The Church Music Society

Registered Charity No. 290309

Sir Edward Bairstow

by Francis Jackson, OBE, D Mus; D Univ. York
formerly Master of the Music, York Minster
A Lecture delivered to the Church Music Society in the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster Abbey, on 5 July 1986.

Edward Cuthbert Bairstow was born in Yorkshire – Huddersfield, to be exact – nearly 112 years ago. He spent his entire professional life in posts around the same latitude, resisting all attempts to lure him in any other direction, notably to Westminster Abbey in 1928. Instead of him, his pupil Ernest Bullock was appointed, presumably on Bairstow’s recommendation. In a broadcast talk Bairstow gave his reasons:

I was born in the West Riding, and I know the Yorkshire-man with his fearlessness, his energy, his rather material outlook, and his straightness which sometimes develops into rudeness. That is the main reason why I stayed —because I believe I am more useful here than in London. But, naturally, there was also the pull of the Minster and the beautiful City of York. Usefulness and a life amidst beautiful surroundings are of far more importance to one’s happiness than notoriety and a large income.

As to the possibility of his following his York predecessor, T. Tertius Noble, to America, he said ‘I would rather go to the devil’.

In the days when the cathedral organist was the chief musician of his area Bairstow’s influence was wide. He was proud, and justly so, of the fact that at one time five of his pupils held cathedral appointments. The number of his pupils was phenomenal. Most of his time was spent in teaching, that is to say when his other duties allowed. A large proportion of his pupils were singers. He had a lifelong interest in the human voice and spent much effort in learning the mechanics of singing.

In his day the York Minster choir produced five weekday evensongs and matins on four weekdays, as well as three services on 50 Sundays in the year. There was one plain day, usually Wednesday, when the choir enjoyed a welcome respite from the somewhat killing programme. But not the Master of the Music. He took himself to Leeds for a full day of teaching, in what I am told was a dingy underground room in a music shop. He did this also on Mondays, when Lady Bairstow appeared with the Rover as the choristers’ practice finished at 9.45 and drove him to the station for the 10 o’clock train. His assistant played for evensong each Monday. There were also a good many other occasions when the assistant was in charge, when Bairstow was adjudicating, examining, giving recitals (there were fewer in those days than now), conducting choral concerts, or fulfilling his ‘establishment’ commitments as president of various bodies (the RCO, ISM, and IAO) or, from 1929, his professorial duties at Durham. His fingers were in a great many pies, leaving him little room for non-musical pursuits or for composition. Nowadays he would be dubbed a ‘workaholic’, fitting into his day an endless string of appointments with almost split-second timing, and yet being able to give his whole attention to the utmost of his ability. His mind was always crystal clear, his comments devastatingly apposite, terse, and unarguable. Economy was important to him. Nothing should be wasted, never a word either in speech or writing, and no unnecessary movement made in playing the organ. Thus his literary style is at times abrupt, but it does convey his meaning, probably the more convincingly.

Music was the most important thing in his life — that is, after his family and home life. And he wanted to share this precious gift with others. Quite early in life he realised that he possessed a ‘sense of message’, the feeling that what you do is done for others. This came to him one day when, having learned his first piece, he summoned the two maids to come to hear it, there being no-one else available. So the rest of his life was given over to helping his fellows to appreciate beauty in all its manifestations, but particularly in music. His life became almost a crusade, and any means of furthering this aim were brought into use. And any address or speech of his was widely reported, sometimes in extenso.

One of his cares was to encourage the use of better music rather than the large and ubiquitous quantity of what he called tripe or trash, too much of which, he considered, was broadcast by the BBC; and his forthright views, so trenchantly expressed, more than once gained him unpopularity. A lively controversy ensued from his strictures on the church music of Sullivan, of whose anthem 0 love the Lord he had been obliged to hear several performances at a competitive festival in 1928. Although Sullivan was a great composer of comic opera, in church music (Bairstow considered) he ‘never wrote anything worth a cuss’:

This particular effusion is the feeblest type of Victorian church music. Stupid nonsensical music has driven thousands of people out of church. No intelligent person is going to listen complacently to such music. Today we do not get such music in the concert hall. Even jazz has more life in it than that stuff. Yet there is no lack of beautiful anthems.

He enlarged on this in the London Evening News:

... but still worse is the flippant type like the opening of Sullivan’s anthem Sing, 0 heavens. Tunes like this would have been welcomed in one of his lightest operas. The melodic and rhythmic attractiveness of Sullivan’s music, taken apart from the words to which it is set, must account for the long reign of such hymn tunes as ‘Onward Christian soldiers’. The jolly march rhythm of this may suggest a band of children with paper helmets and wooden swords but it certainly does not bring forcibly to one’s mind the Church of God marching against the forces of evil!

