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John Birch 1929-2012


Guest Geoff McMahon
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Guest Geoff McMahon

Posted on behalf of John Mander

 

It is sad to report the passing of John Birch. He suffered a serious stroke a few weeks ago and died peacefully in his sleep last night.

 

He was active right up to the end and still had a diary with a number of engagements in it.

 

He will be sorely missed.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Birch_%28musician%29

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As is the devastating nature of such sudden things as strokes, I hear he was in cracking form as recently as the annual Good Friday Royal Choral Society 'Messiah' in the Albert Hall.

 

It would be good to see some reminiscences appear here about JB. I had half a dozen lessons with him in my final year at Bishop Otter College, Chichester, and often assisted in the organ loft for him and Ian Fox in the eighties. He was fearsome in many respects and yet very encouraging in the lessons. The choir was fabulous.

 

JB's antics could be extraordinary. I remember being in the loft one Sunday, and he was 'downstairs' to conduct the canticles which Ian Fox accompanied. The anthem was Wesley's 'The Wilderness', a piece which by custom, JB always accompanied. Thus, during the early part of the Apostles' Creed Ian jumped off the bench and we generally readied ourselves for JB's arrival in the loft. But he didn't come - and Ian hadn't practised 'The Wilderness'! We peered disbelievingly over the top of the screen and John had returned to his stall in the quire for the responses. Up aloft, 'tenterhooks' didn't come into it! It wasn't until the beginning of the third collect that we finally heard the creak of the loft stairs as JB finally came up, and without a glance at either of us, took his position at the Allen console.

 

There was another amusing escapade when John played part of 'Hallelujah, Gott zu loben' as the voluntary, using the quiet section to play the choir out before launching into the fugue. I hadn't come across this piece before and being in on the action was quite something. There must have been a bit of a slip in the pedals towards the end - (for which anyone could be forgiven) - because as soon as it was over, John leapt from the bench, pulling it back a couple of feet and got down on his hands and knees and waggled bottom E flat of the pedalboard vigorously to give the impression some mechanical fault had caused the slip.

 

He was a great raconteur and loved telling stories of John Dykes Bower, Howells and exploits of his own. I remember a story of an occasion when he went off to Norwich to give a recital in the cathedral and during the Fiddle Fugue in D minor (I'm sure it's not referred to as that now) the blower burnt out and the recital had to be abandoned.

 

He was very keen on academic dress and was, for a time, president of the Burgon Society. I can't quite remember the actual detail of this, but I recall him telling me about the 'passing on' of DMus robes. I think Howells bequeathed JB his DMus outfit which he subsequently wore when awarded his Lambeth DMus, or was it Thalben Ball's. He was very interested in the fact that John Dykes Bower, after his final service at St Paul's gave me his first DMus hood - something I still have and treasure.

 

I would love to hear other people's recollections of John's organ music playing as I didn't get to hear very much of it - lots of service playing, but not a great deal in terms of actual organ music. A few pieces used as voluntaries come to mind - Fugue from Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, two or three Rheinberger last movements (No 3 in G several times), Howells - Rhapsody 3, Hollins' Trumpet Minuet - oh, and Arthur Hutchings 'Processional' - the second of those two pieces published by OUP before the blue and white covers came in - a good piece!

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Thank you, Martin - I found this most interesting.

 

Do you have any further anecdotes, please?

 

Well, slightly more amusingly...

 

Many readers will know the superb setting of the evening canticles by Sir William Walton which were commissioned by Chichester in the 80s. We need to set alongside this John's choral conducting movements which could be the tiniest indications imaginable on the one hand and yet dramatic and sudden, rather like a controlled explosion on the other. He conducted from the west end of the cantoris stalls where there there was little room for flamboyance, but, as I suggest, there was always a degree of drama about JB's presence there just on the end of the stalls. Anyway, the canticles were first released and published by Novello and it was from these copies that the choir learned the music and first performed them in the cathedral. I think Priory recorded them. Then, at some stage, they were reissued by Novello and the pagination had changed. And so, one Sunday afternoon, JB went 'downstairs' after playing the psalms ready to conduct the Walton Magnificat leaving Ian Fox to play and me to turn. By now, the Chichester choir were using the new edition of the music with its altered pagination. All started well but there reached a page turn when in the old edition there had been a major choir entry immediately over the page. Obviously forgetting himself for a moment, as the chorister turned the page John gave a large gesticulation with his right hand which caused his full length surplice sleeve to partially cover his head - all of which would have been amusing enough had there actually been a choir entry over the page - which there no longer was in the new edition!

