’s “Heavenly City, Blessed Salem” — offering a super full sound for this seventh-century text, plus a gorgeously sensitive accompanying girl solo. Only in York can Bairstow sound quite this stupendous, even though he wrote the anthem in 1914, the year after he arrived in York, for sundry churches in Heaton, Bradford, just before the onset of the Great War.

The York girls sounded terrifically lucid in Bairstow’s “Though I speak with the tongues” (1934) — apparently the only known setting of the entire text from 1 Corinthians 13; and, though neither boys nor girls really enunciated adequately, in that large and taxing but wonderfully enabling space (this was in the nave, not the choir), to lend full meaning to the words, the boys under Philip Moore (himself a splendid composer of choral music) unveiled their best in Jackson’s enchanting prayer setting Domine Ihesu Christe.

Audi Filia, Dr Jackson’s anthem to a text for the Gradual for the Assumption, including here a beautifully mellow boy solo, drew a marvellously full and rewarding sound from both groups. It was like Howells with teeth.

The York men lent first-class support all through; and, providing us with a real treat, a quartet of them won their spurs by performing four of Francis Jackson’s solo songs. What an enriching experience these English Lieder were: a glorious find. “Carillon”, to words by David Swale, sung by Christopher Gorman, was out of this world. So: 90-plus, and still going strong.

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