In once more praising the Savoy operas, Bairstow asks ‘who can imagine what an oratorio by Offenbach would be like, or a mass by, say, Johann Strauss?’ In this kind of attitude, in which he was by no means alone among other leading church musicians, one can begin to appreciate the reason for the long neglect of a work like Rossini’ s Petite Messe Solonelle and wonder how the cheerful strains of a Haydn or Mozart mass could have been explained away by a generation that revered these composers just as much then as we do now. At the same time, Bairstow had a great love and respect for the Missa Solemnis and was always ready to quote Beethoven’s ascription ‘From the heart, may it go to the heart’.

He disapproved of the ‘slithering’ downward semitones beloved of Victorian composers and preferred the healthy strength of the diatonic discord. Yet in his lovely anthem Lord, I call upon thee (1916) this very device appears: but to what magical effect! The difference, I suppose, is in the calibre of the composer, the way he treats the progression, and its context and appropriateness. In this instance it seems entirely right and, what is more, the organ seems to take its cue from it in the recapitulation where Bairstow produces a surprise chord and the organ continues with four bars of delectable chromatic harmony the like of which has seldom entered into English church music. He was always so emphatic that music should be expressive, whether it was a setting of words or not. It must well up in the composer’s mind and appear as a right, true, and natural expression of the sentiment to be portrayed. In short, it must be sincere, neither a pose nor a gimmick. It had to be the very best that God’s gift could produce, and nothing less would satisfy him.

So it was that poor Stainer, Garrett, Hopkins, and many others fared badly at his hands: unjustly, perhaps, as one might think nowadays when there is a re-appraisal of Victorian music and one realises that those composers were perfectly sincere in their own way. And it is interesting to look at Bairstow’s early efforts and to find in them something of the same style of florid and academic composition. But of course he had been brought up with music of that kind all around him, so it was inevitable that he should at first write in that style. Nevertheless there were early signs of greatness to come, not least in Save us, 0 Lord, written when he was 26, with its long tender organ introduction and the sweep of its wide arch, to say nothing of the complete suitability of the music to the words. He always believed that every word should receive its right setting and expression.

When we come to Let all mortal flesh (and probably he never wrote a more compelling piece of music), the fact that it was written when he was 32 and not in 1925, the year in which it was published 19 years later, may be a surprise to many. You might think the dramatic pauses between the Hallelujahs must surely have been conceived for the five-second reverberation of York Minster. Perhaps they were; but seven years were still to elapse before Bairstow found himself organist there, and I have come across no evidence to suggest that this piece was written for any other purpose than his own use in Leeds Parish Church with its dry acoustic. The imaginative treatment of the words — the low beginning suggesting the mortal plane followed immediately by the upper voices rising above all earthly thought, the stately entry of the angel choir, the terror cast by the cherubim with many eyes, the ecstatic Hallelujahs, and the hushed ending — all this is quite exceptional for the period in which it was written, and bears witness to the extent to which his feelings were stirred as he wrote the music. The duplicated copies, a semitone lower than the published version, were in use at York for many years after it had been published by Stainer & Bell. Perhaps this says something about the state of the Minster’s finances at that time.

Bairstow took his first lessons from a succession of teachers before going to John Farmer who taught at Steinway Hall in London and passed on to him a love of the best in music. In 1892 he became an articled pupil of Sir Frederick Bridge at Westminster Abbey, having organ lessons from Walter Alcock who was then assistant organist there. In 1899 he took up the post of organist of Wigan Parish Church in succession to C. H. Moody who went to Holy Trinity, Coventry, and then to Ripon Cathedral. Here he threw himself into the many activities that awaited him and maintained the high standard of the choir and even improved upon it; had the organ rebuilt; produced the choral society’s concerts, at some of which he would provide a piano solo; and took over the Blackburn Choral Society who engaged a section of the Hallé Orchestra for their accompaniment. As a choral conductor he had already had valuable experience at Petworth during his London days. The big house there, where in earlier days J. M. W. Turner had lived and worked for some time, was one of the two bases where the local county people forgathered each week to be put through their rigorous training by the young single-minded enthusiast, who kept them standing during the entire two-hour rehearsal and so infected them with his keenness that they were unaware of any thoughts of fatigue.

