OBITUARY : Herbert Sumsion
Thursday 17 August 1995
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.
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.
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