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Obituary: Lionel Lethbridge

07 June 2019

Kenneth Shenton writes:

ONE of the finest organists of his generation, who served both classroom and cloister with equal devotion, Lionel Lethbridge died on 18 January, aged 100. He was firmly rooted in his own community, inspiring, directing, and educating generations of local people; and his myriad talents as a polisher and refiner of other people’s music spread both his name and reputation way beyond the confines of his provincial outpost.

Lionel was born in Devonport in April 1918, the son of a naval architect, but spent his formative years at Rock Ferry on the Wirral peninsula. He won the Heberden Organ Scholarship at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he read music and modern languages. Becoming an Associate of the Royal College of Organists that year, he went on to spend some time travelling around Europe, studying languages. But, like so many of his generation, his seemingly effortless progress was interrupted by the outbreak of the war.

Immediately joining the army, he would then spend the next six years in uniform. Initially sent to Le Havre in France, it was there that he first met his future wife, Denise, also a talented musician. They managed to keep in touch, courtesy of the Red Cross. Lionel was transferred to the Intelligence Corps, working in field security. In the middle years of the conflict, he undertook missions in Madagascar, before discovering the many and varied delights of the Indian subcontinent.

Returning to Oxford to complete his studies, he was then also elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. His professional career began in earnest in 1947, with his appointment as an assistant master at St Edward’s School, Oxford. Twelve months later, now newly married, he moved to Denstone College, a boarding and day school, situated between Uttoxeter in east Staffordshire and Ashbourne in Derbyshire. There, over the course of the next 30 years, as director of music for 24 years, he helped create a noted centre of excellence in music education.

At the same time, countless generations of organists began their careers working through either his First Organ Album or his Album for Manuals Only. No less distinctive was his edition of Handel’s Prelude and Fugue in F minor. Alongside a volume for brass quartet, part of a series published by Oxford University Press, Lethbridge later turned his attention to producing a best-selling series of solo instrumental albums.

His extensive choral output, utilitarian in outlook and often designed for upper voices, includes everything from a simple and effective Communion Service, adapted from the music of J. S. Bach, to his ever-popular SSA arrangement of Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. The same resourceful and imaginative approach also informed his wide range of Christmas music, everything from the quiet dignity of La Vierge à la Crèche, to that most impressive evocation of seasonal splendour, Pat-a-Pan.

In tandem with his school duties, Lionel was prominent in local village life, most notably as the organist for many years of All Saints’, Denstone. As an accompanist of rare sensitivity, he appeared regularly at concert clubs and music societies throughout the locality. Having celebrated his 100th birthday with a party at his local village hall, the large gathering at his funeral service bore eloquent testimony to the high esteem in which he was held.

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