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Obituary: Derek Holman

21 June 2019

Kenneth Shenton writes:

CORNISH by birth, Canadian by adoption, Derek Holman, who died on 20 May, aged 88, was able to combine rare musical insight with a remarkable resilience that allowed him to bring a definitive internationalism to the world of 20th-century church music. He was widely revered on both sides of the Atlantic for all manner of musical activities, notably as one of the defining choral conductors of his generation. He brought numerous ensembles, large and small, to a level of excellence that had few, if any, equals. In 2003, he was made a member of the Order of Canada.

A native of Redruth, Derek was educated at Truro School, from which he went to the Royal Academy of Music. After two years as an instructor in the Royal Army Education Corps with the British Army of the Rhine, he taught at Westminster Abbey Choir School. He became the Assistant Sub Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, and, in 1956, he was appointed a tutor at the Royal School of Church Music, then based at Addington Palace, Croydon, later becoming its Warden. From 1958 until 1965, he served as Organist of Croydon Parish Church, and founded the Croydon Bach Society.

In 1965, Holman and his young family emigrated to Canada, where he became Organist of Grace Church-on-the-Hill, Toronto, and Choirmaster at Bishop Strachan School. Appointed to the Music Faculty of Toronto University in 1967, he retired 30 years later as Professor. As a choral director, he also enjoyed success with the Concord Singers of Toronto and, between 1975 and 1985, took charge of the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus. He later served as Organist and Choirmaster of the St Simon the Apostle, Toronto.

Beginning with two early settings of the Evening Canticles, Holman the composer has furnished the liturgy with all manner of delightful offerings, anthems and Christmas carols. His collaborative ventures with the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies include Three Gaudy Night Cantatas for Massey College, a children’s opera, and the oratorio Jezebel. A further oratorio, The Invisible Reality, had its première in 2000. Of his many songs and song cycles, perhaps the finest is The Four Seasons, composed in 2008 for the Canadian Opera Company.

A consultant for the 1971 edition of The Hymn Book, used by the Anglican and United Churches of Canada, Holman also contributed some distinctive essays for organ. The early and challenging Prelude, Air and Fugue was published in 1963, and this was followed by the ebullient Prelude on My Dancing Day, Procession March, a Carol Prelude on Away in a Manger, a Prelude on Ave Virgo Virginem, and a Postlude on a Melody by Melchior Vulpius. The deft Prelude and Fugue on a Theme by Henry Purcell unites the many disparate elements in his technique, all handled with the skill of a master craftsman.

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