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Frankly Speaking

FRANKLY SPEAKING

Francis Jackson

Yorkshireman, organist, composer and biographer

in conversation with Simon Lindley

Root and Branch

Master at the Minster

Compostion and "Retirement"


I
ROOT AND BRANCH

A clue to the true character of a composer may well come from the garden cultivated by the individual concerned. In Francis Jackson's case, the garden was astonishing – a riot of different colours, textures and levels. Pervading everything was a sense of affectionate devotion and care lavished liberally on every aspect that the eye could take in. Rather like the scores of his choral and organ music, come to think of it.

 

The lovely village of Acklam lies very near a number of larger settlements and towns but is not particularly easily accessible from any. Leaving York on the Bridlington road, travel almost to Stamford Bridge and head left and follow your nose. Names such as Leppington and Leavening spring to mind, and the exquisitely picturesque ruins of Kirkham Priory are quite close at hand. The quality of the environment is significant, as Jackson is a great lover of the countryside and he has retired very close to his roots.

 

Biographical notes in the programmes of the much loved Master of Music Emeritus at York Minster begin invariably with the legend 'A native of Malton, Yorkshire….' – perhaps his identity as a Yorkshireman takes precedence over his artistic endeavours and achievements?

 

The first Christian name has been in the Jackson family since the composer's great grandfather. The death of FJ's father's elder brother – also Francis – of dysentery in World War I and 'our' Francis's arrival on the scene early in October of 1917 clearly clinched matters. He is also Alan (after a school friend of his father's – one Alan Coleman). 'They were at St John's, Leatherhead together.'

 

What's in a name? – to musicians that of Jackson is synonymous with virtuosic organ playing of the highest order and superbly rhetorical compositions to sacred texts for 'quires and places where they sing'. The affection in which FJ is held by so many throughout the world stems not only from his professional distinction and musical brilliance but also from a disarmingly modest personality – always big-hearted and immensely caring of his fellow men. He is an engaging conversationalist on a whole host of topics but rather more reluctant to talk about himself! 

 

SL: Though the inflections are there for those of us attuned to listening for them, yours is a University rather than a North Country accent – and yet, doctorate not withstanding, you were never an undergraduate?


FJ: No, my education was down to Sir Edward Bairstow. I think my articles with him were generously defrayed by friends of the Minster Choir, whose munificence I value still.

 

The results of such early zeal are a speaking voice which makes for compelling listening, and a turn of verbal phrase always exactly reflecting his feelings. FJ is an inveterate correspondent – with a glorious italic script as clearly focussed as his musical manuscripts. He is not insensitive to the potential of mimicry afforded by his voice. Songman John Rothera [another real Minster character] had it off to a tee.

 

'In the army, I was more than once questioned as to why, coming from Yorkshire, I didn't betray the fact. The simple truth is that I followed my parents' example, father's particularly. He was the son of a vicarage in the days when all parsons spoke in 'cultured tones'. My father's eldest sister, a tiny, formidable lady, paid us an annual visit and she was exceedingly vigilant where her brother's children's behaviour was concerned. Also, she was watchful for any rough Yorkshire talk that might be creeping in. And that made an impression.'

 

He regards use of language as significant as the orchestral techniques of Berlioz or his beloved Ravel: 'they set up a magic in sound like the master orchestrators that they are – it's the same with writers and words'. A love of poetry and literature generally was nourished during war service – when fellow troopers in the 9th Lancers (a Cavalry regiment) introduced him to the writings of Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and W H Auden. The Doctor is also widely-known as a devotee of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer – 'we have it here at the Basilica, you know'.

 

Jackson's is a name found in nearly every good hymnal as the composer of one of the 20th century's very best hymn tunes – East Acklam – a glorious, fluent melody written – not for Fred Pratt Green's For the fruits of His Creation – but for God, that madest earth and heaven.

 

FJ: I'd become thoroughly fed up with Ar hyd y nos for one of the finest evening hymns and wrote my tune for use at the old choristers' re-union service at the Minster one year.

 

SL: Is it true that the rhythmic pulse was originally in 5/4 time rather than common time?

FJ: It is. How did you know that?

SL: The result of studying Valerie Ruddle's fascinating Journeys with Hymns collections….

Why East Acklam?

'The village is, properly, East Acklam rather than Acklam – and, in any case, the East distinguishes it from Acklam near Middlesbrough.'

