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Obituary: Noel Rawsthorne

29 March 2019

Kenneth Shenton writes:

“DELIBERATE speed, majestic instancy,” Francis Thompson’s line from his poem “The Hound of Heaven”, was once fittingly used to encapsulate the artistry of the former Organist of Liverpool Cathedral, Noel Rawsthorne, who died on 28 January, aged 89. He was one of that select but notable band of British organists who, for more than a quarter of a century, was able to marry the music to the building without ever detracting from its effect.

Born on the Wirral, on Christmas Eve 1929, Christopher Noel Rawsthorne first came under the spell of the organ when, aged eight, he became a chorister at Liverpool Parish Church. Two years later, now a pupil at Liverpool Institute High School, he joined the cathedral choir. At the same time, he started organ lessons with the city’s Civic Organist, Dr Caleb Jarvis, at St George’s Hall near by. At 16, Rawsthorne’s musical talents won him a coveted Exhibition to study at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where his organ teacher was Harold Dawber.

He was appointed Assistant Organist at Liverpool Cathedral in 1949, and was awarded Associateship of the Royal College of Organists. Six years later, Rawsthorne succeeded Harry Goss-Custard as Organist, and a fellow former chorister, Ronald Woan, took charge of the choir. Elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1953, five years later, the Liverpool Bluecoat Society of Arts gave him an award provided by the Gulbenkian Foundation, which enabled him to continue his studies, first in Italy with Fernando Germani and then in Paris with Marcel Dupré, Organist Titulaire at Saint-Sulpice.

Rawsthorne emerged as one of the finest organists of his generation, and maintained a non-stop global career as a top-flight concert artist. The first British organist to play in the USSR, he made the first of his four extended tours there in 1968 with recitals in Moscow, Leningrad, Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga, Lvov, Kiev, Tbilisi, and Yerevan. Twelve months earlier, he had made the first of many visits to the United States. He also gave a memorable opening recital at the other end of Hope Street, Liverpool, for the city’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, in 1967, when he vividly revealed the full glory of its new 88-stop Walker organ.

He proved no less adept as a composer: his numerous introits, carols, chants, anthems, hymn tunes, responses, and imaginative descants, often written for special occasions, have long retained their place in the repertoire. His many anthems range from the simplistic beauty of “God Be In My Head” to the ebullient double-choir setting of Psalm 150, composed to celebrate the completion of the cathedral in 1978, and first performed in the presence of the Queen. Among his Christmas music, “Telling God’s Story”, for choir and organ, won the 2005 BBC Radio 4 Carol Competition.

His organ compositions include the challenging early Sortie and the later Sortie on Nun Danket Alle Gott, which both remain indebted to the French style. His Dance Suite puts a modern slant on the more traditional; his Fantasia on Wachet Auf, is more cerebal; and his Variations on BACH for Pedals, which involve double and triple pedalling, also throws in the occasional double glissando.

After stepping down from the cathedral in 1980, he worked with the music publisher Kevin Mayhew on arrangements for the organ of well-known classical works. Volume followed volume, covering every possible occasion. Likewise, numerous collections of simple voluntaries were published, each being cleverly and precisely imagined, their structures handled with great care. When adding a touch of spice to the last verses of countless hymn tunes, some 400 in total, each of his compilations proved a bestseller.

From 1980 until 1984, Rawsthorne served as City Organist, taking charge of the fine Willis instrument in St George’s Hall. Between 1954 and 1993, he was also a Senior Lecturer in Music at St Katharine’s College, Liverpool. A long-standing member of the Council of the Royal College of Organists, much in demand as an organ-design consultant, one of his finest instruments remains the Walker organ in Bolton Town Hall. Earlier, he had been a member of Lord O’Brien’s Commission that had looked at the proposed new siting of the organ in St Paul’s Cathedral.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, two sons, and a daughter.

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