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Francis JACKSON (b. 1917)
Sing a new song to the Lord (1970) [7:57]
Domine Ihesu Christe (1976) [3:59]
O people of Sion (1975) [4:17]
Blow ye the trumpet in Zion (1963) [9:52]
O salutaris hostia (1989) [3:32]
Tantum ergo (1986) [4:21]
Benedicite in G (1949) [6:54]
Jubilate Deo in G (1964) [2:5]
Word made flesh [3:06]
Remember for good, O Father (1955) [8:0]
Laetentur coeli (1958-70) [1:52]
Magnificat (Hereford Service) (1961/1979) [4:15]
Nunc Dimittis (Hereford Service) (1961) [2:51]
Audi, Filia (1950) [8:25]
The Choir of York Minster /Philip Moore
John Scott Whitley (organ)
rec. 1997, York Minster. DDD
Texts included
PRIORY PRCD841 [72:16]

It’s not often that one can mark the centenary of a musician during his or her lifetime. Happily, however, that is the case with Dr Francis Jackson who celebrated his 100th birthday on 2 October, 2017.

Born in the North Yorkshire market town of Malton, midway between York and Scarborough, Francis Jackson was a pupil of Sir Edward Bairstow (1874-1946). Bairstow served as Organist of York Minster from 1913 until his death. Jackson was a chorister at the Minster and then a pupil of Bairstow, for whom he had an enduring respect and regard, Before the Second World War he was organist of the parish church in his home town of Malton and following military service during the war he was invited to become Assistant Organist at York in 1946. By then Bairstow was in failing health and it was envisaged that his new assistant might have a heavier workload than was customary. In fact, Bairstow died on 1 May 1946, within weeks of Jackson receiving the offer to serve at York. Though other candidates were considered, I believe, Jackson was formally appointed to succeed his mentor after a few months. He remained in the post until his retirement in 1982, serving for some 36 years.

His retirement from the daily responsibilities at the Minster gave him the opportunity to devote even more time both to composition and to giving organ recitals all over the world. He continued to be highly active as a composer in many genres and the list of compositions in his autobiography goes up to 2013. He gave his final organ recital in 2012, shortly after his 95th birthday. So, Francis Jackson has had a long and very active life as a musician and to those wishing to find out more I commend his kindly-toned autobiography. This was published in 2013, when he was well into his 90s, under the witty title Music for a Long While.

The present disc is not new; indeed, I suspect it may have been recorded to mark Jackson’s 80th birthday in 1997. However, we haven’t reviewed it before and Jackson’s centenary seems an appropriate time to do so. The Choir of York Minster were the obvious choice to record this selection from Jackson’s church music. They are conducted by Philip Moore who was Jackson’s successor, serving as Organist and Master of the Music at the Minster from 1983 until 2008. The organist is John Scott Whitley who served as Assistant Organist and later as Organist of the Minster from 1975 until 2010. He therefore worked with Dr Jackson as well as with Philip Moore.

The chosen pieces are all very good compositions in their own right. More than that, they evidence a deep knowledge of choirs and their inner workings as well as a consummate understanding of the organ as an instrument. Furthermore, in his selection of texts Francis Jackson demonstrates a perceptive knowledge and appreciation of scriptural texts, not least from the Old Testament.

The programme opens in arresting fashion with Sing a new song to the Lord. This was composed for a service in Leeds Parish Church to mark the 150th anniversary of the Leeds Philharmonic Society. The piece sets verses from Psalm 98 in a suitably jubilant fashion. The organ part is spectacular at times – Jackson no doubt took advantage of the fact that Leeds Parish Church boasts a fine Harrison & Harrison instrument which was designed by his mentor, Sir Edward Bairstow. John Scott Whiteley here conjures some formidable sounds from the York Minster organ and the choir sings with great gusto. Notwithstanding the celebratory nature of the piece there a hushed and awestruck episode not long before the end (‘He will judge the world with righteousness’) and this ushers in some very soft music before the concluding ‘Glory be’, which is exultant.