 

I also remember the great pride he took in his published last verse arrangement of 'Everton' in the RSCM volume from the 70s, and I recall seeing manuscripts of this that he had sent to John Dykes Bower for his approval and comment before submission to the RSCM. It's quite a complex, 'grinding' re-harmonisation which many congregations would find off-putting, I can't help feeling. For the nonce, I thought Dykes-Bower's own submission on 'Nun Danket', and also Christopher Dearnley's 'Oriel' were both superb and all the better for being much simpler harmonically. Not sure if this volume is still in print, but if anyone ever has the chance to use the CHH Lloyd harmonisations of 'Laus Deo', they'll make your hair stand on end. The second of the two, written for "With his seraph train before him..." is magnificent but would need rehearsing with the (strong) choir or they would stop singing in wonder, I cannot help but feel.

 

There is no doubt that JB was an absolute legend in his own lifetime and though he visited us here at school twice in his first retirement at Salisbury, I am only sorry that I never fulfilled my wish to get in touch again upon his move back to Chichester a couple of years ago. I think the last time we spoke, he rang me to tell me that the University of Sussex had redesigned its academic dress and I ought to buy the new bachelor hood to replace my rather horrid grey fur square one!

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I also remember the great pride he took in his published last verse arrangement of 'Everton' in the RSCM volume from the 70s, and I recall seeing manuscripts of this that he had sent to John Dykes Bower for his approval and comment before submission to the RSCM. It's quite a complex, 'grinding' re-harmonisation which many congregations would fine off-putting, I can't help feeling. For the nonce, I thought Dykes-Bower's own submission on 'Nun Danket', and also Christopher Dearnley's 'Oriel' we both superb and all the better for being much simpler harmonically. Not sure if this volume is still in print, but if anyone ever has the chance to use the CHH Lloyd harmonisations of 'Laus Deo', they'll make your hair stand on end. The second of the two, written for "With his seraph train before him..." is magnificent but would need rehearsing with the (strong) choir or they would stop singing in wonder, I cannot help but feel.

 

Apologies for going off topic here, but I was on at St Marys, Nottingham tonight and we had 'Oriel' - seeing Martin's post earlier this afternoon made me delve for this book once again. The penultimate line caused quite a stir amongst the choir (some interesting chords!). I've not yet used the John Birch setting but the book itself is excellent so he certainly sits in great company (Helmsley and Llanfair from the set are two of my favourites).

 

I agree that it is wonderful to hear such anecdotes about some of the characters of the world of Cathedral music - I'm sure there are many more out there.

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... I've not yet used the John Birch setting but the book itself is excellent so he certainly sits in great company (Helmsley and Llanfair from the set are two of my favourites). ...

 

Helmsley is indeed excellent. In fact, I would go as far as to state that it is the best last verse re-harmonisation which I have ever met.

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Sad to hear the news.

 

He was kind to an aspiring young organist, weeking some time on the cathedral organ at Chichester (before the Allen). Went there many times after that to hear him play and watch him direct. One of the many formative experiences of those years. Have tried not to emulate (too often) the occasional outbreaks of artistic temperament.

 

His recording of the Boyce Vol 1 in D was reissued recently, if I recall.

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This lunch time Peter Wright gave an absolutely superb organ recital in Chichester Cathedral and, as a great friend of John Birch, he prefaced his recital with a few very well chosen words and, with Sarah Baldock's permission, dedicated the recital to the memory of John Birch. Obviously, this recital had been arranged a long time ago but it was appropriate that this week's recital was given by a friend of JAB who was able to speak so fondly of him.

 

What was not so enjoyable - but absolutely typical of the stuffy, unwelcoming ethos which still semes to prevail in Chichester cathedral - was a conversation which happened further along the row in which I was sitting. An elderly gentleman was about to sit on a seat when an even more elderly lady - almost late for the recital - hurried in and told him in no uncertain terms "I always sit on this seat, even on Sundays". Shortly after this the man left. Fortunately I can't imagine this kind of thing happening these days anywhere apart from Chichester but it really isn't helpful.

 

Malcolm

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What was not so enjoyable - but absolutely typical of the stuffy, unwelcoming ethos which still semes to prevail in Chichester cathedral

 

That's a shame to hear, as the welcome the Cathedral gave to me and my choir when we were singing there the weekend after Easter was the complete opposite - most warm and grateful for our contribution. Such a shame one or two members of a congregation can give this impression, but I think it's probably fair to say there are people like this in most congregations up and down the country undoing the work of many clergy and the majority of those attending.

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I don't know about cathedrals, but time was when churches used to rent pews to those who could afford them. At least in some churches where I live the practice survived well into the twentieth century and I imagine the same is true elsewhere. It's by no means impossible that one or two elderly people still remember this, or at least remember their parents having "owned" pews. I'm not suggesting this was responsible for that particular lady's attitude - she very likely didn't need a reason - but sometimes I wonder whether this ancient practice hasn't left a subliminal legacy.

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According to an Organists' Review posting on Facebook today the funeral service (presumably a Requiem Mass) is at All Saints Margaret Street, near Oxford Circus and quite a small church so far as seating capacity is concerned, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 15th May. He was organist there before moving to Chichester in 1958 and the current music team, under Paul Brough, can be guaranteed to give him superb music at his funeral.

 

Malcolm

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