John Birch: Celebrated organist and master of choristers

 

John Birch was organist and master of the choristers at Chichester Cathedral, where he served from 1958-80, then at The Temple Church, London, until 1997, following in the footsteps of George Thalben-Ball, Walford Davies and EJ Hopkins. He was only the fourth organist there since 1841.

His time at Chichester coincided with that of Walter Hussey, the dean who brought from St Matthew's Northampton a tradition of commissioning pieces from living artists and musicians – beginning with Epstein's Madonna and Child and Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb. Hussey's believed the essential truths of the Church should be expressed anew by great artists each in his own generation. Chichester's most famous commission was undoubtedly Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, an overtly Jewish work, with words in Hebrew, and music which must have struck that first audience as odd in the context of an essentially Anglican festival.

Although intended for Chichester, the actual first performance was conducted by Bernstein in New York, with the English premiere a fortnight later on 31 July 1965, conducted by Birch at the final concert of the Southern Cathedrals Festival. The work has remained in the repertoire ever since.

John Anthony Birch was born in Leek, Staffordshire. His father, Charles Aylmer Birch, gave his name to the family firm of paper, rope and twine merchants at Stoke-on-Trent. In 1947 he entered the Royal College of Music; shortly after leaving in 1953 (National Service in the Royal Corps of Signals had intervened) he sang in the Coronation Choir and became a deputy professor, and in 1959, a professor of organ at the College, where he remained for over half a century.

In 1950 he was organist of the now demolished church of St Thomas, Regent Street, and in 1953 moved to All Saints', Margaret Street, for five years until his appointment to Chichester. In 1960 he revived, with his colleagues at Salisbury and Winchester, the Southern Cathedrals Festival, with its policy of commissions from – in addition to Bernstein – such composers as William Walton and Lennox Berkeley.

He made concert appearances and undertook tours throughout the world. He was organist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and succeeded in his intention of playing in more performances of Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony than his age. As curator-organist of the Royal Albert Hall he appeared at the Proms and on other occasions there, and acted as consultant and music adviser to various bodies.

He was organist and visiting lecturer in music to the University of Sussex, an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and in 1989 Archbishop Runcie conferred on him a Lambeth Doctorate of Music. He was a member of the Royal College of Organists for 45 years. Founder-president of the Burgon Society, devoted to the study of academic dress, he served for two terms from 2001 until 2011; he designed robes for the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Organists and the University of Sussex.

As a Royal School of Church Music special commissioner he made many trips abroad, visiting South Africa in 1976 to conduct a summer school. The RSCM maintained a tradition of non-racialism and singers came from choirs all over the country. Impressed, Birch returned in 1978, to Cape Town, despite being warned by the Musicians' Union that he would be blacklisted. He believed that music was a tremendous weapon against bigotry and prejudice.

After democracy came he resumed his love affair with the country and, on retirement, bought an apartment in Cape Town, spending 10 weeks there every year. His last visit was in March and just before returning to Britain he played for evensong at St Michael and All Angels, Observatory, Cape Town, whose organist, Deon Irish, recalled: "The anthem was Greene's 'Lord, let me know mine end'. Since I don't believe he played for any services in the UK after that, this may have been his swansong as a church musician. If so, the last words he accompanied in a long career were 'before I go hence and be no more seen'".

The life and soul of the party, with a razor-sharp wit, he was invariablywell-prepared at performances. His fellow organist Simon Lindley remembers: "He always came to every rehearsal with fully marked up copies and schedules for every player ... It was his pastoral care for each of his students that shone out, though his natural reserve involved deeds in such matters rather than words."

Garry Humphreys

John Anthony Birch, musician: born Leek, Staffordshire 9 July 1929; died Chichester 28 April 2012.

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit