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Obituary: Dr Richard Shephard

26 March 2021

Chapter of York Minster

Dr Richard Shephard with the gargoyle at York Minster which was made in recognition of his contribution to the Minster, in 2015

Dr Richard Shephard with the gargoyle at York Minster which was made in recognition of his contribution to the Minster, in 2015

The Dean of Canterbury writes:

THE death of Dr Richard Shephard on 20 February means the loss to the Church and to choirs which love to sing music both sacred and secular of a musician of consummate skill and boundless energy.

He devoted his whole life to composing and performing music and encouraging with wise and generous advice those who were themselves composing and performing, together with those who had overall responsibility for cathedrals, churches, schools, and colleges where music is an essential part of life. He gave himself and his very considerable musical gifts unstintingly to the communities of which he found himself a part, and was always the centre of a wide circle of friends of all kinds. His quick-witted humour was an asset to any social gathering, often accompanied by an anecdote that brought more laughter.

Richard began his musical life as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral in the days of Herbert Sumsion. Gloucester and the two other Three Choirs Festival cities, Hereford and Worcester, retained a place in his affections which was full of happy memories.

In 1967, he went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as a choral scholar, to read music. From there, he went on to Salisbury Cathedral as an alto lay clerk, and, after a short time teaching at the Cathedral School, he was appointed Head of Music at Godolphin School, in Salisbury, at the early age of 24. This position meant that he could retain his post as a lay clerk at the cathedral and his part in the life of the community there. Salisbury became Richard’s home for 15 years, and it was here that his capacity to compose music to serve the needs of not only the cathedral, as with his Preces and Responses and his anthem “Never weather beaten sail”, but also schools and local societies, was revealed.

Richard was never really still. His energy would take him from a day’s teaching, to choral evensong, and often on to the rehearsal of one of his works, comic or serious, which was being performed under his direction.

He conducted a local group, the Farrant Singers, and, on a summer night each year, they would perform an evening of songs from a boat moored by the riverbank as the audience on the grassy bank enjoyed a pleasant evening of wine and music. One year, the mooring came loose and the boat began to drift downriver. Quick as a flash, Richard leapt out of the boat into the shallow river and hauled the boat back to the great enjoyment of the audience.

The ease with which he composed and produced beautiful melodies and perfect harmonies was astonishing. A round table with large sheets of manuscript sat by his piano stool, and his hands would move from keyboard to manuscript, and compositions of all kinds would be in his mind and on his table at the same time. He loved composing works for friends and for social occasions, and took pleasure in conducting and performing wildly different types of music. So many people have reason to be grateful for the generosity with which he shared that gift on both sides of the Atlantic and in the cathedrals and churches of the world.

Having returned for a while to Salisbury Cathedral School as deputy head, he was appointed as Head of the Minster School in York, in 1985. From that moment onwards, York and the Minster became the focus of his life. His position gave him further opportunity for composing and for singing in the Minster. More and more commissions from various associations, including the Three Choirs and the Southern Cathedrals Festivals, followed. His works, both anthems and evening Services, became regular parts of the repertoire of cathedrals, and it was natural that he should find himself as a member of the Commission on Cathedrals which did its work during the 1990s and resulted in the Cathedrals Measure 1999. Richard’s wisdom and his love of the music of the cathedrals were accompanied by a radical realism about what was wanted to maintain what was best for the future and to ensure good governance.

In 2004, Richard made what to some seemed like a surprising career change, stepping down as headmaster and taking the position of Director of Development at York Minster. The position fitted his wide range of skills, his love of the Minster, and his character well. He raised well over £10 million for the restoration of the great east window and continued both to advise other cathedrals in their development work, besides continuing to compose operas, musicals, music for television, anthems, and choral Services. In 2009, he was commissioned to write an Ode on the 350th Birthday of Mr Henry Purcell, which was sung in the Royal Albert Hall by five hundred school children.

He was awarded a Lambeth doctorate of music in 2009, granted the Freedom of the City of York, a Fellowship of the Royal School of Church Music, and, in 2012, was appointed MBE for his services to music and education. In the same year, he became a Deputy Lieutenant of North Yorkshire, and, in 2016, he was Governor of the Merchant Adventurers of York. He held visiting professorships of music in universities in England and the United States, and was a lay canon of York Minster after his retirement.

Throughout his life and long career in music and education, Richard continued to make friends and to keep in touch with them. His various homes were centres of hospitality, filled with books of every description — he was a voracious reader — and made friendly by a succession of cats named after characters in operas by his beloved Richard Strauss — Salome, Ariadne, Bacchus. In the heart of the house stood the piano and the table covered in fresh manuscript paper where a new composition was always in progress.

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