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Richard Marlow: Charismatic and ground-breaking choral conductor


Throughout a long and varied career, Richard Marlow enriched the world of music in a wide variety of ways. Lecturer, writer, scholar, organist, composer, teacher, editor and undoubted enthusiast, as one of the defining choral conductors of his generation, he brought the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge to a level of performance that had few, if any, equals.

The son of an electricity-board engineer who grew up in the shadow of Epsom Racecourse, Marlow spent his formative years as a chorister at Southwark Cathedral. Educated at St Olave's Grammar School, in 1953 he sang at the Coronation Service. While still at school he was appointed organist of St Anselm's Church, Kennington. After going on to read music at Cambridge University, in 1958 he was elected Organ Scholar of Selwyn College. There, he not only became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, but also won the highly prestigious Harding Prize. Two years later, he was awarded the John Stewart of Rannoch Scholarship in Sacred Music.

Staying on at Selwyn as a Research Fellow, his doctoral dissertation – completed under the watchful eye of Thurston Dart – was on the music of the 17th-century English keyboard composer Giles Farnaby. It was undoubtedly Dart who instilled in him the academic discipline that so characterised his later career. For three years, between 1965 and 1968, he was a lecturer at the University of Southampton, and also served as organist of St Mary's Church.

On his return to Cambridge in 1968, he was appointed University Lecturer in Music and Fellow, Organist, Director of Music and Lecturer at Trinity College. There, in addition to exercising a most benign influence on countless aspiring students, he also began playing a pivotal role in the cultural life of the wider community. Soon after his arrival he set up the Cambridge University Chamber Choir, quickly honing them into a formidable force.

While intensely proud of Trinity College's long and illustrious all-male chorister tradition, one of the oldest in either Oxford or Cambridge, the admission of female undergraduates gave Marlow the perfect opportunity to mastermind a dramatic choral revolution. Thus, in 1982, he created a mixed voice ensemble that rapidly attracted consistent public and critical acclaim. Perfectly tuned, beautifully blended and able to tackle some challenging repertoire, they sang with vitality and character. Happily, their legacy endures courtesy of a most distinctive discography – some 40 recordings in all.

Nestling neatly alongside more rarefied renaissance and baroque repertoire are popular collections of carols, hymns and liturgical lollipops. Particularly fine was their 1989 recording of the more intimate choral works of Sir William Walton. No less impressive was Marlow's tribute to his distinguished Trinity predecessor, CV Stanford. With the choir again on top form, the critics also noted the moving solo contributions of baritone choral scholar Alexander Armstrong.

Marlow incurred the wrath of many by proposing to dismantle the Harrison organ in the college chapel; however, its continental successor, the first Metzler instrument in England, attracted widespread praise. Constructed according to the strictest of classical principles and placed within the restored main case of 1708, it also incorporated pipework from the earlier Father Smith instrument. Completed in 1976, it provided a most colourful palette for its talented custodian.

As a composer, his love of the liturgy allowed him to write well for voices. His anthems, services, motets, hymns, responses, chants and descants, often written for special occasions, enjoyed worldwide popularity and remain in the repertoire. Two works in particular stand out: the exquisite miniature "O Lord God", affectionately inscribed to his former choristers at St Anselm's, Kennington Green; and the more challenging "Veni, Creator Spiritus", written for solo soprano and double choir. Both are cleverly and precisely imagined, their structures handled with fluency and care.

He proved no less adept at providing special music for particular college occasions – everything from singing on the river to the impressive Epiphany Carol Service. More unusual was his choral setting of Ben Okri's poem "Ode to Newton". Commissioned in 1992 by Sir Michael Atiyah, then Master of Trinity, it was written for a special commemoration feast held to mark the 350th anniversary of the birth of one of the college's most distinguished alumnus, Sir Isaac Newton.

As a scholar, Marlow's reputation was initially forged with the publication in 1965 of Giles Farnaby: Keyboard Music, the 24th volume in Stainer & Bell's landmark series Music Britannica. Equally authoritative was his editorial work on behalf of the Church Music Society, anthems by Maurice Greene, motets by JS Bach and Felix Mendelssohn and Tudor responses by William Smith. In 1997 he produced The Trinity College Chant Book: 150 Anglican Chants, of which 135 were adapted from anthems, motets, canticles, masses and oratorios of the 16th-19th centuries. Completing the volume were 15 original creations.

Precise, literate and stylish, he proved to be an equally fine writer, supplying a wealth of finely written and knowledgeable critiques to a wide range of specialist periodicals, including Music and Letters and The Musical Times. More extended examples of his art can be found in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and The Dictionary of National Biography.

In later years Marlow's scholastic credentials found a ready outlet as a keynote speaker, conductor and performer at summer schools, seminars and workshops worldwide. He held Visiting Professorships at universities in America, Australasia and the Far East. Between 1998 and 2011 he never missed the opportunity to visit Portland, Oregon for the William Byrd Festival, of which he was co-founder.

Counted among that rich tradition of organists who maintained a lifelong passion for steam trains and model railways, Marlow retired as director of music at Trinity College in 2006.

Kenneth Shenton

Richard Kenneth Marlow, musician and scholar: born Banstead, Surrey 26 July 1939; married 1964 Annette Bateman (two sons); died Cambridge 16 June 2013.