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Obituary: Dr Francis Jackson

by
21 January 2022

Archive of Recorded Church Music

Dr Francis Jackson rehearsing the choristers in the Song School of York Minster, in 1961

Dr Francis Jackson rehearsing the choristers in the Song School of York Minster, in 1961

Garry Humphreys writes:

DR FRANCIS JACKSON, who has died, aged 104, was for 37 years, from 1946 to 1982, Organist and Master of the Music at York Minster; but he was in fact associated with the Minster for most of his life. In 1929, aged 12, he became a chorister under the legendary Sir Edward Bairstow – “the rudest man in Yorkshire”, according to some — whose biography Jackson was to publish in 1996. He also recorded his complete organ works, despite Bairstow’s aversion to the gramophone.

Jackson was an accomplished writer with a delightful style and dry humour, and a keen observer of those around him, as he revealed in his autobiography, Music for a Long While (adapting the title of Purcell’s famous song), published in 2013, when he was 96. It might be criticised for going into too much detail, but it is this detail that makes it such an illuminating account of a world now largely lost.

He brings a more personal view of Bairstow than in his formal biography, and one of the highlights of the book is his charming description of a visit in August 1951 to the composer Ravel’s house at Montfort l’Amaury, during a holiday in France. Ravel’s housekeeper Madame Reveleau was still in residence. “It was a remarkable thing to meet her who had been in such close touch with him,” he wrote; “as remarkable as seeing the things he had had around him, exactly as he had left them.” He had admired Ravel and Debussy from a very young age and, as an organist, had promoted in his recitals the music of Franck, Vierne, Widor, and Dupré.

Francis Alan Jackson was born at Malton, 18 miles north-east of York, in 1917. His mother was a Suddaby — he was second cousin to the soprano Elsie Suddaby, one of the original dedicatees of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music — and Francis could not remember being unable to play the piano. The family were also enthusiastic listeners to gramophone records.

“I was born with a natural talent,” Jackson wrote; “and working at it and developing it was pretty well unalloyed pleasure.”

After singing in the choir of Malton Parish Church, he went at 12 to be a chorister at York Minster. Under Bairstow’s guidance, he recalled, “my horizons were widened and I learned that music was not just an exercise merely to be got through but rather a natural expression of one’s very being. . . Bairstow . . . made music alive and, above all, enjoyable and fulfilling. . . And music had to be beautiful.”

Jackson left school at 15, became organist of Malton at 16, and from 1933 was a full-time student with Bairstow; in 1937, he received a music degree from Durham University (his doctorate followed in 1957). He succeeded Bairstow at the Minster in 1946.

The transition was a smooth one, but Jackson’s sympathies were much wider than his predecessor’s; for, as a composer, he wrote not only church music, but a symphony, an organ concerto, chamber music, songs, and incidental music for plays. Among his more unusual compositions are two monodramas with narrator, Daniel in Babylon (1962, to celebrate the consecration of Coventry Cathedral) and A Time of Fire (1967, for the Norwich and Norfolk Triennial Festival). Both were written in collaboration with the actor-dramatist John Stuart Anderson.

Jackson regarded “Tree at my window” as his best song, setting the poem by Robert Frost. It was written during the Second World War when he was serving with the 9th Lancers in 1942 in the desert campaign near Tobruk. He remembered writing it “in my tent by the light of an oil lamp made from a cigarette tin. There is a bit where the wind blows in the song, and it was actually blowing quite a gale in the desert at the time. I know I kept wondering if the tent was going to fly off.”

Francis Jackson was an outstanding organist — one of the foremost recitalists of his generation — in demand throughout the world; he also acted as adviser to many churches and cathedrals considering organ rebuilds. He was responsible for the rehabilitation of the “Toccata” from Widor’s Fifth Symphony by using it instead of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Kent in York Minster in 1961, preferring a genuine composition for organ to a hackneyed arrangement of an orchestral piece. He served as President of the Royal College of Organists from 1972 to 1974.

As well as his widely used settings of the Canticles in G (“Me in G”, as he used to call them), he wrote a hymn tune called East Acklam, after the village where he lived, as an alternative to Ar Hyd y Nos for “God that madest earth and heaven” for an Old Choristers’ reunion in 1957. But it was not until the Methodist hymn-writer Fred Pratt Green wrote “For the fruits of his creation” for it in 1970, that it achieved great popularity and wide use as a harvest hymn of freshness and realism.

His colleague Simon Lindley, organist of Leeds Parish Church, sums him up: “The affection in which FJ is held by so many throughout the world stems not only from his professional distinction and musical brilliance but also from a disarmingly modest personality – always big-hearted and immensely caring of his fellow men.”

Francis Jackson never really retired, spending his latter years “composing and giving organ recitals” — clearly an effective recipe for longevity. He was appointed OBE for services to music in 1978; the CBE followed in 2007.

He died peacefully on 10 January in a care home in York, surrounded by his family. He leaves three children, Alice, William, and Edward.

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