Denys Darlow: Conductor, composer and scholar who founded the Tilford Bach Festival and the London Handel Festival

He wanted ‘to perform the music of Bach ... in a style consistent with the demands of the period’

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Denys Darlow’s name is inextricably associated with the two music festivals he founded, the Tilford Bach Festival in 1952 and the London Handel Festival in 1978. The Tilford Bach Festival came about when Darlow was organist of All Saints’ Church, Tilford, 40 miles from London in unspoiled rural Surrey, which he saw as an ideal place to hold an annual festival of Bach’s music. His aim was “to perform the music of Bach and his contemporaries in a style and manner consistent with the demands of the period”; and although the annual festival was the heart of the activities, almost from the start the choir and orchestra undertook (together and separately) concerts in London and elsewhere, and many radio broadcasts.

After Darlow became organist at the London church of St George, Hanover Square, the festival established a presence there too – in 1973, its 21st anniversary year – as “Bach in London”. But St George’s was Handel’s parish church, and in 1978 “Bach in London” gave way to the London Handel Festival, while the original festival continued in Surrey.

The Tilford Bach Festival Choir was formally convened as an evening class at Morley College in south London, but attracted very high-calibre singers including students from the London music colleges, many of whom were to go on to have distinguished professional careers. Some were offered solo opportunities, and Darlow remained loyal to them for many years afterwards. On the other hand, he was not averse to dropping those who no longer saw eye-to-eye with him.

It was an early Tilford policy to commission new works for vocal and instrumental combinations similar to those already on the platform for music by Bach and his contemporaries. Darlow particularly championed the work of his colleagues at the Royal College of Music, where he taught. New works by Christopher Brown, Geoffrey Burgon, David Cox, Adrian Cruft, Martin Dalby, Stephen Dodgson (a sizzling Te Deum, worthy of revival, to celebrate Tilford’s 21st birthday), Bryan Kelly, Edmund Rubbra, Bernard Stevens and others, were performed on the concert platform and in frequent radio broadcasts and recordings.

The first Tilford Festival had included Bach’s St John Passion, and the Passions and the B minor Mass were the sheet anchors of the subsequent annual programmes – overwhelming for both audiences and performers with full forces in the tiny church at Tilford. At St George’s the St Matthew Passion was performed each Good Friday in the context of the service of Vespers, including sermon, and Darlow here had a compliant ally in the musical rector, Bill Atkins, sometime librarian, historian and prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral. Several performances of the St Matthew Passion were also given in a specially commissioned English translation, the joint effort of Walter Griffith, Darlow and the tenor Alexander Young.

He composed choral, orchestral and church music, produced an edition (including his own translation) of Handel’s The Passion of Christ (the so-called “Brockes” Passion) in 1965, and was the author of the children’s book Musical Instruments, first published in 1962. With London Handel Festival forces he recorded for Hyperion, including Aminta e Fillide and The Triumph of Time and Truth, and in 2002 at the Britten Theatre he conducted a dramatised version of the “Brockes” Passion, directed by Tom Hawkes. Nicholas McGegan, the US-based British conductor specialising in baroque music, speaks of him as “a bit of an unsung hero” in the matter of Handel performances.

Darlow’s early conducting experiences had begun with the Alexandra Orchestra, which he founded in 1947, and subsequently the BBC Symphony and Northern Orchestras, the Swedish Radio Orchestra and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, among others. Later in his career, leaving London to live in Gloucestershire, he took on the City of Bath Bach Choir (1980-90) and extended his repertoire to include choral music on a much larger scale than previously. Darlow’s own Requiem was dedicated to them and premiered in 1986. When he revived Herbert Howells’s Stabat Mater in Bath Abbey in the same year (only its second performance), the companion piece was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, in as refreshingly straightforward and unmannered a performance as is rare nowadays.

Denys Darlow was perhaps not a great conductor – and certainly not a great organist – and was in many ways childlike in his approach; but he was a man of vision who by his simplicity allowed music to speak for itself, and earned the gratitude of many British composers for commissions to write challenging music, and to hear it performed by musicians of the first rank.


Denys Darlow, music scholar, conductor and composer: born London 13 May 1921; married 1942 Pauline Harford (five daughters, two sons), 1959 Eileen Millard (one daughter, two sons), 1978 Sophy Guillaume (one daughter, one son); died Quedgeley, Gloucestershire 24 February 2015.