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Obituary: Grayston Burgess

29 March 2019

Garry Humphreys writes:

IN THE years after the rediscovery by Michael Tippett of the counter-tenor voice, in the person of Alfred Deller at Canterbury Cathedral, one of the names most frequently associated with the movement that followed in the 1950s is that of Grayston Burgess. He and John Whitworth both sang in the choir of Westminster Abbey, and were frequently to be heard as soloists on the concert platform, in recordings and, particularly, on the wireless; for the counter-tenor revival coincided with the setting-up of the BBC Third Programme.

Like Deller, Donald Grayston Burgess was born in Kent (on 7 April 1932). His father died when Donald was only two, leaving his mother with the debts from his music shop and an elder brother to look after; so Donald was brought up by his grandparents. Eventually, he joined his brother as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, and he wrote entertainingly, and often movingly, of the choir’s wartime evacuation to Cornwall.

After Canterbury, Burgess attended Cheltenham College as a music scholar, and King’s College, Cambridge, as a choral scholar — at 17, he was the youngest ever appointed by the Director of Music, Boris Ord. It was at the suggestion of a former King’s choral scholar, John Whitworth, that, after National Service in the Royal Navy, Burgess joined the choir of Westminster Abbey in 1955; he stayed for 14 years.

During this time, he also sang with professional ensembles such as Henry Washington’s Schola Polyphonica and the Ambrosian Singers; appearances at the Aldeburgh Festival with the Purcell Singers, directed by Imogen Holst, eventually led to the formation, in 1963, of the Purcell Concert of Voices, directed by Burgess himself, and including such distinguished singers as Ian Partridge, Christopher Keyte, Geoffrey Shaw, and Felicity Palmer. The consort appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, as well as in Europe, Australia, and Canada, and in several countries then behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1963, Burgess was a soloist, with John Whitworth, in Purcell’s ode Come, ye Sons of Art, under David Willcocks at the Proms; in the pre­vious year, as a member of the Ambrosian Singers, he had sung at the Proms première of Monteverdi’s Vespers, also with Willcocks. At Fenton House, Hampstead, with the harpsichordist Virginia Pleasants, he gave the first performance of Michael Tippett’s Songs for Ariel, and he appeared with the group Musica Reservata and with the Studio der frühen Musik in Munich. In London, he was engaged to add authenticity to John Tobin’s period performances of Handel’s Messiah at a time when such events were special occasions and not yet taken for granted as they are nowadays.

On the operatic stage, Burgess had taken part in Handel Opera Society productions at Sadler’s Wells, but, in 1961, he was invited to sing the part of Oberon in a Christmas revival of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Covent Garden. This role had originally been written for Burgess’s mentor Alfred Deller, a superlative interpreter; but Deller was no actor and, although he can be heard on the composer’s recording, he was replaced when the piece was given on stage. Burgess had already sung the part at the Schwetzingen Festival in 1961, and at Covent Garden replaced the high tenor Russell Oberlin, whose voice perhaps lacked that other-worldly quality envisaged by the composer

Burgess’s voice was described as “the gentlest and most soprano-sounding that we have yet heard in England”, and, although no doubts were expressed about his sensitive musicianship, the problem was his lack of volume; for the counter-tenor voice of those days was not of operatic dimensions.

It was all a question of scale: two years earlier, in a recital of songs and arias by Monteverdi, Humfrey, and Purcell, he was described as having “a strong voice of considerable compass”, and his agility and vocal assurance seldom failed to impress. Nevertheless, he was still in the Midsummer Night’s Dream cast when the Covent Garden production subsequently toured to Manchester, Edinburgh, and Lisbon. In 1967, he sang the role of Hymen in Laurence Olivier’s all-male production of As You Like It at the Old Vic, and, in 1973, he took part in the first performance, at the Royal Festival Hall, of Notre Dame des Fleurs, the opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, with Vanessa Redgrave and The Fires of London.

From 1971 to 1976, he was music tours officer for the British Council and, in the 1980s, he moved to Worcestershire, teaching at Ellerslie School, Malvern, and at Malvern College, after the schools merged in 1992. In 2000, he helped set up a community choir at Histon in Cambridgeshire, which is still going strong today.

Latterly, Burgess lived as a Brother at the Charterhouse in London. He remained a staunch supporter of the traditional cathedral choir, as recently as 2017 publicly asserting the view — after the unprecedented appointment of a female alto to the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral — that cathedral choirs should continue to be entirely male.

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