Obituary: Ralph Downes

Ralph William Downes, organist and organ designer: born Derby 16 August 1904; Organist, Brompton Oratory 1936-77; Professor of Organ, Royal College of Music 1954-75; CBE 1969; KSG 1970; married 1929 Agnes May Rix (died 1980; one son); died 24 December 1993

RALPH DOWNES devoted his life to the organ. He was a respected player who, early in his career, gave the British premieres of works by Hindemith, Messiaen, Milhaud and Schoenberg and helped introduce the music of Louis Vierne to English audiences. Increasingly he concentrated on the music of Bach and his Bach performances, always played from the eye-strainingly condensed print of a miniature score, established him as one of the first champions of the Baroque revival. His playing was characterised by a thorough approach to interpretation, textural accuracy and, most of all, registration. A desire to recreate as closely as possible on one instrument the authentic sound world for each school of organ music found a natural outlet in organ design.

Downes's views on organ design remained largely unheeded until 1948 when the opportunity arose for him to put them into practice in a uniquely prestigious project. He was appointed by the then London County Council to design an organ for the new concert hall to be built on the south bank of the Thames in Festival of Britain year. Despite enormous opposition from the musical establishment, Downes persevered with characteristic single- mindedness and produced an instrument which revolutionised British organ building; things were never the same again.

The controversy over the Royal Festival Hall organ was as much to do with the use of continental methods of construction (Downes imported a Frenchman, Louis-

Eugene Rochesson, to voice the reeds) as for the tonal scheme which attempted to marry French, German and British, Baroque, Romantic and modern elements. The RFH organ was not an unqualified success but the ideas behind it made undeniably good sense and were developed in many of Downes's subsequent projects. Again controversy surrounded these: the 1972 Gloucester Cathedral organ horrified as many organists as it thrilled while the 1983 instrument for St David's Hall in Cardiff (the largest British mechanical action organ in recent times), dogged as it was by faults in both design and construction, was widely considered to have been over-ambitious.

At the heart of all this controversy was a small, unassuming man whose disconcertingly self-effacing manner belied an iron determination. For a column I wrote in Musical Times, I regularly attended the weekly Wednesday evening recitals in the Festival Hall. Downes, who even after his retirement from the post of organ curator would attend every one, usually beckoned me from his favourite seat in the centre of the auditorium to join him. I was treated to a running commentary through each recital and was amazed that, while he knew the instrument better than anyone else, he could still be excited by new sounds visiting recitalists found on it. He was intolerant of poor performances, though, especially of his beloved Bach, and was trenchant in his stage-whispered asides.

Downes caught the organ bug as a young boy and by the age of 14 was deputy organist at All Saints Church, Derby (now the Cathedral). On leaving school he worked in a Nottingham cinema accompanying silent films until, in 1922, he went to study at the Royal College of Music (where his tutor, Sir Walter Alcock, called him 'gluttonous for work' - although Downes described himself as 'unteachable'). The following year he was appointed assistant organist of Southwark Cathedral. He went on to become organ scholar at Keble College, Oxford, leaving in 1928 to take up an appointment as organist at Princeton University. Whilst in America he converted to Roman Catholicism and on returning to Britain was appointed to the Brompton Oratory, one of the most important organist's posts in the Roman Catholic church. He remained there for over 40 years.

Downes wrote two small organ pieces, Jubilate Deo and Paraphrase of 'O filii et filiae', a book (Baroque Tricks: adventures with the organ builders, 1983) and countless articles mostly on organ design and the interpretation of Baroque music. He made recordings for the Pye, Vista and EMI labels, but the best memorials to his life's work are to be found in the many important organs, both large and small, in concert halls and churches throughout Britain.

(Photograph omitted)

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 People

Geography Teacher

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

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

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

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice