Dr Francis Jackson – RIP

DrFrancisJacksonCBE - Dr Francis Jackson - RIP

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…)

Evening Hymn

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.

Welcome, Alex !

IMG 3464 - Welcome, Alex !

We are delighted to welcome Alex Woodrow as our new Director of Music.

Alex is a musician of the highest quality, with a passion for choral and organ music. He has a strong record as both organist and choral director.

Born in York in 1986, Alex read music as Organ Scholar at Magdalene College, Cambridge, studying with Anne Page. He became Fellow of the Royal College of Organists at the age of 19, winning first prizes in all categories. He is a Fellow of Trinity College London and recipient of the Silver Medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

Alex is a distinguished recitalist, and has regularly broadcast on BBC Radio and Television. He has performed in many of the major churches and cathedrals of the UK. York Minster, King’s College, Cambridge, and Westminster Abbey are among the prestigious venues where he has played.


After graduating, Alex progressed to positions at Guildford Cathedral, St Albans Cathedral and Hexham Abbey. While at Hexham he directed the chamber choir Cappella Novocastriensis and founded his own ensemble Suspirans.

In 2011 Alex took up the position of Organist and Director of Music at Bradford Cathedral. At that time he was the youngest cathedral organist in the country. His tenure was distinguished by substantial restoration of the choral foundation at the cathedral, including the re-establishment of a boys choir and the nurture of many young musicians. After almost five years there, he moved on to be Head of Choral Music at Solihull School.

Alex returned to West Yorkshire in 2020 following his appointment as Organist and Director of Music at Leeds Minster, while retaining a role at Solihull teaching keyboard. To these roles he will now add the position with St Peter’s Singers.

On joining St Peter’s Singers

Alex writes:

“I am delighted to have been appointed as Director of Music of the St. Peter’s Singers of Leeds. Since its inception, St Peter’s Singers has developed a strong and visible reputation within the North of England for excellent music, high choral standards and inspired programming. As we resume our musical activities once more, I am greatly looking forward to our music-making in the months and years to come as we continue to be a firm and enriching presence within the cultural life of Leeds and Yorkshire. As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be a privilege to reconnect with our longstanding supporters and patrons, while sharing something of the beauty, majesty and breadth of the choral repertoire with new listeners.”  

We extend the warmest welcome to Alex, and look forward to starting a new era under his leadership.

Farewell to Dr Simon Lindley

Dr Lindley’s retirement brings to a close a remarkable era spanning some 44 years. During that time he built up the choir from its foundation in 1977 to the versatile, skilled and enterprising ensemble of the present day, well-known to music lovers throughout Leeds and the West Riding. A charismatic and knowledgeable musician and speaker, Dr Lindley’s persuasive advocacy of a wide range of choral music will be greatly missed by singers and audiences alike. We send him our grateful thanks and every good wish for a long and peaceful retirement.

We’re back !

St Peter's Singers back together singing

It is so good to be back singing together…

The last eighteen months have been dreadful for everyone, and choirs have hated the silence and separation as much as everyone. Attempts to hold rehearsals over Zoom have been just as frustrating as holding remote meetings, quizzes and the like. So it’s great to be back singing together, and we’re looking forward to welcoming you back too!

Here we are in rehearsal last Sunday – socially a bit distant, but enjoying the warm acoustics of the east end of Leeds Minster. Conditions are a little strange, but we’re enjoying the challenge of adjusting to the spacing and and so far sounding good. Enthusiasm is running high. The Minster is large and seemingly well-ventilated (!), which is good (but may feel less so when it gets colder… ). We are delighted to welcome lots of new faces in our ranks. But who’s that at the front ?

We are in the final stages of planning our autumn season, so watch out for announcements. There will be a recital on October 30 where we sing the music that would have been so appropriate during the pandemic. Watch out too for details of – Hallelujah! – a Messiah on November 27 to celebrate being back singing together. The season will conclude on December 17 with some lovely Christmas music.

Sir Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019)

SirStephenCleobury - Sir Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019)

Picture: Kevin Leighton / King’s College Cambridge

We join with the whole company of church and choral musicians in mourning the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury, who died on 22 November, St Cecilia’s Day, after a long illness.

May he rest in peace.

