Obituary: Bernard Rose

Roderic Dunnett
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:25

Bernard Rose was one of the giants of English choral music in the post-war era. He was one of the defining choir trainers of his generation, a larger-than-life, chain-smoking, colourful, rumbustious personality, who took his choir at Magdalen College, Oxford, to new heights and did much to assist the upsurge in wider choral and cathedral music standards which has since followed.

Initially a Cambridge man - at the age of 18 he won an organ scholarship to St Catharine's College (over Edward Heath, who went on to get Balliol) - Rose was a fast achiever. He received his early grounding in harmony and counterpoint, at which he later excelled as a teacher, from Walter Alcock at Salisbury, at the Royal College, and from Hubert Middleton at Trinity, Cambridge, and had already made a name for himself as conductor of CUMS, the Cambridge University Music Society, and at the Queen's College, Oxford, where he was tutor in music from 1939 to 1957, before progressing to Magdalen. But his 24 years there as Fellow, Organist and Informator Choristarum were to prove the high point of his career.

Rose started as he meant to go on, inheriting Dudley Moore as his first organ scholar and clearing out the stables, replacing the last lay clerks with undergraduate choral scholars (Academical Clerks) and making rapid improvements in the standard of choral evensong, the service which was the Magdalen chapel's lifeblood.

Seeking the best for the college, he was never sparing of himself. He built on and developed Magdalen's extensive repertoire, one of the largest and most varied anywhere in the country; established a uniquely vigorous and dramatic manner of psalm-singing; and insisted on the highest standards and precision of enunciation. He was more instinctive than systematic in his approach, and could be more than prickly where standards were not delivered, but generations of boys and men have cause to be grateful for his meticulous, impassioned, and at best inspired, direction.

There were many defining points in Rose's long career. The first was probably the death of his father when he himself was aged three, which may have had something to do with the patent insecurity and vulnerability which drove him later on, and the extremes of intolerance, warmth and generosity which epitomised his dealings with people. The death led to a move with his mother to Salisbury, where he became a leading boy chorister in the Alcock years, and possessed a solo voice of such calibre and renown that he was lined up as standby for what became the famous Ernest Lush recording of Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer.

With the support of Walter Alcock he progressed to the Royal College of Music and then Cambridge, where he received close encouragement from Boris Ord and Patrick ("Paddy") Hadley, who also helped financially. His success at CUMS led directly to the interest of Sir Adrian Boult, who invited him to Quaker's Orchard, his Surrey home, to meet other conductors, and paved the way for a job offer from the BBC. In the end, Rose stayed with the academic life for which he was cut out, and accepted an offer to become tutor in music at Queen's, moving to Oxford and settling into a college hostel on the Iffley Road.

His world was in upheaval, anyway, in two ways. In 1938 he had met, and by Christmas 1939 had married, Molly Marshall, moving then to their first joint home in Norham Gardens. He also signed up for the Royal Armoured Corps, typically fell out with his commanding officer on a point of principle, and transferred from the Northants and later 4th County of London Yeomanry. In due course he was posted to Cairo and fought with the "Desert Rats" in the campaign of El Alamein before being transferred from North Africa to Italy. His wife meanwhile piloted for ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary. The comradeship of these war years was something which coloured each of their outlooks, and the value they jointly placed on hospitality and friendship, thereafter.

The D-Day campaign in northern France proved more traumatic. By then promoted captain and regimental adjutant, Rose landed unscathed at Arromanches, only to see his unit carved to pieces by the German tank gunners and artillery a few days later at Villers-Bocage. He was taken prisoner, and spent the remainder of the war as a POW in central Germany.

Returning to Oxford, where he later became the first official Fellow in Music at Queen's, Rose threw himself into his duties with undisguised aplomb. For the Eglesfield Musical Society he conducted major premieres of works by Vaughan Williams, and by his friend and departmental colleague Edmund Rubbra.

