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Obituary: Gordon Appleton

04 May 2018

The Revd Ian Coomber writes:

GORDON APPLETON, who died on Easter Day, aged 70, became known around the world as a church musician of ability and enthusiasm.

Born in Stockton-on-Tees, he became organist of St Chad’s. Roseworth at the age of 14; his lifelong passion for church music started early. Educated at Stockton Grammar School, he went on to Christ Church College, Canterbury, then one of the newest Church of England colleges for teacher training. In Canterbury, he had organ lessons with Stephen Crisp, then Sub-Organist of Canterbury Cathedral, and took great joy in being locked in the cathedral on his own to practise the organ – a special privilege.

The college had a chapel choir of a very high standard. Under Donald Burrows (later the first Director of Music of the Open University), it practised every morning before lectures, had two or three rehearsals a week, sang evensong and the eucharist regularly in chapel, and gave concerts across east Kent and in the cathedral. Donald taught his students not just how to sing, but how to teach others to sing. This was where Gordon really learned his craft; he never had formal musical training. During this time, Gordon had serious thoughts about ordination. But his enthusiasm for teaching was huge, and children quickly reacted to that zeal.

Gordon was one of the first students to gain the B.Ed. degree in 1969. He began his teaching career in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, where he was also assistant organist at the parish church. Teaching posts followed in Jamaica, latterly at Kingston College for Boys, and then he went on to Guildford Grammar School, Perth, Western Australia, to teach and to tutor budding organists. He came home to the UK briefly, but was soon asked to return to Perth to take up the post he had just left.

Gordon’s musical ability was highly valued in Australia, and he was asked to become the first full-time Master of the Music of St George’s Cathedral in Perth. Over seven years, he developed the musical life of the cathedral. It was work he thrived on, and the friendships he made there lasted ever since.

In 1993, Gordon was invited to return to England to work for the Royal School of Church Music, by its Director, Harry Bramma. He was appointed Regional Director for the North, an area that included northern England, Scotland, and parts of Wales and Ireland. He took on directorship of the Northern Cathedral Singers, and delighted in leading those fine musicians’ singing in many of the best church buildings in the north. He quickly gained the respect and friendship of many as he journeyed to parishes within his remit.

Gordon made music for his Lord, and his life inspired many others to do so. He communicated his faith through playing the organ, conducting choirs, and enabling parishes to develop their worship through music. “I will sing with the spirit, and with the understanding also”, the motto of the RSCM, was how he lived and how he prayed. Among the many awards that he gathered over the years — about which he was always very modest — his chief joy was in being awarded the Fellowship of the RSCM in 2014.

He was meticulous in his preparation for musical events, and had strong views on the singing of Ppalms and the pace at which hymns should be sung.

The infectious enthusiasm that he had shown as a student never left him; there was a “Peter Pan” quality about Gordon — he never seemed to age. In retirement, he took on a “jet-set” lifestyle, leading church-music festivals around the globe, in Scotland, the US, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere. Wherever he went, he gave others the chance to glorify God through music.

Just returned from holiday in his beloved Australia, Gordon was given a terminal diagnosis of cancer on Holy Monday. He died, suddenly, on Easter Day, at the organ bench, stops ready for the first hymn. It was how he would have wished the end of his earthly journey to be: quiet and without fuss.

His funeral at Ripon Cathedral on 27 April was a wonderful musical celebration of this much-loved musician. He was carried into church to Parry’s “I was Glad”, and left the cathedral to Stanford’s setting in C of the Nunc Dimittis. He has been taken from us much too soon, but the heavenly choirs have surely gained a new and enthusiastic conductor. And they will have to take their hymns at a cracking pace.

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