Richard John Popplewell

06 May 2016

Versatile musician: Richard Popplewell

Versatile musician: Richard Popplewell

Simon Lindley writes:

BORN in Halifax on 18 October 1935, Richard John Popplewell, who died on 22 March, aged 80, was one of Britain’s finest and most versatile musicians, whose career took him to the summit of his profession.

He began at King’s College, Cambridge, moving on to St Paul’s Cathedral, as Assistant Organist, in 1958, and, six years later, to St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City of London (where he was successor to Dr Harold Darke who had retired in 1966 after 50 years’ distinguished service).

Richard achieved preferment to Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal, where he was Organist, Choirmaster, and Composer from 1979 to his retirement in 2001. He was a distinguished and welcome guest at the annual Office of the Royal Maundy held three days before every Easter in different cathedrals and greater churches.

Sustained in the greatest esteem by his fellows and colleagues, Richard — by nature essentially reserved and self-effacing — was, at the same time, an instinctive musician of great strength of character, whose remarkable talent had been spotted early by a leading Halifax musician, Shackleton Pollard, Organist of Halifax Parish Church from 1941 to 1964.

The young Richard was despatched to King’s as a chorister, later to return as Organ Scholar, holding a music scholarship at Clifton College, Bristol, in between. Accompanist to the Bach Choir, for many years under the direction of Sir David Willcocks, Richard appeared in Royal Festival Hall concerts and in many recordings and broadcasts.

As a composer, he produced two organ concertos, each of which was recorded by Jane Watts, one of his most distinguished students, as well as organ and choral pieces.

For most of his career, Richard, with his great friend Dr John Birch, one of his mentors — together with Sir John Dykes Bower, Ralph Downes, Richard Latham, and Nicholas Danby — was a Professor of Organ at the Royal College of Music, London, teaching generations of students highly effecively in his own distinctive and thorough style. Richard and John’s friendship was one of almost complete opposites, and yet founded on immense mutual respect. His list of pupils reads like a Who’s Who of English organ and choral music.


A Fellow of both the Royal College of Music and the Royal College of Organists, Richard also served the Church Music Society with devotion as its Honorary Treasurer, between 1991 and 1994, doing much to secure the Society’s financial future. He was appointed MVO in 1990, and promoted to LVO in 2000.

Richard’s colleagues and friends remember his brilliance as a player and accompanist, as well as his systematic teaching founded on absolutely secure rhythm and complete accuracy. Above all, perhaps we rejoiced in his generosity of spirit. He was interested in all the RCM organists, and other students, too, as people, not only as players and singers. Such friendship was extended not just to his own students, but to those who, like many in the profession, were much the richer for having known him, and having been ourselves recipients of his great kindness and pastoral care.

Richard leaves a widow, Margaret, and son, James. Richard had enjoyed, with Margaret, his retirement years in the beautiful surroundings of the Herefordshire countryside. A thanksgiving service was held in Ledbury Parish Church on 18 April, attended by family, friends from near and far, colleagues, and former students.

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