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Obituary: Colin Mawby KSG

06 December 2019

Kenneth Shenton writes:

REPRESENTING at its most vital that immediate post-war generation of Roman Catholic musicians who achieved so much in reviving sacred choral music in often difficult and hugely challenging times, Colin Mawby, who died on 24 November, aged 83, was not only a charismatic choral technician but also a talented composer. Combining rare insight with remarkable resilience, he had a unique ability to speak through a language that, while rich in vocabulary was none the less familiar; and this allowed him to furnish the many competing demands of the liturgy in both an imaginative and highly practical way.

Born in Portsmouth, Colin John Beverley Mawby spent his formative years singing under the guidance of George Malcolm as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral. Aged 15, he then studied at the Royal College of Music with Richard Latham, John Churchill, and Gordon Jacob. While there, he served as choirmaster of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory’s, Warwick Street, in Westminster.

Subsequently taking charge of the choir at Portsmouth Cathedral and then St Ann’s, Vauxhall, in 1959, he returned to assist Francis Cameron at Westminster Cathedral. Two years later, he succeeded Cameron as Master of the Music.

Revelling in the rich ecclesiastical ambience of the Byzantine basilica, Mawby directed a skilful all-male choir whose resources he came to use with much imagination and skill. Like George Malcolm before him, an advocate of a more open and vibrant boys’ tone, he consolidated rather than altered the choir’s traditional sound. Alongside the daily Offices, they performed twice in Rome: first in 1963, and, seven years later, for the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, when they became the first ensemble other than the Sistine Choir to sing a papal mass in St Peter’s Basilica.

Mawby proved a fine writer, was a frequent broadcaster, and became the founding conductor of the Westminster String Orchestra. He also fronted ensembles such as the London Mozart Players and Pro Cantione Antiqua. Leaving Westminster Cathedral in 1975, his career then took him to the Sacred Heart in Wimbledon. From 1975 until 1981, he also taught at Trinity College of Music.

Moving to Ireland in 1981, initially as Choral Director for RTE, he later went on to shape the National Irish Chamber Choir. In 2006, he was awarded a Knighthood of the Papal Order of St Gregory.

At the heart of Mawby’s extensive compositional output remains a large and richly varied collection of highly practical choral music, both sacred and secular. Dominating the larger works are numerous settings of the Mass, three children’s operas, and a seven-movement children’s cantata, The Heavenly Christmas Tree. Centrepiece of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in 2017 was his striking new Te Deum. Of the anthems, “Haec Dies” remains popular, while “Tu Es Petrus”, written for the Sistine Choir, was sung at the inauguration of Pope Francis. Sadly neglected is a setting of a text by Cardinal Basil Hume, “Death Is a Formidable Foe”.

The directness that characterises so much of Mawby’s choral output remains a prime feature of his extensive range of organ music. Here again, a similar utilitarian outlook infuses a wide range of liturgical and concert music, much of it designed for players and instruments of limited resources. Though slight, each is cleverly and precisely imagined, its structure handled with fluency and care. Conceived on a larger and perhaps more personally distinctive canvas is a Triptych for Organ. Its tensile opening and turbulent finale envelop a much more incense-induced ostinato, while each movement of the later and more challenging Sonata provides a beautifully judged essay in organ sonority.

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