 

 

II
MASTER AT THE MINSTER

The name Francis Jackson is also synonymous in the public mind with the great Minster at York whose foundation he served for fifty-three years – as chorister, assistant organist and, from 1946 to 1982 as Master of the Music in succession to his teacher and mentor, Edward Cuthbert Bairstow. Another great Yorkshireman, but of a very different temperament from Jackson's, Bairstow has been vividly and very particularly brought alive to present day music-lovers by his disciple's masterly recording of his complete organ works. It has also been perpetuated for posterity by the biography Blessed City published in 1996 during the year of the 50th anniversary of Bairstow's death. Starting with ECB's own autobiographical chapters, FJ has finished the story and, in the words of the hymn, the 'wondrous tale is written full clear on every page' – for Bairstow was a name to be reckoned with and a power in the land.

 

'Bairstow was terribly sensitive. His character abhorred pretension and insincerity. This volatility extended to the construction of music. He was extremely critical of Victorian music, especially that of figures like Garrett and Hopkins (though we still sang it, I remember). He had a hatred of the Sub Dominant minor triad in all contexts, especially that of a sugary plagal cadence' [here we paused for a demonstration on the Broadwood].

SL: Maybe the change in Bairstow's compositional style in later life was a conscious rejection of the self-confident late Victorian/Edwardian young man and a move towards a more reflective style. Performances of miniatures such as the exquisite coronation gradual of 1937, the evening service in G and the unique Lamentation can prove maddeningly elusive, but when they go well they are profoundly satisfying.

 

FJ: Certainly. By the way, if ECB's wonderful sets of variations – one each for violin and piano and piano duo – were issued as being by Elgar, everyone would play them!

 

Besides Bairstow himself, another hugely significant formative influence was Dean Milner-White. Tell us something of him as a colleague and friend and, perhaps, as a liturgist. 'Milner-White loved beauty in all its manifestations. We held very productive weekly meetings as Dean and Organist – he had a wide knowledge of the repertoire and was very particular!'


You are one of a number of Bairstow's students who have attained immense distinction in later life. In your turn, many of your pupils have achieved much in the world of music. Do you still keep in touch with them?

 

FJ: 'Yes, but often by means of information vouchsafed to us by third parties. Sometimes someone will stop Priscilla or I in the street and provide us with such news.'

 

Early Spring of the Millennial Year found FJ traipsing around York with an American Television crew filming about the early life of John Barry, the distinguished Hollywood composer. A pupil of FJ's in the early years of his tenure at the Minster, Barry is known the world over as the man behind the music of the James Bond movies.

 

FJ: I didn't give him all that many lessons. They lasted an hour – Harmony and Counterpoint, you know.

SL: Musical grammar, in fact?

FJ: Yes, that's it.

SL: Did you know that John Barry's entry in Who's Who credits you with his education?

FJ: Really?

 

As an organist, FJ's playing is marked by magical colouring, depth of expression and technical control. He also possesses an uncanny ability to draw out the best from an instrument – even quite a poor one! The rebuilding of the Minster Organ by a former Assistant, Geoffrey Coffin (head of Principal Pipe Organs) must have given him particular pleasure.

'Yes, it has – it is now integrated so very well and the pedal department is now mostly independent, a great improvement. I am full of admiration for what he has achieved.'

 

SL: The Minster's is your favourite instrument?

FJ: O yes. I've always loved it.

SL: Other favourites?

FJ: I very much enjoy Peterborough, especially since its 1981 rebuild and Michael Gillingham's input. Bristol and Carlisle are special also – the Great Stopped Diapason and Gemshorn at Carlisle are a seductive sound. And then there's Westminster Cathedral – that bowled me over the first time I played it. I still go much to the Minster, not least because three of my grandchildren are in the choir – Sam, Grace and Thomas. Sam has just won a major music scholarship to Bootham School and I played the accompaniments for his audition. He played the double bass and sang – though, having got up to go after the double bass playing, I had to be recalled to play a Mozart aria.'

 

SL: Though we'll talk in greater detail later, can you tell me if you enjoy composition?

FJ: I enjoy it when it's going well! Sometimes it's difficult to get started; on other occasions I get down to work almost over the breakfast table when the commission letter or invitation arrives.

SL: Do you compose at the piano?

FJ: Yes, very nearly always – though I remember the double choir Alleluia, laudate pueri was an exception. It was Ravel who said that without a piano you cannot invent new harmonies. At Minster Court [the organist's house at York] I used to have a small piano high up just under the roof, and Priscilla would fend off callers while I was putting pencil to paper. I think the piano might be still there – we certainly didn't bring it with us.'

 

III
COMPOSITION & "RETIREMENT"

Another insight into Francis Jackson's character is contained in the vast understatement about his 'retirement' – which is described in his recital CV as being spent 'composing and giving organ recitals'. He has a list of commissions as long as your arm, and projects within the last year which have included recording both the Whitlock Symphony for Organ and Orchestra and Jackson's own Organ Concerto tell of a professional life of unrelenting activity. He was off on his travels within hours of my visit to hear his latest mass setting – his tenth – at Whitlock's old church, St Stephen's Bournemouth, where the Jacksons are regular visitors.

