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.

News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
fashion David Beckham fronts adverts for his underwear collection
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
i100Most young people can't
Extras
indybest
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
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 apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, JAXB, ...

Service Delivery Manager - ITIL / ServiceNow / Derivatives

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading Financial Services orga...

Senior Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

CCNP Network Engineer - Farnborough, £250 pd

£250 per day: Orgtel: Network Engineer (CCNP), Cisco Gold Partner, Farnborough...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home