At Blackburn he mounted two performances of The Dream of Gerontius, the first in 1905 only six years after its first performance. Admittedly with a reduced orchestra, this was nevertheless a courageous and rewarding exercise, reported in the newspaper as being ‘a delight to audience, chorus, and conductor’. He was always quick to take up new works, for example The Hymn of Jesus at York in the early 1920s, and the latest work of Vaughan Williams on more than one occasion.

On arrival at Leeds Parish Church in 1907 he became organist to the Leeds Festival and, later, chairman of the Leeds Society of Organists. He met all the famous people who took part in the Festivals, including Stanford, Elgar, and Rachmaninoff. The last-named was impressed by the friendliness of the local musicians towards each other: in Russia, he said, they were very much at loggerheads. And he heard new works as they were produced for the first time, such as Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony and Stanford’s Stabat Mater in 1910.

At the Parish Church he had a fine choir into whose training he threw himself with unswerving enthusiasm, striving to produce the best standard possible. He was always a perfectionist and spared no pains whatever he was engaged in. Leeds Parish Church itself he called a sham — sham Gothic, with painted iron or painted plaster purporting to be carved oak. But he became very attached to it so that by the time he came to apply for York he did so half-heartedly, and only later came to realise it was indeed to his advantage. The choir at York was in a poor state with worn-out men, while the Dean was an autocrat who required Bairstow to ask permission whenever he wished to be absent. He had just had the Leeds organ rebuilt by Harrisons, and he was enjoying his busy life there to the full. However, at nearly 40 years of age and equipped with his boundless energy and formidable talent, he was the right man to take on even greater responsibilities and to mould the music of York Minster to his taste. He took over the conductorship of the York Musical Society while retaining that of the Leeds Philharmonic. He also kept the teaching practice in Leeds that I have already mentioned. York Minster choir then began a rise to fame, as did Bairstow himself as he came to be in demand as a national figure along with such contemporaries as Hugh Allen and Walford Davies. He had been born within a couple of years of Vaughan Williams and was five years older than Ireland and Frank Bridge. They all belonged to that marvellous generation of musicians who did so much for the resurgence of English music of their day.

Bairstow was inevitably influenced by Elgar, even as late as 1937 in his Organ Sonata, but he also took on board something of Debussy and made his own amalgam which included a good deal that was characteristic of himself. At the one extreme is the soft, sensitive, colourful, sometimes rather sentimental touch; and opposing it there is the strong, rhythmic, vital music you can find in the middle movement of the Organ Sonata. He was fond of using the word ‘strong’ in connection with music’s quality. This quality can also be found in certain of his anthems: the end of Of the Father’s Love begotten, in Blessed City at the words ‘many a blow and biting sculpture’, and the central section of If the Lord had not helped me.

Notice too, after that section I have mentioned in Blessed City, how the organ continues on its own, building up a climax of sheer inspiration after which the music dies down to usher in the final verse with its tender arabesques sung by a treble soloist over the harmonised plainsong on which the anthem is based. The composer contrives to gather up the diverse moods of the five verses into a satisfactory whole when, in the hands of a lesser composer, it might have become episodic and straggling. This is done by creating plenty of interest and variety in the early stages, and by careful placing of the climax. If in performance that climax has been made striking enough, the effect of the grateful and peaceful final section – the longest of all – is heightened.

Interpretation was of the utmost importance to Bairstow. He believed that whatever meaning lies behind the notes must be brought out and given its fullest expression. He considered that you became a different person for having experienced a fine performance of something worthwhile, whether on the one hand a symphony, quartet, or sonata, or on the other the simplest of piano or organ pieces or a chanted psalm. He loved the psalms, and his accompaniments to them were always full of imagination, colour, feeling, and drama. Eric Fenby remembered them recently at the age of 80 and after some 60 years of varied experience in many other fields of music. I have seen Bairstow profoundly moved, in particular on one occasion by Psalm 26 to the chant of Christopher Gibbons in A flat, when we choristers were startled to see him red in the face and apparently weeping unashamedly during the service. And it was not that he pulled the music about or distorted it in order to make it expressive. He employed a certain rubato where appropriate, and shaped the melody with the greatest skill and sensitivity whether on organ or piano, and demanded much from his choristers. But he was adamant that only what was in the score must be played, without such things as unwarranted changes of tempo and dynamic. He maintained that the composer who had done his job properly had given all the directions necessary for the understanding of the music, that it was up to the interpreter to take close heed of them, that a dotted note means literally one-and-a-half and not some arbitrary reduction thereof, and that two beats of silence are to be counted faithfully and accurately in order to produce the effect in mind; and so on. Nevertheless I have known him make occasional changes in the choir’s music, but always to good purpose.

