Obituary: Robert William Vincent

21 December 2017


Kenneth Shenton writes:

A SINGULAR presence, colourful and stimulating, Robert Vincent, who died on 12 November, aged 76, was a most accomplished musician of real versatility, whose influence permeated all aspects of the subject from classroom to cathedral choir-stall. Not only was he at the forefront of musical life in both London and Manchester, but, throughout the course of his 35-year musical career, he was known and admired both nationally and internationally.

Born at Medan in Sumatra, Indonesia, Robert Vincent spent his early years as a wartime evacuee living near Perth, in Western Australia. He won a music scholarship to Ardingly College, in West Sussex, and then spent 12 months at the Guildhall School of Music, studying the organ with Geraint Jones. He moved to St Eustache in Paris, where André Marchal helped him further refine his technique. Elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1961, he won an organ scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, that year.

He emerged as a fine organist; his talents were much in demand both here and abroad. Amid a splendidly natural fluency, his playing was fiery and impassioned, and his meticulous sense of rhythm and regard for accuracy were more than matched by a love of colour. A Bach enthusiast, he also rejoiced in French and English repertoire from the 19th and early 20th centuries. An equally impressive accompanist, as his many broadcasts demonstrated, his acute sensitivity to nuance and colour which allowed him to take great delight in the occasional grand gesture.

His professional career began in earnest in 1964, after his appointment as Director of Music at Malet Lambert Grammar School in Hull. While in the East Riding, he became involved in the artistic life of the wider cultural community, most notably taking charge of the Hull Bach Choir. He was all too rarely a conductor with professional ensembles; but with amateurs such as the Kingston Chamber Orchestra he proved highly efficient, leading them with humour and enthusiasm.


In 1968, Vincent moved to London, to become Organist and Master of the Music at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Taking charge of the numerous choral ensembles that led the many and varied weekly services and broadcasts, he not only organised a busy monthly programme of recitals, but was also responsible for the highly popular summer music festival. Amid all this intense activity, he also somehow managed to find time to record the St Martin’s organ.

In tandem with his many ecclesiastical duties, Vincent was invited to return to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a member of the professorial staff. He would later be asked to take on the challenging post of Head of the Guildhall’s Junior Music School. For five years, from 1969 until 1974, he also served as a visiting organ tutor at the College of St Nicholas, the then residential arm of the Royal School of Church Music, based at Addington Palace, Croydon.

Equally in demand as a continuo player, here also Vincent built an enviable reputation for musical insight and selfless integrity. Many a shapeless performance owed its eventual coherence and impetus to his influence at the harpsichord. Alongside a Baroque violin and a viola da gamba, Vincent enjoyed exploring more rarefied repertoire as a member of The Taskin Trio. They performed on the South Bank and toured extensively throughout Europe and America.

Three years later, Vincent moved north to succeed Derrick Cantrell as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Manchester Cathedral. Building on solid foundations, there he directed a choir capable of singing some challenging repertoire and whose resources he came to use with much imagination and skill. He took charge of the Cathedral Cantata Choir, and taught at Chetham’s School of Music. He helped to celebrate the centenary of the Town Hall’s fine Cavaillé-Coll organ in 1977, and the next year he made a major contribution to the first Manchester International Organ Festival.

While Vincent claimed no special merits as a composer, his feel for the liturgy allowed him to write well for voices. His small output of anthems, chants, responses, hymn tunes and imaginative descants, include a most beautiful setting of the Nunc Dimittis, written for, and recorded by, his pupils at Chethams. Among his instrumental output, sadly neglected is a most elegant Cello Sonata. It makes an immediate appeal by its melodic charm, harmonic resource, and no little originality.

Never having fully settled in Manchester, he found, in 1980, a particularly happy and expressive outlet as Director of Music at Whitgift School, Croydon. There, over the next 15 years, musical activity expanded to reach unprecedented heights. Appearances at venues such as the Fairfield Halls, in Croydon, or the Edinburgh Festival now supplemented regular school events.

From 1995 until 1999, Vincent undertook a similar function at Woldingham School, near Caterham, in Surrey. He had married Sarah Waddle in 1970, and they later took charge of a small nursing home near by, Glebe House. Gradually expanding its capacity, they ran it together for more than 25 years. He learnt much from his father, a long-standing former Chief Executive of Fraser & Neave, Vincent went on to become a highly successful businessman.

Sarah died in 2015. Vincent is survived by their two daughters and son.

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