By contrast the following two items are much more restrained. Domine Ihesu Christe is a calm unaccompanied setting of a Latin prayer of King Henry VI. O people of Sion is an Advent introit for ATB voices and organ. For most of its duration this appealing piece is reflective in tone.

Blow ye the trumpet in Zion takes us back to big, celebratory music. This was composed for the 1963 St Cecilia’s Day service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, High Holborn. It is a substantial piece. The music is fine and varied and it includes some mighty and dramatic moments. Here again the York Minster organ sounds terrific, especially when pushing out trumpet-like fanfares. The work achieves a tranquil, contemplative conclusion, however.

When Francis Jackson succeeded Bairstow at York Minster the Dean was Eric Milner-White (1884-1963). Milner-White was a major figure in the twentieth century Anglican church; among his lasting achievements was the introduction of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge in the year that he became Dean of the College – he served in that capacity from 1918 to 1941. He moved to York as Dean in 1941 and remained there until his death. Francis Jackson relates in his notes accompanying this CD that Milner-White, an avid liturgist, had been keen for some time to get someone to write a musical setting of the Benedicite that would telescope what can be a long and repetitive canticle while retaining all the words. His idea was that the Decani singers in the choir might sing the first half of each verse while the Cantores sang the second half simultaneously. Jackson took up the challenge and, amazingly, wrote his Benedicite in G in just three and a half hours one evening.: he says “It fell onto the paper, as it were, in its definitive form without effort.” It works well, I think, giving the words a compact setting. The music is confident in tone and culminates in a big-hearted doxology.

Milner-White was also instrumental in the composition of Remember for good, O Father. It was his idea to install an astronomical clock in the Minster to commemorate the sacrifice of members of the Royal Air Force who perished in the 1939-45 war This piece was written for the service in 1955 at which the Duke of Edinburgh unveiled the clock. The text was compiled by Milner-White. Words and music marry together here in a thoughtful and impressive piece, most of which is suitably subdued in tone.

Francis Jackson is not just an inventive composer of church music, as this programme demonstrates; he’s also very practical. In 1961 he was invited to write a ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ for that year’s Three Choirs Festival in Hereford. Some composers, faced with such a high-profile opportunity, might have written an elaborate set of canticles. Instead Jackson wrote music which could be used on occasions when a church could field less than a full choir. So, as he explains in the notes, the music was written on two staves with the trebles and tenors singing one line an octave apart and the altos and basses doing the same with the second line. The beauty of this approach was that it enabled the music to be performed convincingly by reduced forces. In 1979 he provided an alternative SATB version which is what is performed here. The result is a good, eminently sing-able set of Canticles.

The recital ends with Audi, Filia which, despite its Latin title has an English text, comprising words from Psalm 45. This must surely be a piece dear to Francis Jackson’s heart since he wrote it for his own wedding in York Minster in November 1950. Naturally, it is dedicated to his wife, Priscilla. It’s an excellent anthem which includes some important treble solos, here very well sung by Alistair Hewish. The piece builds to a big, broad and confident end. The last word is given, fittingly, to the organ of York Minster which here sounds majestic in the hands (and feet) of John Scott Whitley.
.
Francis Jackson’s long and distinguished life has been devoted to music and this disc gives an excellent representation of his church music which is in the finest tradition of the genre. It’s worth mentioning, though, that his substantial output – he’d reached Op 164 by 2013 – encompasses other fields as well, including songs, chamber music, orchestral works and, of course, pieces for solo organ. His choral music rightly features in many mixed recital discs, such as a recent one by the Exon Singers (review). That fine choir has also made a disc of Francis Jackson’s choral music, though I’ve not heard that particular release (Delphian DCD34035).

Philip Moore, John Scott Whitley and the York Minster Choir do Francis Jackson proud in this programme. Neil Collier has recorded them well, with the sound of the organ being especially well conveyed. This disc gives a very good overview of the tremendous contribution which Francis Jackson has made to the music of the English church.

John Quinn



 

 




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