There were times when he must have felt so overwhelmed by the power of the music he was accompanying that he used the full power of the organ and drowned us completely for a second or two. But to what magnificent effect! We certainly felt changed human beings after such an experience, and I for one learnt to look for something of the sort in whatever music one might be occupied with. Michael Tippett once paid the Minster choir a compliment by saying he had felt his whole being transformed by a performance at weekday matins of the anthem now known to be by Loosemore but then thought to be the work of Gibbons, 0 Lord, increase my faith. Bairstow was in no way afraid of genuine emotion. On the contrary, he looked for it and brought it out to its fullest extent whether in his own playing or in his choir training and conducting.

Bairstow’s chief legacy lies in two fields: first, in the knowledge he passed on to his many pupils together with the attitude of devotion to music that he held so unswervingly; second, in his compositions, some of which I have mentioned. This is a more enduring way, of course, for a musician to be remembered, especially when his music continues to be available in print as, I am glad to note, some of Bairstow’s still does. His output was not large, but it is of unusually high quality. Had he been able to concentrate more on composition alone his works would have been more numerous and he would certainly have maintained his high standard.

There are two examples of the kind of secular music he might have produced had he been able to devote more time and energy to composing. They are both sets of variations, one for two pianos (1908), the other Six Variations on an Original Theme for violin and piano written for Sybil Eaton in 1916. An original touch in the latter is the way the key of the variations alternates between major and minor. Each movement is strongly characterised and well contrasted– one a canon, one a scherzo, and more than one deeply felt, with a moving and nostalgic ending. This I consider a most beautiful work and undeservedly neglected.

In a short talk there must inevitably be many things that have to be omitted. To do justice to so great a man and musician from all angles would need a whole book and many music examples. I hope it will not tempt Providence if I divulge that I have for some 14 years had this very much in mind. Indeed, the project is well under way and I have good hope for an early completion. Meanwhile, not even an outline sketch should fail to emphasise his kindness and his sympathetic understanding of the feelings of other people. He could be ruthless, with shattering effect, but he could also be infinitely subtle and gentle where that kind of approach was best. Where suitable he would bring home some unpalatable truth obliquely by a parable, leaving the listener to perceive the unspoken implication. His sense of humour was of the keenest. He was always ready to see the funny side of any situation, and if he had come across an amusing story (which seemed often to be the case) he would pass it on with great glee and relish.

Bairstow was insistent that organists should have other musical interests than the organ and church music. They should be all-rounders. So it was that he found himself delivering a lecture at the RCO not on the organ works of Bach, Mendelssohn, or César Franck but on the 4th Symphony of Brahms, which seems odd to us nowadays when specialisation directs us to the fount whence flows our chosen subject. But Bairstow could do anything musical as well as any specialist. He did superbly anything he put his hand to. As an organist he was authoritative, exciting, gripping, dramatic. He thought that the German sixth in Bach’s Fantasia in G minor needed his left hand to play it on the tuba — that enormous York tuba — in addition to the Great played with his right hand. He felt the drama so strongly that he needed to put the point over to his listeners.

As an accompanist he was equally persuasive. When he drowned the choir at an overwhelming climax, what did it matter as long as the message got home? Equally he could be poetical in soft passages, using the organ’s colours to fullest advantage and picking out certain notes and motifs in quasi-orchestral timbres. In my experience of him he never played a wrong note. On the piano I have heard him accompany, for instance, Sybil Eaton in The Lark Ascending and a Schubert Sonatina, and Elsie Suddaby and George Parker in his own songs, and have been amazed at the expressiveness and the colour he elicited from the piano, with much the same effect as one has recently experienced in the playing of Horowitz.

As adjudicator he used his platform to encourage amateurs taking part in competitive singing and playing to appreciate the best in musical taste and style and, as always, spoke the truth fearlessly as he saw it, regardless of the consequences. He wanted music to become part of everyone’s life, and I think he would have viewed with gratification the spread of good music through radio and recordings. I am fairly certain, too, that he would have had one or two things to say about the ‘pop’ scene of today, just as he did in his own time about trashy music and Victorian church music. He was quite aware that his habit of calling a spade a spade was tricky for him. He said ‘I have been asked to adjudicate at most of the competitive festivals in this country and abroad — once.’ I doubt if he could have changed even had he wished to.

