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Obituary: Dr John Byrt

19 February 2021

Kenneth Shenton writes:

OF THOSE composers whose work is showcased in national broadcasts by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, one was John Byrt, who died on 15 January, aged 80. Heard by millions of listeners worldwide, his popular setting of a 15th-century text, All and Some, was first featured in the 1969 Christmas Eve broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and heard again 21 years later in their Advent Service of Lessons and Carols.

Originally written for Cumnor Choral Society and published in 1963 by Oxford University Press, its many neo-modal charms later formed the centrepiece of the Novello Book of Carols. Byrt’s other carols include a setting of Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen” and The offering of the Eastern Kings. No less impressive were an early Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in D major, a challenging cantata, Exaudi Domine, and several choral folksong settings, each putting a contemporary slant on the well known and traditional. Sadly neglected is his wide range of instrumental music.

Born in Bristol on Christmas Eve 1940, John Clare Byrt was educated at Clifton College. There, his musical talents were nurtured by its Director of Music, Douglas Fox, before, in 1959, he was elected Organ Scholar of St John’s College, Oxford. Emerging as one of the finest players of his generation and already an Associate of the Royal College of Organists, he subsequently became a Fellow by examination. Astutely guided by his tutor, Edmund Rubbra, Byrt became a Junior Research Fellow, his doctoral thesis being on the music of C. P. E. Bach.

Byrt was associated with many aspects of Oxford music-making, particularly László Heltay’s Collegium Musicum Oxoniense. In 1964, Heltay moved to New Zealand, and Byrt succeeded him as conductor, reshaping and refining the ensemble as the Schola Cantorum of Oxford. After a successful tour of America, a pioneering performance of John Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinda was committed to disc, as was Byrt’s pioneering reading of Handel’s Dixit Dominus.

After Oxford, Byrt went on to conduct the medieval and Renaissance ensemble Musica Reservata. Founded in north London in 1960 by Michael Morrow, this flexible group featured the singers Jantina Noorman and Grayston Burgess alongside the instrumentalists John Beckett, Daphne Webb, John Southcott, and Jeremy Montagu. Amid recital tours throughout Europe, and numerous broadcasts and recordings, they also found a conducive habitat on London’s South Bank.

Initially appointed to coach at Glyndebourne before illness intervened, instead Byrt would spend some 20 years as Director of Music at East Devon College. In addition to exercising a benign influence on countless generations of students, he began playing a pivotal part in the artistic life of the wider cultural community. He led East Devon Choral Society with humour and inexhaustible enthusiasm, not least in successfully reviving many unknown Tiverton gallery carols for Radio 3. Founding a number of early-music groups, he also conducted the Exeter Chorale.

Byrt proved a fine writer, erudite and persuasive, and contributed a wealth of finely written critiques and scholarly analyses to a range of specialist periodicals over the years. By now increasingly focusing his research on the music of the French Baroque, particularly its treatment of notes inégales, in 2016, he distilled his extensive research into what has become a seminal text, An Unequal Music: Rhythmic inequality from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

Byrt is survived by his second wife, Celia, and two sons, Simon and Matthew, from his marriage to Linda Gosling.

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