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Obituary: Henry James Martin Dalton

02 June 2017

The Queen’s College, Oxford

Performer, scholar, teacher, and organ designer: James Dalton

Performer, scholar, teacher, and organ designer: James Dalton

Kenneth Shenton writes:

ONE of that select but notable band of British organists who rose to international prominence, as a specialist in 17th- and 18th-century keyboard music, James Dalton, who died on 20 April, aged 86, was a pioneering spirit in the application of historically informed perform­ances. His eminence as a performer, scholar, and teacher was more than matched by his distinction as an organ designer. As one of the pioneers of the organ reform move­ment, he made the innovative choice of the Danish firm of Theo Froben­ius to construct the new organ in the chapel of The Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1965.

The son of a Suffolk radiologist, born in Ipswich on 11 November 1930, Henry James Martin Dalton received his early musical education as an Aston Exhibitioner at the Royal College of Music. While he was there, amid National Service, he studied with both George Thalben-Ball and Ralph Downes. Both came to have a deep influence on his musical thinking. No less so did Edmund Rubbra, his tutor while he was Organ Scholar at Worcester College, Oxford. From 1955 until 1957, Dalton served as Graduate Assistant at Oberlin College, Ohio, and then as Organist of Wesleyan University, Connecticut.

Dalton’s outlook found a particu­larly happy and expressive outlet when, in 1957, he succeeded Bernard Rose as Organist of Queen’s. There, over the course of the next 38 years, both as a Fellow and University Lecturer in music, he exercised a benign in­­fluence over count­less generations of aspiring young musicians. Beginning the weekly Wed­nesday recital series in college during 1963, that same year he married Caroline Fletcher; their family home, south-east of the city, housed an elegant seven-stop Van Vulpen practice organ

Emerging as one of the leading organists of his generation, known and admired on both sides of the Atlantic, Dalton revelled in the unique opportunities afforded by the instrument. With a style that combined precision with unalloyed panache, he became a regular favourite at the once hugely popular Wednesday evening recitals at the Royal Festival Hall. His playing, underpinned by firm and accurate rhythm, was marked by a classic poise, with nicely judged and yet never exaggerated articulation. While a little plain for some, his registration always remained remarkably clear.

Dalton’s arrival in Oxford proved propitious, coinciding as it did with the welcome opportunity to replace the college chapel’s some­what ven­erable 1931 Rush­worth and Dreaper instrument. Its successor, created by Froben­ius, is a two-manual-and-pedal 22-stop mechanical-action neo-Baroque instrument, the first to be installed in an Anglican chapel by a Continental firm. Sited in the west gallery, its elegant three-sec­tion case has the pedal pipes occupy­ing the side towers. Com­pleted early in 1965, it provided a colourful palette for its talented custodian.

A longstanding member of the Council of the Royal College of Organists, he gave, in 1979, the first of many complete Bach per­formances, each of the 22 recitals replicated the following day at Queen’s. Eleven years earlier, in December 1968, Dalton had made his Russian debut with a recital in Moscow. This he followed with a series of BBC recitals of early Iberian organ music played on contemporary instruments in Spain and Portugal. He later undertook a comparable project, performing music by Buxtehude and his contemporaries on North German organs.

While often pigeonholed as an early-music specialist, Dalton was never averse to exploring more newly minted creations. Inspired by hearing him play, in 1961, Nicholas Maw composed Essay for Organ in his honour. Proving a severe test for any player, this substantial five-section work, while based on one series of notes, uses a large variety of textures, dynamics, and colour. Lighter in mood is the delightful Capriccio by Hugh Wood, its five-in-a-bar rhythm ably supported by
a dextrous pedal part. Also creating new works for him were Egon Wellesz, David Barlow, and Rubbra.

As a writer, Dalton’s early reputa­tion was forged in 1955 with a series of definitive articles in Musical Opinion on Sweelinck’s pupil Samuel Scheidt, and the Italian com­poser Girolamo Frescobaldi. Prov­ing far more controversial was an article that he penned for the Musical Times in 1966, advocating tthe use of J. S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein as a teach­ing aid for beginners, in preference to the more usual Eight Short Preludes and Fugues. On a more expansive canvas, his extens­ive over­view of Iberian organ music before 1700, written for The Cambridge Companion to the Organ, remains a seminal text.

While engaged as a General Editor by Faber Music, Dalton took overall responsibility for the pro­duc­­tion of the landmark Early Organ Music Series, which ap­­peared in print throughout the 1980s.

Spanning two centuries and six geographical regions, with much of its content previously unpub­lished in modern times, the 18 volumes represent one of the most com­prehensive collec­tions ever pub­­lished. Dalton took specific respons­ibility for nine books, and his personal remit took in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. He also edited Antonio Soler’s impressive Mag­nificat for Double Choir and Organs.

Proving no less influential has been his contribution to the design of other new instruments. With Peter le Huray, Dalton acted as adviser for the installation of the new 22-stop mechanical-action in-
stru­ment built by the German builder Rudolph von Beckerath and installed in Clare College, Cam­bridge, at the end of 1970. Much smaller but no less distinctive was the two-manual-and-pedal Marcus­sen organ that arrived in St Mary the Virgin, Putney, in 1982. De­­signed by Dalton, the instrument nestles neatly on the west wall in a gallery in front of the tower arch.

Dalton was elected an Emeritus Fellow after his retirement from Queen’s in 1995. Happily many of his pioneering performances en­­dure, courtesy of a small but highly distinct­ive discography. Attracting acclaim by critics and public alike were his recordings of the organ at Queen’s.

Sadly neglected was the disc he made of another favour­ite instru­ment, the 16-stop Fro­benius organ at Stoke D’Abernon. This was notable for both its disciplined and artistic accuracy. Here as always, his sensitivity to nuance and colour allowed him to take great delight in the occasional grand gesture.

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