 

Until recently (when Richard Shephard moved from Acklam to Minster Court) the village boasted not one, but two composers. Both FJ and erstwhile near neighbour Shephard (Headmaster of the Minster School) were to be heard playing in the Village Church for services on the resident harmonium. Nowadays, the Doctor is sole musical incumbent.

 

'Apart from music – especially that of Bach, Ravel and Debussy – and art (Corot in particular, then the impressionists) it's the garden and the countryside that give me the greatest pleasure.' Jackson's musical interests range wide. A sticker on the door of his garden studio proclaims his membership of the BBC Big Band Club. Telephone calls on Monday evenings between 8.00 and 8.30 are usually of very brief duration. FJ is a devotee of the Band's weekly programme presented by Sheila Tracy. He is also known to be a lover of the music of the one and only Billy Mayerl.

 

Liturgical output is hallmarked by many of the characteristics of the glorious Acklam garden – bold lines, surprising corners and a sense of wonder. This has extended from his earliest service settings – the Benedicite and Communion in G – to his latest works, referred to in characteristic terms as 'my tunes'. Maybe 'tunes' stems from a Three Choirs' encounter with Howells – whose Hymnus Paradisi was scheduled for performance that same evening. "Are you coming to hear my tune, Francis"……..

 

SL: What, as a composer, are your favourite works?

FJ: Two of my very earliest efforts – the song Tree at my window to words of Robert Frost and the Impromptu I wrote in Italy for Sir Edward's attaining his 70th birthday in 1944; that is also special to me as my first published work.

 

SL: Which of your compositions do others assert to be the most meaningful to them?

FJ: Someone was once kind enough to say that Lo, God is here was almost a portrait of the Minster in music. I certainly intended it to be spacious.

 

SL: Many of us organists feel we know your family as fortunate dedicatees of specific compositions.

FJ: Yes, Priscilla is Procession, daughter Alice is Arabesque and sons William and Edward are Pageant and Recessional.

 

SL: My own particular enthusiasm has been for your two remarkable works for organ and reciter – Daniel in Babylon and A Time of Fire  which we have both enjoyed recording over the past year or two. They were written in response to commissions?

FJ: Yes, Daniel for the festival arranged to celebrate the opening of Coventry Cathedral, and A Time of Fire (originally Tyndale) for the Broadland Singers in Norfolk. Librettos for both are by actor-dramatist John Stuart Anderson, though Daniel is, in the main, comprised of holy writ from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament.

 

SL: I think octaves and even double octaves are a very special feature of your writing – the Benedicite and G major Mass are richer for them, as is the wonderful anthem you wrote for the St Albans Diocesan Choirs to sing – Lift up your heads, great gates and sing. It's in Anthems for Choirs 4.

FJ: I've never heard it, but I believe people like it!

 

Stradsett, a recent melody of FJ's has been published within a special collection of extended hymn-settings [Church Music Society/OUP CMS026] and involves a creative cooperation with prominent nonconformist hymn-writer Caryl Micklem, eight years Jackson's junior. Why Stradsett?

 

FJ: It's called after the tiny hamlet of that name south of King's Lynn where a relative lived. I stopped the car and wrote it down (without any words in mind). Invited to compose a new tune to words of my choice for use at BBC Choral Evensong broadcast from the Minster on the eve of my eightieth birthday, I remembered several already in existence and Caryl to supply words to Stradsett which he did, brilliantly, in a couple of days; lovely words, with musical connotations.

                Spirit of joyfulness, come to my heart, Let me take wing in your praises.

                In your great harmony give me my part, Set me in heavenly places.

                Pour out your love on me; help me to share

                Gifts of your kindness in comfort and care.

                May your believers have courage to bear hurts all humanity faces…….

 

                Spirit of hopefulness, come to my soul, save me from ever despairing.

                In your great symphony take and control discords that trouble my hearing.

                Pour out your grace on me, help me to tame

                That which desires the world's honour and fame:

                Let my example be Jesus who came all my humanity wearing.

SL: Thank you, both, for your generous hospitality. Perhaps I may also thank you not only representing music-lovers, organists and choristers everywhere for your enrichment of our music-making but also on behalf of a host of folk the world over who have followed your inspired suggestion of recessional music for a famous Royal Wedding almost forty years ago in the Minster.  The finale from the Widor 5th Symphony was unforgettable then and has remained so for thousands of families ever since.

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