Obituary: George Malcolm

John Amis
Monday 13 October 1997 23:02 BST

George John Malcolm, harpsichordist, pianist, organist, conductor, choirmaster, composer: born London 28 February 1917; Master of the Cathedral Music, Westminster Cathedral 1947-59; CBE 1965; Papal Knight of the Order of St Gregory 1970; died London 10 October 1997.

Was George Malcolm a harpsichordist, pianist, organist, conductor, choirmaster or composer? He was all those and a very good man, a loyal friend too, even if he was reserved and something of a loner.

As a pianist he was virtuostic but his performances somehow lacked depth; as a harpsichordist this did not show and he was a star performer on the instrument, although he never concealed his preference for the piano, seizing the opportunity of playing it whenever possible, as for example in a duo he enjoyed for some years with the violinist Manoug Parikian. On the jangle box - as he often called his harpsichord - he played for many years with Yehudi Menuhin.

Malcolm enjoyed great success for many decades, but principally in the Fifties and Sixties. This was an age when authenticity had scarcely been heard of. The instrument- maker Tom Goff's harpsichords were the order of the day, rich-sounding, although they required constant attention.

In many ways Malcolm was a conservative but he coaxed sound out of the harpsichord that seemed to emulate the resources of the modern grand piano and concert organ. For example, he used the registers and pedals in a way that eventually was regarded as unacceptable; he could even achieve the impossible by making a crescendo (which shocked especially some German recording producers).

Concurrently with his career as an instrumentalist George Malcolm was Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral for 12 years from 1947, during which time he made perhaps his most lasting contribution to the music of our time; he made the boys put aside the typical Anglican ethereal sound (that often becomes a hoot) for a more natural sound - "the sound boys make in playground" was how Malcolm sometimes put it.

Benjamin Britten heard the Westminster boys and composed a little masterpiece for them, his Missa Brevis. First performed on 22 July 1959, it turned out to be a leaving present for Malcolm, who resigned that year, tired of struggling with administration and administrators. Although he was himself a good organiser, and a tireless worker, Malcolm always spoke his mind to the point of being prickly. He was a brilliant organist. As a choirmaster he was strict, even testy at times, but there was a mutual affection with the choir, particularly with the boys, whom he loved.

Malcolm's ancestry was Scottish but he was born in London. His father having died when George was a boy, he lived with his genial battleaxe of a mother for the rest of her long life. At seven he became the first child to be admitted to the Royal College of Music in London and played the violin at his interview with Sir Hugh Allen.

At Balliol College, Oxford, Malcolm become famous as a roof climber, indeed notorious when he nicked a Christopher Wren-designed bauble from the roof of a rival college. Came the Second World War and he directed a RAF band, conducting a lot of light music and becoming a heavy drinker. In the 1940s, he fell from a second floor window, surviving with difficulty and facial surgery.

George Malcolm was a devout Catholic, and he never practised the homosexuality I am certain was part of his nature. The drink was a way of escaping, perhaps; however, just when it seemed to be ruining his career, Malcolm grit his teeth and gave it up. He was nothing if not courageous. But he still continued to roll his own cigarettes, dropping them in the saucers of the unending cups of coffee. His taste in food was schoolboyish - the meal he enjoyed the most was smoked salmon, followed by meringues and cream.

I first encountered George Malcolm when he played continuo for some concerts in the BBC's Maida Vale studios, with the Boyd-Neel orchestra conducted by Georges Enesco. Like others of his generation Enesco barely tolerated the harpsichord and shushed Malcolm whenever he could hear him. Except when Malcolm played the solo quite magnificently in the Brandenberg Concerto No 5 by Bach: there was this deadpan musician giving the most virtuostic yet somehow penetrating performance - there was no one to touch him at that time.

Even if George Malcolm's style of playing eventually went out of fashion, there must be thousands who cherish the memory of his playing that illumined the great masters, especially Scarlatti, Bach and Handel, even if one suspected that what he really enjoyed more was playing Mendelssohn on the piano. His recitals with Julian Bream on lute and guitar were a source of great joy to performers and audiences alike.

He did quite a bit of conducting, mainly with the now-defunct Philomusica of London, where he was artistic director 1962-66, and the BBC's Scottish Orchestra. He often directed the Cantata Academica for Britten, in the pit for the operas and on Decca recordings. He never became a big-time director partly because his body language seemed too angular, all elbows, not pleasing to watch.

Malcolm composed too: some pleasing church numbers and a fine set of variations on a theme of Mozart (he came from a generation, who, like Beecham, pronounced the name "Modesart") for four harpsichords composed for himself and others to play at one of Tom Goff's unofficially termed "jamborees" at the Festival Hall.

Malcolm had no original gifts at composing but was an attractive pasticheur, at his best in a three-minute number that should have been called "Bach Goes to Sea" but became "Bach Before the Mast".

The day before he was due to record on the harpsichord Alec Templeton's "Bach Goes To Town", the producer rang up and asked what they could put on the other side of the record. "Oh, I'll bring something," he said and sat up all night writing a brilliant fugue in the style of Bach with a subject based on the sailor's hornpipe. Brilliant, and typical of a great all-round musician.

- John Amis

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