ANYONE who attends choral evensong around the world will be familiar with Bernard Rose’s Responses, incorporating the tower chimes of Magdalen College, Oxford; but few people know that he was one of the most inspiring British choir trainers of the post-war era. The centenary of his birth falls on 9 May.
Rose influenced and helped shape more than 100 undergraduate choral scholars and choristers, above all in his post as Director of Music, or Informator Choristarum, at Magdalen College, Oxford (1957-81). He excelled as a teacher of harmony and counterpoint (an important part of the music degree-course at Oxford and Cambridge), whether offering guidance one-to-one, or in small groups. Rose was also a generous host to his students. His first organ scholar was Dudley Moore, with whom he frequently enjoyed a pint.
Rose had inherited his Fellowship at Magdalen after a period at The Queen’s College, whose staff he had joined briefly before service in the Second World War put paid to his studies. Before the war, Rose had become organist and tutor in music at Queen’s, and he had married Molly Marshall.
HIS earliest childhood was brought to an abrupt end when his father died. His mother moved the family to Salisbury and, in 1925, thanks to her new husband’s position as a lay vicar at Salisbury Cathedral, Rose was en-rolled as a chorister. He eventually became head choirboy (”Bishop’s Chorister”), with a superlative solo voice.
Rose went, in 1933, on an organ exhibition to the Royal College of Music (where he studied theory and singing, as well as conducting), and, two years later, to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. (He won the organ scholarship to St Catharine’s over Edward Heath, who, as a result, switched to Balliol College, Oxford.)
Rose’s principal mentors were Patrick Hadley; Hubert Middleton, of Trinity College; and Professor Edward J. Dent. But he gained special encouragement from Sir Adrian Boult, and, subsequently, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and was appointed to conduct the Cambridge University Music Society.
ARGUABLY, nothing better prepared Rose for musical leadership than the part he played in the Second World War. He served in Montgomery’s North Africa campaign and took part in the Normandy assault. One week after D-Day he was taken prisoner; he spent time in the Oflag 79 prison camp in Germany, where he organised musical entertainments.
Rose returned to Queen’s as, successively, tutor, Fellow, and university lecturer. He ran a choir whose choristers were drawn from the city schools; he also conducted the Eglesfield Choral Society.
ON ARRIVAL at Magdalen, Rose replaced the adult lay clerks with undergraduate choral scholars — a pattern that continued at New College and Christ Church — and set about fashioning his own sound to suit the qualities of the college chapel. He made certain things a priority: the “pointing” of the psalms required a wholly new structuring of the “Magdalen” psalter. His insistence on precise consonants (he was also a stickler for “correct” English, and a fan of the King James Bible) brought definition to everything he undertook.
He induced as high a quality in the singing of contemporary music as he did for Tudor and Stuart repertoire. Musical excellence at Magdalen might as soon be a Purcell verse anthem as the work of Renaissance composers such as Tallis, Tye, and, above all, Tomkins, whose output Rose edited.
ROSE was in large measure the inspiration for The Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars, Ex Cathedra, and, before them, the Clerkes of Oxenford: choirs that have set the standards for decades to come.
Besides being president of the Royal College of Organists, one of Rose’s proudest honours was to be president of the City of Oxford Silver Band.
Travel was a great pleasure for him. Choir trips to Austria and the United States were highlights. But Rose was always insistent that the prime duty of the choir — and of the boys, especially — was to deliver college evensong of the highest quality.
Rose could be gruff, sarcastic, and verbally even brutal in his attitude to lax or second-rate work. But that did not prevent his earning the devotion and affection of his charges. Behind the sometimes severe choirmaster, there would emerge a splendid sense of humour, a great asset when a group is working closely together as a choir. Even as the fireworks flew, he was an unfailing inspiration.
A commemorative evensong will take place at Magdalen College, Oxford, this Sunday, 8 May, at 6 p.m. All are welcome.