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Obituary: Robert Joyce

07 December 2018

Kenneth Shenton writes:

THE death of Robert Joyce, at the age of 90, has robbed the world of church music of one of its venerable statesmen. A man of formidable intellect, imagination, and insight, after taking up his appointment as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Llandaff Cathedral in 1958, he proved a most vital influence on British musical life far beyond his provincial outpost. Meticulous throughout his career in the preparation of all his music-making, whether as a teacher or performer, he set an unforgettable example to all who were privileged to be associated with him.

Robert Henry Joyce, who died on 18 June, spent his formative years in Tynemouth. His musical talents took him first, in 1944, to London and the Royal College of Music (RCM), where his teachers included William Harris, Harold Darke, and Charles Thornton Lofthouse. For three years, from 1946 until 1949, he served as organ scholar of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. While there, he came under the stern, but benevolent, tutelage of the legendary organist of King’s College, Boris Ord.

In 1949, he returned to London, back to the RCM, as a member of Richard Austin’s conducting class. He began his professional career, being appointed organist of All Souls’, St Margarets-on-Thames, in Twickenham. That year, having been elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, he became one of the few musicians to hold the once highly coveted Archbishop’s Diploma in Church Music. Twelve months later, he succeeded Alec Wyton as organist of St Matthew’s, Northampton.

St Matthew’s was built in 1893 in grand Gothic style. Each year from 1943 onwards, under its vicar, Walter Hussey, and alongside impressive works of art by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, the church celebrated its patronal festival with the commissioning of a new musical work. Joyce premièred anthems by Malcolm Arnold, James Butt, Christopher Headington, David Barlow, and Sir George Dyson. In 1953, to honour the church’s 60th anniversary, the Boyd Neel Orchestra was engaged to accompany Mozart’s Coronation Mass, at the festival eucharist.

By now, emerging as one of the finest organists of his generation, Joyce revelled in the opportunities afforded by the church’s magnificent four-manual organ. Musically adventurous, precise and flawless, calm and consistent, his virtuoso playing rarely failed to make an impact. His performance of Bach instinctively combined musicality, feeling, technique, and performance practice in exactly the right balance, all conveyed with breathtaking verve. He also had a particular passion for both British and European organ music of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Joyce enjoyed the rich ecclesiastical ambience of his surroundings, and directed a small, but skilful, male choir whose resources he used with much imagination and skill. Perfectly tuned, beautifully blended, and able to tackle challenging repertoire, as their numerous broadcasts ably demonstrated, they sang with great vitality and character. Dynamic and diverse, Joyce was also involved in the community, as conductor of both the Northampton Bach Choir and the Northampton Symphony Orchestra.

In 1958, Joyce was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers of Llandaff Cathedral. His arrival there proved propitious, coming as it did with the restoration of both the nave and organ after the extensive damage caused in 1941 by a German parachute mine. Reflecting contemporary thought, a feature of the new specification by Hill, Norman & Beard was the installation of an unenclosed Positive Organ, mounted with striking visual effect in a cylindrical case atop the impressive Epstein Pulpitum, which was set between the nave and choir.

Joyce was a solid choral technician, meticulous, exacting, and demanding, often impatient with anything less than perfection. Soon he had given the cathedral choir a distinctive sound, and enriched and enhanced the repertoire, quickly fashioning them into a formidable force. Blend, intonation, and clarity of diction were always exemplary — apparent in a service of thanksgiving to mark the restoration of the cathedral, in 1960, at which the Queen was in attendance.

That year, his choir that was to become Llandaff Cathedral Choral Society became the mainstay of the annual Llandaff Festival. Joyce successfully premièred works by Welsh composers such as Alan Hoddinott, Grace Williams, William Mathias, and Arwel Hughes. In 1961, Joyce took centre stage as the soloist in the first performance of Hoddinott’s new Organ Concerto. The following year, commissioned by BBC Wales, he gave the first broadcast performance of Variations on a Hymn Tune by Mathias.

Joyce was a longstanding member of the Council of the Royal College of Organists, a lecturer in the extra-mural department of the University of Wales, and an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. After his appointment as senior tutor at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, in 1974, Joyce stood down from his cathedral post. Over the next quarter of a century, at what became a noted centre of excellence in music education, he went on to help to mould the creative personalities of many of this country’s most eminent practitioners.

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