Rose was fortunate in encountering early on a clutch of pupils, some seeking him out from other colleges, of the highest calibre. Kenneth Leighton, later Professor of Music at Edinburgh and a noted composer, was one of these, and went on to become a close personal friend. Another, unexpected, spin-off from Queen's was Rose's encounter, and subsequent longstanding friendship, with the conductor Leopold Stokowski.

By now a family had come along (three sons) and the Roses were happily ensconced outside Oxford at Bampton, where Bernard could indulge his passion for cricket, for a time captaining the local team. In parallel with his music, Rose was a natural craftsman, and loved working with wood, a skill which he put to good effect in the beautifully restored family homes both there and at nearby Appleton. Many a chorister or colleague enjoyed the benefits of the Roses' charming, and sometimes riotous, hospitality. Bernard also took a growing interest in the City of Oxford Silver Band, which he conducted, and of which he was later a keen President for 10 years.

But it was for his quarter- century as organist of Magdalen that Bernard Rose will be most remembered. The calibre of his boys was a testimony in itself. He set about his work with the choir with a passion, and single-handedly created one of the finest singing vehicles in the country, capable on a good day of matching St John's or King's in his own old university of Cambridge, and of enjoying an ongoing friendly rivalry with his friend David Lumsden's New College choir, just up the road.

Rose's approach was ever robust. He could generate the most appalling tensions in a boys' or men's practice, only to coax from them - and from himself - minutes later in a service, the most surpassing, moving and committed performances. On bad days he would join in the singing, embarrassingly, or overawe and cow his charges so that they sung mesmerised, making errors all over the shop. At other times he was sweetness and light itself, bringing a delicate sense of inspired musical phrasing to Renaissance or Romantic repertoire alike, and illuming the Magdalen psalms into a musical masterpiece, and a genuine, tasteful act of worship and praise.

This was never more so than those rare occasions when an evensong consisted of his own music. Rose made no special claims for his output, but his compositions had stamped upon them the clear mark of a miniaturist master- craftsman. His responses and psalm chants alone were exemplary - indeed, the Magdalen chantbook which Rose evolved over the years was one of his finest achievements. But his Evening Canticles, especially the little- known unaccompanied Short Service, his shorter anthems and longer pieces - notably the Feast Song for St Cecilia, with its haunting soprano solo setting words by his son (the conductor, Gregory Rose) and the Catharine Ode, composed for the quincentenary of his old college - all bear witness to his alertness, imagination and genuine inspiration in writing for choir.

Rose's natural habitats were the organ loft, practice room and his teaching room (the atmosphere peppered alternately by guffaws, biting sarcasm and unmentionable oaths). He was also, however, a distinguished editor of church music. His edition of Musica Deo Sacra in the "Early English Church Music" series is a model of its kind, and pays tribute to a composer whose music, in manuscript or printed form, was a staple item of Magdalen College evensongs. He nursed many other early composers, some of them his predecessors, into the repertory - Nicholson, Rogers, Appleby, Sheppard, Daniel Purcell. It was undoubtedly a tribute to him that so many ground-breaking choral groups - the Clerkes of Oxenforde, the Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars - stemmed, directly or indirectly, from the pioneering efforts he himself made with the Magdalen choir.

Rose's almost Yorkshire plain speaking could lead him to say things he would afterwards come to regret, and even earn him enemies; but his self- drive, his catalystic flair, his occasional downright earthiness and his fierce loyalty to those with whom he formed a bond of mutual trust and respect made him many friends also. He remained the firebrand he was, even though late in life he was plagued by breathing difficulties. If cathedral and church music in England now stand on a peak in the world, he deserves full recognition as one of the people who put it there.

Bernard William George Rose, organist: born Little Hallingbury, Hertfordshire 9 May 1916; Organist, Queen's College, Oxford 1939-57, Fellow 1949-57; Fellow, Organist, Informator Choristarum, Magdalen College, Oxford 1957- 81 (Fellow Emeritus), Vice-President 1973-74; University Lecturer in Music, Oxford University 1950-81, Choragus in the University 1958-63; President, Royal College of Organists 1974-76; OBE 1980; married 1939 Molly Marshall (three sons); died 21 November 1996.

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