John Gavin Scott

by
21 August 2015

gordon taylor

Finesse: John Scott after his recital at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford on 31 July

Finesse: John Scott after his recital at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford on 31 July

Mark Williams writes:

JOHN SCOTT, who died on 12 August, aged 59, was one of the leading church musicians of the past century, and arguably the finest organist of his generation.

A celebrated keyboard player, choir director, composer, and arranger, he dedicated his entire working life to the service of the church through appointments in London and New York spanning 37 years.

Born in Yorkshire in 1956, John Gavin Scott began his musical life as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral under Jonathan Bielby. He was subsequently organ scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, under George Guest. The early influence of Bielby and Guest, alongside that of his organ teachers Ralph Downes and Gillian Weir, left a lasting mark on the young Scott. He quickly gained a reputation for performances of technical brilliance, coupled with subtle and elegant musicianship, and, in 1977, while still a student, appeared as a soloist at the BBC Proms, playing Julius Reubke’s virtuosic Sonata on the 94th Psalm to critical acclaim.

The following year, he won the Manchester International Organ Competition, and took up the dual posts of Sub-Organist at Southwark Cathedral, and Assistant Organist at St Paul’s Cathedral. He was the first British player to win the Leipzig Bach Competition; in 1985, he became Sub-Organist at St Paul’s, succeeding Christopher Dearnley as Organist and Director of Music in 1990.

In 14 years leading the Music Department at St Paul’s, John’s numerous recordings included a popular eight-volume series on the Hyperion label, The English Anthem, in which Victorian warhorses were complemented by new commissions and little-known works from the wide-ranging repertoire of his renowned choir.

With characteristically painstaking care and ingenuity, he edited and published the St Paul’s Cathedral Psalter, and subsequently recorded all the psalms over 12 compact discs with the cathedral choir, bringing Coverdale’s translations to life with imaginatively chosen chants, careful pointing, and — on disc — deeply felt interpretations.

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Annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, the Bach Passions, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and services of national importance broadcast on radio and television took their place in John’s extraordinarily diverse schedule, alongside countless international solo recitals, appearances on competition juries, and recordings as soloist, accompanist, and orchestral keyboard player, as well as regular publications of his compositions and arrangements.

He recorded the complete organ works of Duruflé, Dupré, Mendelssohn, and Whitlock, and, in various recital series, performed the ten organ symphonies of Widor, and the complete organ works of Bach, Franck, and Buxtehude. Regarded with a unique mixture of awe and adoration by the choristers, vicars choral, organists, and clergy of St Paul’s, he was a perfectionist, who expected and demanded of those around him the dedication and rigour that was intrinsic to his own music-making in every single performance, from a weekday evensong to a great royal occasion.

John was appointed LVO in the New Year Honours list in 2004. That year, he left St Paul’s to take up the post of Organist and Director of Music at St Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue, New York, the only church in North America to maintain a boarding choir school. The excitement of Manhattan and the support of a well-resourced and enthusiastic church captivated him. He soon became a much loved figure in the American musical firmament, while the choir came to enjoy an enviable reputation in the United States and further afield.

He loved foreign travel, and the last solo concert he gave in early August was in Uppsala Cathedral on his first visit to Sweden. He had performed in the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford just a fortnight previously. His recitals always drew large crowds, and he played music of all periods and styles with an intelligence, insight, and finesse that marked him out as a true virtuoso.

In a 2012 letter, appealing for funds for a new organ at St Thomas’s, John wrote: “We are a church community wherein the sacred music of many centuries is cherished, nurtured and offered up. It inspires us, informs our sense of holiness and feeds us spiritual nourishment. We are called, I believe, to make this offering in music not only for ourselves, but also for those who come here seeking to meet God within our own tradition.”

He was devoted to the opus Dei, and St Thomas’s became a place of pilgrimage for musicians from all over the world, who knew that to happen upon a midweek evensong on Manhattan’s busiest street would be to glimpse something of the beauty of holiness.

John had requested that J. S. Bach’s famous dictum Soli Deo Gloria be inscribed on the inside of the new organ at St Thomas’s, and his own quiet faith informed his interpretations, and inspired those he taught and directed.

He took immense pleasure in the achievements (musical or otherwise) of his former choristers, and was particularly proud to count Alastair Cook, captain of the England cricket team, among the boys from his St Paul’s days. A man of great generosity, he delighted in sharing the joys of his newly adopted city with friends passing through New York.

A devoted father to Emma and Alex, the children of his first marriage to Jane Lumsden — with whom he shared many happy years in London — he found great happiness again with his second wife, Lily Ardalan, whom he married in 2013, and who is due to give birth to their first child in September. He died suddenly, on his return to New York from Europe, after a heart attack.

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