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Obituary: Simon Preston

by
27 May 2022

© Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Kenneth Shenton writes:

THE British organist Simon Preston, who died on 13 May, aged 83, held a long and singularly distinguished musical career and rose to international prominence. He was constantly seeking to restore the organ to the mainstream of contemporary music-making. The remarkable breadth of his industry brought not only greater recognition for the instrument itself, but also proved pivotal in inspiring countless generations of aspiring performers. In addition, as an equally meticulous choral technician and conductor, he brought both the choirs of Christ Church, Oxford, and Westminster Abbey to a level of excellence that had few, if any, equals.

Born in Bournemouth on 4 August 1938, Simon John Preston began his musical career as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. His education continued at Canford School, in Wimborne, Dorset, and the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with C. H. Trevor. He returned to Cambridge in 1957, to succeed Richard Popplewell as organ scholar at King’s. While there, at just one week’s notice, he made his first solo recording of music by César Franck and Olivier Messiaen.

For five years, from 1962 until 1967, he served as Sub Organist at Westminster Abbey, before a spell freelancing. The next year, he covered Peter Hurford’s 12-month sabbatical at St Alban’s Cathedral.

By the time he was 30, Preston had established himself as one of the finest organists of his generation. He had succeeded Sydney Watson as Organist and Tutor in Music at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1970, and transformed the medieval cathedral choir into a first-rate ensemble, making extensive recordings and undertaking regular overseas tours. He supervised the building of the new cathedral instrument by Rieger, and conducted the Oxford Bach Choir.

For six years, between 1981 and 1987, having now become Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, he again transformed every aspect of the Abbey’s music-making.

Surprising many by taking his leave of the Abbey in 1987, he devoted himself to a busy worldwide career as a top-flight concert and recording artist. He made his London solo debut at the popular early-evening series at the Royal Festival Hall in 1964, and then appeared as a concerto soloist with all the major orchestras and conductors. He returned regularly to the Festival Hall over the next forty years; on each occasion, the top balcony always had to be opened up to accommodate his huge following.

In 1965, he undertook the first of many tours of America and Canada, giving recitals in 25 cities coast to coast. Such was his lasting popularity that, in 1987, the New York Chapter of the American Guild of Organists voted him their International Performer of the Year.

Many of his performances endure, courtesy of an extensive and richly varied discography. Comprising 14 CDs is his complete Bach cycle. Recorded over the course of 12 years, it was released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2000. His gifts as an improviser came to the fore on the two sets of recordings of Handel’s Organ Concertos he made, one with Yehudi Menuhin, the other with the English Concert and Trevor Pinnock. A 2018 retrospective of his recorded output lasts ten hours and features 31 composers, 53 compositions and eight organs. Among the instruments used are two that he helped to create, those at St John’s, Smith Square, and Tonbridge School Chapel.

As a composer, Preston loved liturgy, and this allowed him to write well for voices. Among his sacred music, two works in particular stand out: the exquisite “There is no Rose” and “God is our Hope and Strength”, written for unaccompanied double choir. Both are cleverly and precisely imagined, their structures handled with fluency and care. Such characteristics are shared with his small output for the organ, most notably “Alleluyas” and “Vox Dicentis”. On film, he contributed music to the soundtrack of the legendary science-fiction movie Rollerball, and was also responsible for Salieri’s music in Miloš Forman’s 1984 award-winning epic, Amadeus; he appeared briefly both as a performer and conductor.

Other appointments included Artistic Director of the Calgary International Organ Festival from 1990 until 2002, Patron of the University of Buckingham, Chairman of the Herbert Howells Society, and Vice-President of both the Organ Club and the Organists’ Benevolent League. He also served as a member of the Arts Council Music Panel and the Music Committee of the BBC.

He was appointed OBE in 2000 and CBE nine years later. In 2014, he was presented with the Medal of the Royal College of Organists.

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