Obituary: Canon Anthony Caesar

10 August 2018

Canon Anthony Caesar with Her Majesty the Queen, in the 1980s

Canon Anthony Caesar with Her Majesty the Queen, in the 1980s

Nigel Groome writes:

CANON Anthony Douglass Caesar was born in Southampton in 1924. His upbringing was a musical one, in a vicarage with musical parents. He was a chorister at Winchester Cathedral, although he readily admitted that it took three voice trials before he was accepted. These were immensely influential years and clearly ones that he valued. Anthony always said that if he had the chance to repeat any of his years again, it would be those that he spent as a Winchester chorister.

When his voice broke, he was awarded a music scholarship to Cranleigh School, and later became a music scholar at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His time at Cambridge included playing the organ for the 1943 broadcast of the Carol Service from King’s College, under the direction of Harold Darke. After war service spent mostly in Africa with the RAF, he returned to Cambridge to complete his degree, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. A teaching career beckoned, and he spent three years on the music staff at Eton College, before heading the department as Precentor at Radley College.

In his early thirties, Anthony received “the call”, as he put it, and he trained at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. Fortuitously, Anthony’s priestly life was in musical places. His curacy was at St Mary Abbots, Kensington, where his ministry included training the professional choir during an interregnum between organists.

His next appointment was one of two parts: Assistant Secretary to ACCM (the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry), and Chaplain to the Royal School of Church Music at Addington Palace, Croydon, where, in those days, there were full-time students.

From London, he went to Bournemouth, as Priest-in-Charge of St Stephen’s. Here, with great pastoral skills and relentless old-fashioned pastoral visiting, he turned the church into a healthy positive communal congregation; there was vibrant growth and expansion.


From Bournemouth, he moved to Winchester Cathedral to be Precentor, eventually becoming a Residentiary Canon and a member of Chapter. Anthony was installed four times here. He thought that this was probably a record.

In 1979, the Queen visited Winchester for the Royal Maundy Service, and Anthony was instructed that Her Majesty wished to speak with him. He was informed that the Royal Household wanted him — and you can’t say no to that. So, I suspect with a little reluctance, he left his beloved Winchester to become Sub Dean of the Chapels Royal and Domestic Chaplain to the Queen.

Despite mixing with royalty almost daily, and all the trimmings that go with such a privileged position, Anthony always remained an extremely humble and natural personality, a characteristic that has been admired by a great many.

The board displaying the names of musicians associated with the Chapel Royal is awesome. Anthony took great delight in showing them off to friends, as also the registers containing signatures by many great composers — Byrd and Gibbons, to name but two.

A brief semi-retirement chaplaincy at St Cross Hospital, Winchester, was followed by retirement on the Isle of Wight. He claimed to have been conceived there in 1923. Here, he spent Sunday mornings as organist of Yaverland, remaining active as a co-editor of The New English Hymnal.

He spent the last part of his life on earth in Cheltenham, at Capel Court, where he was able to house his grand piano in the dining room. This allowed him the musical expression that he would have found so difficult to have lived without.

During my time as Director of Music at Beckenham Parish Church, Anthony regularly attended evensong. I succeeded in persuading him to sit at the organ console rather than in the nave pews, and he began to resurrect his skills as an organist. As an accompanist, he was solid, reliable, and colourful, often with a tad of humour thrown in; but, most of all, he impressed with skills of improvisation which were second to none.

We made many cathedral visits in the 1980s, the majority of which were accompanied by Anthony. Everywhere we went his improvisations left an impression.

I distinctly remember saying one evening after evensong, “Start writing it down.” And, from that day onwards, I constantly encouraged Anthony to put pen to paper. He often played hard to get, but perpetual nagging had its results, many of which are now published.

Anthony had a unique command of melody and harmony. His melodies open their arms to embrace you, and his harmonies are adventurous, lush, but at times unashamed to be dissonant. His love of plainsong is often evident, and S. S. Wesley was clearly an influence.

Many of us have so much to thank Anthony for. He was a wonderful mentor to a young director of music, offering words of wisdom and encouragement, something for which I will be eternally grateful. He was a warm, humorous man, a loving uncle, friend, teacher, musician, pastor, and priest.

A man of God with an immense faith, for Anthony death was merely an event in life, the gateway to life eternal; so it was right that at his requiem we sang, “Praise we in songs of victory that Love, that Life, which cannot die, and sing with hearts uplifted high: Alleluya!”

Anthony will be remembered at the 11 a.m. sung mass at St Matthew’s, Westminster, on Sunday 23 September, which will include several of his compositions.

Kenneth Shenton adds: Throughout his richly varied ecclesiastical career, Caesar proved no less adept as a composer. His special feel for the liturgy allowed him to write well for voices. Here, his extensive anthems, hymn tunes, introits, canticle settings, motets, chants, responses, and imaginative descants, often composed for special occasions, have retained their place in the repertoire. Included in The New English Hymnal, published in 1986, are tunes by Caesar himself, including Newtown St Luke and Dome Alley, named after the short street in Winchester in which Harold Rhodes directed the cathedral choir when Anthony was a chorister.

His numerous anthems include the ebullient Let Saints on Earth, written in 2001 for All Saints’, Hove, and built around the hymn tune Dundee and the more restrained, May the Grace of God Our Saviour, for SATB choir, soprano solo and organ. Here, the organ part eschews mere gesture, and yet adds purposefully to the Howellsian mood.

On a more expansive canvas is the Missa Brevis Sancti Pauli, sung at his requiem. The St Paul’s in question is not the London cathedral but a church in Washington, DC. Further success in the United States followed with a series of anthems which includes Soul of my Saviour and O Love Divine, Caesar’s tribute to Charles Wesley on the bicentenary of his death in 1988.

In 1991, on retirement, he was appointed Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, having been appointed LVO in 1987.

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