09 October 2008

Soloist, businessman, and churchwarden: Major Denis Barthel

Soloist, businessman, and churchwarden: Major Denis Barthel

Stephen R. Beet writes:

DENIS BARTHEL, who died on 13 September, aged 92, was the last surviving member of the choir of the Temple Church which made the famous recording of Mendelssohn’s “Hear my prayer” with Ernest Lough as soloist.

Barthel became a member of the choir in 1927, and by 1930 had made his first solo recording. He became head boy at the age of 15, at a salary of three guineas a quarter. Succeed­ing Lough was no enviable task, but, with his natural charm and diplo­macy, he displayed re­markable leader­ship qualities, and a voice of extraordinary range and emotion.

He was to record seven solos for HMV, his most popular, Parry’s “Jerusalem”, selling 750,000 copies.

Perhaps his greatest moment as a chorister came on Armistice Day 1931, when he sang solo “O Valiant Hearts” before King George V and Queen Mary at the first world-broadcast of the Festival of Remem­brance in the Royal Albert Hall. Years later, he vividly recalled: “The hall was very dimly lit, poppy petals were falling from the ceiling; I was positioned in the organ loft, looking out through a dim light at a mass of humanity — and it really was quite frightening.”

It is certain that the years at Temple left a lasting impression on Barthel’s life. He always remained devoted to his choirmaster, George Thalben-Ball, or “Pill”, as he was affectionately known, for the train­ing he had received. He left as a chorister in the summer of 1933, aged 17.

After working for an insurance company in the City, he embarked on what was to become a distin­guished military career. He retired from the army with the rank of Major. After pursuing a successful business career in the UK, he emigrated to Vancouver, B.C., where he founded Rekord Marine Enter­prises, which by the start of this millennium had grown to be the largest marine-equipment distrib­utor in Canada.


Denis Barthel possessed from boyhood the wit, manners, and polished diction of a true English gentleman, and was genuinely loved and respected by all who knew him. David Lewer, the late archivist of the Temple Church, described him as “the unsung hero” of the choir. While Lough was never forgotten, very unjustly the name of Denis Barthel fell for many years into obscurity.

Only recently did he receive the recognition he deserved for his outstanding contribution to church music. When the pre-war recordings of the choir were re-released on Amphion’s “The Glory of the Temple Church Choir”, he was acclaimed as one of the best boy sopranos in recorded history.

Denis Barthel was a churchwarden of St Stephen’s Church, West Van­couver, and was, until the last, active in church affairs. He and his wife Kate returned regularly to England, and always to the Temple, where his heart lay.

He enjoyed excellent health into his tenth decade, continuing to work two days per week in the family firm. Unfortunately, the death earlier this year of his elder son, Michael, was responsible for his swift decline. He is survived by his wife and an extended family. Like his father before him, Denis Barthel was awarded the MBE.

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