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Obituary: Lucian Nethsingha

12 March 2021

Canon Arthur Mawson writes:

LUCIAN NETHSINGHA was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1936, and grew up in the country that he always referred to as Ceylon.

At St Thomas’ College, he was picked out for his outstanding talent by the chaplain and choirmaster, Canon Roy Lin, who, having been chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge, encouraged Lucian’s parents to let Lucian continue his studies in England. Lucian had won the Gold Medals for piano from both Trinity College (1952) and the Associated Board (1953), and, armed with these, he arrived in England in 1954, aged just 18.

Just a few days later, having recovered from a three-week voyage and seasickness, he was auditioned for a place at the Royal College of Music to study organ. He was accepted and was there for the next three years. One of his tutors for composition was Herbert Howells, who described him as one of his most musical pupils. This remarkable student then won a place at King’s College, Cambridge, to read music.

On graduation in 1959, he moved to St Michael’s, Tenbury, where he enhanced an already fine reputation for the best in church music.

While at Tenbury, he married Jane at the London church where they had met, and so started the marriage that was to be the mainstay of his life. They shared the Christian faith in which both had been raised, and their personalities complemented each other in a very positive way. Three years later, their son, Andrew, was born, followed by their daughter, Alison, five years later.

In 1973, Lucian gave the Dean and Chapter an unusually easy decision when he applied to the Cathedral at Exeter. They never regretted their decision to appoint him Organist and Master of Choristers, and he stayed there until retirement in 1999.

The post carries with it diocesan duties, and, each year, the Diocesan Choral Festival meant he spent much time travelling to parish churches around the diocese to rehearse their choirs. He was enthusiastically received, and the festival flourished.

He also conducted the Exeter Choral Society for their annual concerts. This large chorus and orchestra of amateurs and the weekly rehearsals before concerts were especially demanding for any conductor, but, in the end, the results were good and attracted large audiences.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra invited him to conduct them for concerts in the cathedral, and, for Lucian, these meant a detailed study of Beethoven’s First and Ninth Symphonies; for he was always well prepared for all he did. It was, however, the choir that was central to his work, and he chose carefully the back row of the choir at Exeter, a combination of lay vicars, older permanent members, and choral scholars, members of the university who stay for the duration of their courses.

Over the years, he built up a camaraderie and team spirit which was tangible. He expected the best and a high level of commitment, and they responded. With the boys, he established a discipline that they witness to as having lasted a lifetime. Every service had to be as well sung as they could make it, including every weekday evensong with often a very small congregation. I heard him tell the boys “You are singing for God not the congregation.” His own commitment to each and every service gave them an inspiring example.

The result was a level of excellence which was there throughout his time; conducting the choir with only limited gestures, he could control this superb sound with often the movement of a single finger.

In my nearly 20 years at the cathedral, and including tours abroad with the choir, I never heard a negative comment on the music, and I heard many positive ones, including from the Queen, who, after the Royal Maundy Service at Exeter in 1983, particularly praised the music. Church music can be very moving and, occasionally, a piece will transform into a window into heaven. When Lucian was around, the occasions seemed more frequent. At one recording session, a choirman rebuked a choirboy whom he saw crying. The reply was: “But, sir, it was so beautiful.”

After his retirement, he maintained the links and came to the Easter Monday choir reunions, which were always well attended.

He and Jane returned to Cambridge and St Benet’s, which had played a part in their earlier life. They enjoyed their family, but still found time for some foreign travel. When Jane died after a prolonged illness in 2015, he had to live without his most precious friend; thanks to the support of his family, however, he maintained an active life until his death, with her dressing gown on the bed in the hospice, surrounded by the family he was so justly proud of.

He died on 12 February, aged 84, and leaves his son, Andrew, with his wife, Lucy, his daughter, Alison, and his grandchildren, Emily, Peter, and Helena.

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