OBITUARY : Herbert Sumsion

The death of Herbert Sumsion at the age of 96 has brought to an end one of the last direct links with the Elgarian era.

Having been a cathedral chorister and pupil-assistant at Gloucester, Sumsion was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers there on the death of Sir Herbert Brewer in 1928. One of his first duties was to direct the Three Choirs Festival in August of that year. It was "John" Sumsion's impressive performances at that Festival which prompted Sir Edward Elgar's famous remark: "What at the beginning of the week was assumption has now become a certainty!"

To Gloucester Cathedral and the Three Choirs Festival John Sumsion devoted his life's work. His talents must have been coveted elsewhere and there can be no doubt that he would have achieved enormous success in any chosen musical field, but his heart was at Gloucester and in the glorious countryside that bred him. It was his work with the Three Choirs Festival that will surely preserve for Sumsion a secure and distinguished place in British musical life. His vision in matters of programme planning together with his skill of direction in a very wide spectrum of works made him one of the most successful conductors of this Festival in its long history; additionally in administrative terms he and his American wife Alice must take much credit for the strong position the Festival now holds in the hard and competitive world of music-making.

Sumsion had a special sympathy for the works of English composers stemming from Elgar and Vaughan Williams (and how wonderful it was to share with him in his latter years reminiscences of a whole generation of famous musicians), but he was also responsible for bringing works of lesser-known composers to the attention of the British public. Great choral works such as Howells's Hymnus Paradisi and Finzi's Intimations of Immortality were first heard at Gloucester Festivals in Sumsion's period of direction.

It follows then that Sumsion's own compositions would be in this same "English" mould, yet his music has a very distinctive style that endears it to performers and listeners alike. Word setting is always felicitous and, as might be expected, his accompaniments are imaginative - and playable. Church music has benefited enormously from his work, for his compositions in this medium have been wide-ranging. His Evening Service in G major (1935) has achieved immortality in the cathedral repertoire, and many a chorister will remember it with affection. There is also some fine chamber music which deserves wider recognition; nor should we forget the numerous works which have enriched the organists' repertoire, including a brilliant Ceremonial March, written when he was in his late eighties.

Having been his chorister, articled pupil and assistant organist, I have strong personal reasons for gratitude to John Sumsion. Of course his influence over my formative years was considerable, but even now I am still conscious of the strength and wisdom of his guidance. Not many years ago, while preparing his challenging organ piece Introduction and Theme for a recording, I had the humbling experience of the composer's standing behind me directing operations and advising me very much as he had done 40 years earlier. It was quite clear that I did not play the piece as well as I thought, recalling then - as I often do - his illustrious, yet demanding teaching, that I now know was a privilege to receive. I am equally sure that the many choristers who passed through his hands will share this gratitude for his teaching and encouragement; the number of his boys who have become professional (and amateur) musicians is a testimony to his inspiration.

Sumsion's discipline, not of the traditional type, was always tempered with kindness and concern for the singers under his charge; he had that rare gift which made people want to do well for him. Certainly cathedral music flourished at Gloucester during Sumsion's tenure of office, in spite of the many difficulties such as availability of adult singers during and after the Second World War, coupled with the appalling apathy of the clergy. Yet his demands for high standards never faltered, the memory of his insistence on secure intonation and rhythmic precision have made a lasting impression.

This authority and sensitivity extended also to his accompaniments, so often taken for granted with a cathedral organist, and as a recitalist he was brilliant. His fabulous recording of Elgar's Organ Sonata is still the model for us all, and it was probably recorded in one session while he held a conversation with his page turner. This keyboard skill was also evident at the piano, a branch of his art which he took seriously, even into his latter years, when he produced A Piano Technique: a Book of Exercises (1980).

The quality and importance of Sumsion's work was recognised by the award of a Lambeth Doctorate in 1947, and he was appointed CBE in 1961. He retired from Gloucester Cathedral in 1967 to enjoy a long and active retirement composing and teaching at his idyllic Cotswold home.

Those of us who were fortunate to know and work with Sumsion will have our special memories of time spent at rehearsals, being at the end of his clear and confident conducting, experiencing his diligent preparation, or just sharing interesting musical - and other - conversation. To have had him around for so long has been a source of inspiration and comfort to those of us who have had the responsibility of continuing a great tradition - a tradition which he himself graced with such quiet eloquence.

Donald Hunt

Herbert Whitton Sumsion, organist, composer: born Gloucester 19 January 1899; Organist of Gloucester Cathedral 1928-67; Director of Music, Ladies' College, Cheltenham 1935-68; CBE 1961; married 1927 Alice Garlichs (three sons); died Frampton-on-Severn, Gloucestershire 11 August 1995.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements