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Obituary: Robert Prizeman

08 October 2021


Simon Niemiński writes:

ROBERT PRIZEMAN, organist of St Philip’s, Norbury, in south London, founder and director of the boys’ choir Libera, and musical adviser for BBC’s Songs of Praise, has died, aged 69.

The circumstances of Robert’s beginnings as a choral director belied Libera’s eventual global success; for the St Philip’s choir centenary celebration, he wrote about joining as a boy and his first encounter with the head chorister: “As I opened the vestry door, he charged out with a mop on his head. Discipline was not a strong feature of the choir in the 60s and early 70s.”

Robert was later appointed organist, aged 18: “Turning up in school uniform didn’t do a lot for the discipline. Indeed, at the first practice I had problems getting most of the boys to stop swinging on the church gates and come into the vestry.” Robert’s ever youthful approach, though, was undoubtedly the key to the frequent reinvention of his church choir and the growth of its audience.

Music beyond the church repertoire was introduced, with early concerts (or “Choirsturbances”) and the irreverent but factually based “Choirboys — The Full Story”, telling the tale of “Roger” or “Tyrone”, the press-ganged chorister, and including Mr Mudd of Lincoln Cathedral swigging from a bottle of Gordon’s gin, which “brought the house — and our reputation — down on many occasions”.

In the early 1980s, there had been increased publicity for the choir of St Philip’s, owing to several finalists and one winner of the Choirboy of the Year competition. The path to Libera began in 1984, with the St Philip’s choir’s involvement in Sal Solo’s song “San Damiano”, written for the BBC’s Rock Gospel Show. The song became a top-20 chart hit, and thus the choir was propelled into Top of the Pops and beyond.

During the 1990s, appearances with celebrities followed (the likes of Elton John, Pavarotti, and Dame Edna), and the extra-ecclesial side of the choir became Angel Voices, now with its own album releases. In 1999, the choir became Libera, with the release of an eponymous single.

Libera’s sound world is Robert’s unique creation, evolving from his own work as a soundtrack composer and from different church traditions, for example, plainchant and the soaring treble lines of cathedral music, to which are added New Age and contemporary pop textures and harmonies. His uncanny ability to appeal to a wide audience led Libera to a busy schedule of domestic and international concert touring, which could see them performing in Upper Norwood, south London, one month and Osaka the next.

Despite the international celebrity, boys from Libera continue to sing at St Philip’s, Norbury. The discipline issues of the ’70s developed into a remarkable pyramid structure of musical education, much of it carried out by senior choristers, under Robert’s leadership. He had been greatly involved with the work of the RSCM, and was awarded an ARSCM in 2010.

In addition to his choral work, Robert was a broadcaster, presenting the BBC Radio 3 young people’s magazine programme Fanfare and the radio documentary Herbert Howells: Echoes of a lifetime for Howells’s 90th birthday in 1982. He was a longstanding adviser for BBC’s Songs of Praise, composing the current theme music in 1986, a piece that, in its original organ-solo version, remains a popular repertoire item for organists.

Perhaps his legacy as an extraordinary but self-effacing choral director with the church at heart might well be summed up by his song “Sing for Ever, which became the first Children in Need telethon anthem in 1988. Last year, as the pandemic abruptly halted choral activities, it was adopted by the Cathedral Choirs’ Emergency Fund for its video performance involving choristers UK-wide.

In an email to me, Robert wrote: “Funny about Sing for Ever. I would have thought it rather downmarket for the cathedral choirs, but I suppose it fitted the function lyrically. Honoured to have it used after so many years.”

Libera’s latest album, If, Robert’s last, will be released on 15 October. Its final track, fittingly, is Lux æterna.

Robert Prizeman was born on 28 February 1952 and died on 8 September 2021.

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