Choristers Musical Heros

Being involved at a young age in music in a Cathedral setting, one could hardly avoid becoming entranced by both the ethereal beauty of the surroundings and the aesthetic nature of the music that one heard on an almost daily basis. As youngsters we all had our heroes, most often these were the great athletes or sporting champions we all would hope one day to emulate. Yes, I had those heroes too, but also great musical heroes who calmly and assuredly went about their daily business with the confidence and professional expertise allied with genuine modesty that only the true genius has. For one, there was John Martlew, head chorister at the time I came to Southwell, a great all round musician later to become a superb organist who was the first person I heard playing Bach’s toccata and fugue in D minor BWV565 and he could only have been 15 or 16 at the time; an ARCO before leaving school, he would also not only assist but take a major role in arranging programs for school concerts with Mr. Peters.

Then there was Philip Brett, a master musicologist if ever there was - at the age of 16, he was able from memory to transcribe for choir and orchestra an entire arrangement of the carol ‘Of the Father’s Heart Begotten’ by J V Peters (which in itself is a truly great arrangement) regretfully never published. Philip went on to great things as Professor of Musicology at the University of California. Sadly no longer with us - I still treasure his signed and well-used tattered copy of Bach’s 48 Preludes and fugues which he passed on to me, as he could play them all from memory!

Another hero of mine is John Rushby-Smith who could play just about anything on the piano and in any style - classical or jazz (as the headmaster’s son he could get away with playing jazz) - I well remember jam sessions in the school hall after school finished- John on the Bechstein grand, John Clay on percussion (an upturned wastepaper bin) and someone else on string bass (broom handle with twine attached to an old tea chest). He would also compose and when I was in Germany with the youth orchestra in 1956 I heard a young German playing a piece on the piano I instantly recognised. When I asked him he told me he had learnt it from John Rushby when he had visited Nottingham the previous year. I believe John went on to great things with the BBC and as far as I know is still composing.

I have already mentioned Dr R J Ashfield who regularly gave organ concert recitals for the BBC and who revised the singing of psalms in the Minster by his version of the Southwell Psalter where all the psalms were rephrased to emulate as far as possible the natural inflections of the speaking voice (albeit in 17th century English)
Then there was the musical genius of Dr Jack Peters who took over the school music department in 1950 - a New Zealander with a very short fuse - but a very humanitarian musician with a flair for improvisation and choral arranging. His free accompaniments to the last verse of many a famous hymn could raise the hairs on the back of your neck and bring you out in goose bumps. I still remember marching out of school assembly in the Minster to Widor’s toccata or Karg-Elert’s Now thank we all Our God- and the tremendous lift that gave you before the monotonous slog of everyday school work.

Adrian Officer, Mr Peter’s successor, recently acknowledged to me the enormous debt he owed Jack for his generous imparting of knowledge, which enabled him to carry on where Mr Peters left off. Mr Peters departed at the end of 1953, having made a recording on 78rpm records of the school Christmas concert - there must be one or two copies still around somewhere. He went to take up a post as organist and choir director at Adelaide cathedral in Australia - although he had an untimely death in 1973 - he is still widely remembered throughout Australia for his virtuosic organ playing and Music Festival appearances.

Last but no means least in my book for this era is Mr Don Fox who is better known for his ancient and modern language teaching probably than his musicianship, He taught many a boy the techniques of piano playing, and his skill as a performer was never better shown to me as when he & Trevor Jones played the 2 piano accompaniment to Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances at the school concert in 1957

Colin E Baker (1949-57)

You can hear more from Colin by following ‘Boarder/Chorister’s Memories from the 50s’