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Bairstow’s pupil to organ-loft veteran

29 November 2013

Helen Burrows enjoys memoirs by a musical servant of the C of E


Musician among musicians: Dr Francis Jackson, in the cover photo from his book Music for a Long While

Musician among musicians: Dr Francis Jackson, in the cover photo from his book Music for a Long While

Music for A Long While: The autobiography of Francis Jackson
Francis Alan Jackson
£17.95* (978-0-9576722-0-8)
Church Times Bookshop £16.16 (Use code CT205 )

MUSIC for a Long While is an autobiography documenting the remarkable life of Francis Jackson, Organist Emeritus of York Minster. Drawing on memories, diary entries, documents, and letters, Jackson recounts his life from a childhood in Malton to his retirement cottage in Acklam. He recalls his four years as a chorister at York Minster, and charts the early development of his musical skills and tastes during the 1920s and '30s, under the tutelage of Sir Edward Bairstow, the Minster Organist.

Jackson's musical training was interrupted by the advent of war, and on 15 October 1940 he joined the army. He was a trooper in the 9th Lancers, a tank regiment, and saw action in North Africa, Egypt, and the push through Italy. Five long years away from home as a soldier broadened his musical experiences in unexpected directions. He admits to the futility of war, writing: "The sand got into your hair, your eyes and ears . . . and the thirst was the worst that could be imagined. . . And all the time the noise of the engagement, each side trying to blow the other to bits - and to what purpose?"

By the time the war was over, Bairstow was suffering from ill-health, and Jackson's appointment as his assistant was short-lived. At the age of 29, he was offered the post as Bairstow's successor. Putting aside the misgivings that he had expressed during the war years about the restrictive musical nature of life as a church organist, Jackson accepted. It was a post that he was to hold for 37 years.

Since his retirement, Jackson appears to have led an even busier life as an international recitalist and composer, and there are descriptions of his travels in countries including the United States, Australia, and France.

A gentle good humour is evident throughout the text, and anecdotes abound. Jackson shared his degree ceremony at York, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate, with Dame Judi Dench, and mentions that he wears his doctoral robes at "jolly" Sunday services when he plays the harmonium in Acklam Church.

Jackson married his wife, Priscilla, on All Saints' Day in 1950, and they were married for 63 years until her death this year. Now aged 96, the Organist Emeritus of York Minster has encountered almost every significant figure in church music during the past century, from early visits to Vaughan Williams to the likes of Leo Sowerby, Healey Willan, and Marcel Dupré.

His book lists all his compositions: from an unnumbered hymn-tune he wrote in 1935 for a diocesan choirs festival at York Minster, through the Symphony in D Minor that he wrote while completing his doctorate, to the anthem "The Mind of the Maker", written for the Shakespeare Service at Stratford in 2013. The text contains a number of affectionate references to "me in G", referring to his G-major Evening Canticles setting.

Dr Helen Burrows is Director of Music at St George's RAF Chapel of Remembrance, Biggin Hill, and at Coombe Bank School. She is also Examinations Secretary to the Guild of Church Musicians.

*This title is available from York Publishing Services: write to 64 Hallfield Road, Layerthorpe, York, or phone 01904 431213.

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