Members of St Peter’s Singers wish to join the many other voices in saluting Dr Francis Jackson CBE, who has died aged 104.
Like many other choirs, St Peter’s Singers were fortunate and privileged to work with him numerous times and count him as a friend of the choir.
Much has already been written about this charming and disarmingly modest man, and about a long life well-lived. Much reference has been made to his towering contribution to choral and organ music, and to his genius as an organist. There are many undocumented and often humorous stories about him, too, but this brief post just recalls some of our encounters with ‘FJ’, also sometimes known as ‘The Good Doctor’.
Daniel in Babylon
Our collaboration began in 1987 when, under Dr Lindley’s enterprising leadership, we performed Daniel in Babylon (composed in 1962) in Leeds Parish Church (now Leeds Minster). Daniel in Babylon was the first of two monodramas written in collaboration with the actor and librettist John Stuart Anderson. John Stuart took the leading spoken part with Francis playing the organ. We gave a second performance in Leeds Town Hall the following year. 1997 saw a further performance at Leeds Parish Church, and a recording followed in 1998 for Amphion Recordings with FJ at the console.
A Time of Fire
St Peter’s Singers followed Daniel with a number of performances of a second monodrama from the same collaboration, A Time of Fire (1967) – originally called Tyndale’s Dream. In some ways this piece demonstrated a rather more successful and imaginative engagement by Anderson with the drama of his subject matter – the turbulent life and times, and the grim death, of William Tyndale, one of the first translators of the Bible into the English vernacular.
FJ responded with some truly dramatic writing – an organ score pulsating with energy, tension and alarm; a range of vividly, and at times playfully, characterised cameo roles for choir soloists that capture both the wit and the pathos of Anderson’s vivid text. The choir acts as the sharp-eyed, occasionally sarcastic but always empathetic turba, or crowd of onlookers. The work concludes with an unforgettably touching, elegiac chorale of simple, yet truly haunting beauty for unaccompanied chorus that ends as soprano and alto soloists depart into the distance singing ‘The ploughboy who follows his team down the furrow shall sing as he goes the psalms of King David…’.
We performed this wonderful work in Leeds Parish Church in 1989 and 1991 with Matthew Beetschen on the organ, and again in 1992 for a concert in honour of FJ’s 75th Birthday with Carleton Etherington playing, with John Stuart Anderson in the speaking role on each occasion. We recorded the work in 1999 with FJ playing. Further performances followed at Leeds Minster and then Ely Cathedral in 2004 and Derby Cathedral in 2005 with Dr Richard Rastall delivering the spoken text and Jonathan Lilley playing. This work would grace (and enliven!) any conference on the Reformation or the history of the Bible in the UK, but can appeal to a much wider audience as it brings to life this colourful period in our history.
The success of this collaboration with Dr Jackson emboldened Dr Lindley to commission a work from him for the choir’s 20th anniversary in 1997, and he responded with a fine setting of the Stabat Mater for choir, organ and baritone solo. This received its first performance in Leeds Parish Church in that year, with subsequent performances there, at Giggleswick School and at St Matthew’s, Chapel Allerton. Two performances followed under FJ’s direction, with Simon Lindley at the organ, as part of recitals given in York Minster in 2004 and 2008. (Entitled ‘The Composers conduct’ and given in honour of Dr Lindley’s 60th birthday, the latter recital also included Philip Moore conducting his Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Donald Hunt conducting his Hymnus Paschalis – that was some evening, that was…)
The earlier recital at York Minster was given in the nave, and featured both the Stabat Mater and Dr Jackson’s magnificent Evening Hymn (1970). This unaccompanied setting of a poem by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) is quite unlike most of Dr Jackson’s choral music – the characteristic angular counterpoint being replaced by vertical, translucent chording full of challenging dissonance, but a huge thrill to sing in a big acoustic such as that of York Minster.
Building on the witty text’s wordplay exploring the possible likeness of sleep and death, this is surely one of the most successful contemporary musical attempts on this scale to look death in the eye through the lens of hope. It is challenging to sing, which accounts for it being relatively unknown, but we included it in our 2014 CD One Equal Music. It is very much in our minds at this time, as we send our sincerest and heartfelt condolences to Francis’ family.
St Peter’s Singers recorded a 2 CD set of Daniel in Babylon [PHI CD 145] and A Time of Fire [PHI CD 146] – details are available on request.