A personal appreciation by Dr Simon Lindley

Simon Lindley, St Peter’s Singers’ Director of Music, knew him well and writes:

For so very long a major, often a principal, player in the musical and cultural fabric of Britain, it is virtually impossible to imagine life without Stephen’s presence amongst us.

For those of us deeply fortunate to have known him all his life and ours, the loss is particularly acute. We met as young teenagers, his brother Nicholas, Stephen, myself and others , with us youngsters attending a number of memorable Three Choirs’ Festivals of the mid to late 1960s prior to setting off for college and university and going our various ways in life. We heard Elgar directed by the legendary Dr Herbert Sumsion, Britten’s then new War Requiem in the skilfull and elegant hands of Dr Melville Cook and modern excitement in Christopher Robinson’s spectacular account of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast followed by applause, no less, then previously notably absent from Three Choirs events – or, actually, until then for it has continued ever since!

Stephen was truly fortunate in his early musical mentors who contributed very much to his rounding as a musician and a person – Douglas Guest, Christopher Robinson and Harry Bramma at Worcester of course, and – equally significantly – George Guest during his university years as Organ Scholar of St John’s College, Cambridge. Yet it was clear to his friends and surely, too, to those who guided his career that here was a consummate musician of the very highest distinction in terms of meticulous, yet not inflexible, preparation and so many other virtues that marked him out very early on for the dizzy heights of the most distinguished musical career. His stylistic awareness was remarkable and in middle life he set off for a whole new endeavour with the direction of full time adult choirs of the highest distinction including a memorable twelve-year period in charge of the BBC Singers. One recent review of (yet another) fine recording credits him thus:

If for nothing else, Stephen Cleobury should go down as the man who really recharged the writing of contemporary choral music – not just the Christmas carol, but the fact that his commissioning has affected how people write choral music. In all four corners of the globe people switch on the radio on Christmas Eve and hear a new piece of music.

Many of our finest British present-day composers would echo those sentiments and, along with generations of choristers and students, will experience a sense of bereavement not easily assuaged.

Modest demeanour, measured and deftly articulated speech which his charges found facility in imitating, immense personal kindness and personal support to others in time of difficulty in their lives were a ‘given’. Many wondered if he ever took a day off. I doubt it! As a player, he remained keen to keep in trim as affirmed by many superb solo recordings over four decades while his recitals as accompanist as well as soloist linger long in the memory as profoundly musical experiences.

His career began at the prestigious Anglican parish of St Matthew, Northampton, moving on to posts as Sub Organist of Westminster Abbey and Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral; in the latter position, he did much to stabilise the rocky boat in respect of the sustaining of the finest, and most historic, aspects of Catholic liturgy and the traditional music of the church. Having moved to King’s College Cambridge in 1982 he found himself utilising the magical Gregorian Chants most notably in the “propers” of the Mass and thus providing a living link with music of the pre-Reformation era.

All this is well known and ‘on the record’, as we say. What is less widely publicised is his willingness to further projects for friends, colleagues and musical organisations, conducting Come Sing Messiah performances and further charitable endeavours – it was my immeasurable privilege to do my best as accompanist on a number of such occasions, one of the most tricky being at the keys of the historic instrument in Great St Mary’s, the Cambridge University Church, whilst the maestro conducted the assembly from a distant venue far to the East. The same experience at St Andrew’s Holborn, in support of the Royal College of Organists, seemed an altogether less strenuous option, as indeed it did prove to be. Stephen came twice to Leeds to attend our annual Parish Church choristers’ prize-giving at the heart of the city centre. We never forgot his generosity of spirit in giving up much valuable time at the beginning of a week to support these events.

Towards the end of his long tenure at King’s came the 2016 organ restoration project for which he worked indefatigably in so many ways. Well-deserved honours came his way, including an Honorary Doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University, a CBE in 2009 with the final accolade of knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year. Nor should we forget his own contributions and composer and arranger of so much traditional music and very particularly at this time of year – much of it tinged with reminiscences of beautiful utterance from the pages of the Oxford Book of Carols and the Cowley Carol Books of yesteryear.

Our love and gratitude go out to his family and close friends, along with our sorrow that his last years were so challenging in terms of the challenges of health and the subsequently all-too-brief retirement that he had so very richly deserved.

Rest in peace, Stephen, and thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for all that you brought to our lives.