I have spoken of his many pupils. As a teacher he had the unfailing knack of being able to go to the nub of the matter straight away. His comments were always sparing and economical but very much to the point and memorable. Sometimes indeed he made no comment except something like ‘Jolly good’, which you found enormously encouraging and caused you to leave your lesson with a light heart; which you normally did after any lesson from him except one you had not prepared properly. Then he let you know exactly what he thought, as always.

As a conductor he might have made his mark but for his other work. In his Wigan days the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra was Richter, and he gave much encouragement to Bairstow when they shared the concerts of the Blackburn chorus. On one occasion Richter came into the hail to hear him conduct Brahms’s Song of Destiny, and when it was over walked on to the platform and shook Bairstow’s hand in front of the audience. Later, in April 1926, Bairstow conducted the Royal Choral Society in what was said to be their first rendering of the Mass in B minor, part of which was recorded ‘live’ by HMV. This received plaudits from at least a dozen newspaper critics and followed what some of them declared to be his notable success with an earlier performance of Messiah.

At a Leeds Philharmonic concert in 1925 at which The Hymn of Jesus and Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs were performed, the orchestra played Cherubini’s overture to Anacreon, Ireland’s The Forgotten Rite, and Howells’s Puck’s Minuet which, as Herbert Thompson wrote in the Yorkshire Post, were ‘admirably played under the expressive beat of Dr Bairstow, who is not less at home with an orchestra than he is with a chorus.’

As Professor of Music at Durham (in those days a part-time, non-resident post) he brought the music degrees to a high standard. Lastly, the author and composer. His Counterpoint and Harmony was written at Stanford’s suggestion. It took some years in the writing and his pupils were lent the precious manuscript a chapter at a time before Macmillans published it. I believe it is not well enough known. It derives from the belief that counterpoint and harmony should be studied simultaneously. Its purpose is to encourage musicality and thus, even in a textbook concerned with the dry bones of technique, reflects his lifelong preoccupation with beauty. The Evolution of Musical Form grew from lectures he delivered at Hull University College in 1940 and is an attempt to approach form from ‘a more human and friendly point of view’ than that of most textbooks. The textbook entitled Singing Learned from Speech was written in collaboration with Harry Plunket Greene, his great friend of long standing, and testifies to his lifelong interest in the subject.

For the organ he published twelve pieces, including two lots of three, and the Sonata in F flat in 1937. This, I am glad to say, is once more available in print. His songs are numerous, and there are several part-songs and unison songs as well as arrangements for choir of some songs by Schubert.

Of anthems there are 28, covering his entire working life from 1902. The Service in D began with the evening canticles in 1906, continued with the great Communion Service written for Leeds Parish Church in 1913 just as he was finishing his time there, and completed with the Te Deum and Benedictus published in 1925, though written, I believe, some time before then. There is a double choir version of the morning canticles in manuscript, but the published version is set out for 4-part choir with frequent divisions.

This shows Bairstow at the height of his powers as composer. The unison Service in F flat is from the same period and was published in 1923. It is a very fine work, perhaps underrated because it is not for a choir singing in parts; but it contains some of Bairstow’s best music.

In 1940 he produced his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis anomalously described as ‘in G’ — that is, with one flat in the keysignature for the Dorian mode transposed. This is in complete contrast to the ebullient extrovert setting in D of 1906 and is, I am glad to say, slowly becoming better known. Alas, it is out of print. There is also a Benedicite in F flat, one of his very earliest works (1900), and a wonderful setting of the Lamentations, one of his last works 42 years later, which is widely used. This is the quintessence of Bairstow and expresses the feelings of the words to perfection.

One must not overlook his share in the pointing of The English Psalter, or his chants, 17 of which are in the York Minster Chant Book. One of them, in F flat, has found wide acceptance. His three hymn tunes, ‘Minster Court’, ‘Eboracum’, and (from A&M, 1904) ‘Clamavi’, unfortunately are not well known. He also edited 20 hymns for national use in 1914 which included seven more of his own tunes.

The Prodigal Son, a cantata for choir and small orchestra with an alternative accompaniment for piano and organ, appeared just before the second World War. Bairstow had a special affection for it but it never really caught on and has long been out of print. His last work, Five Poems of the Spirit, was published posthumously and was seen through the press with the orchestration completed by Ernest Bullock. These contain some of his loveliest music, with the final bars of which we will take our leave of this great musician.




In the course of the address specially recorded short extracts were played from the following works: Lord, I call upon thee; Blessed City, Heavenly Salem; Six Variations on an Original Theme; and Five Poems of the Spirit.


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