John Birch: Celebrated organist and master of choristers


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The Independent Online

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.