Wikepedia lists just fewer than 100 ‘musicians’ that have reached or passed the age of 100 and for the most part, the names on the list are unknown to me. As yet Francis Jackson is not amongst them. I suppose if I knew how I should have added him.
The names that did strike a chord, excuse the pun, were Irving Berlin, Sidonnie Goossens, Dame Vera Lynn and Stanley Vann. So surprisingly in a very exclusive club Francis is not the first cathedral organist to reach the age of 100. This sample has of course no statistical merit but I shall draw encouragement that there are 3 organists, the other being Rosa Rio and a good many pianists who have made their centenary so perhaps my prospects for a good old age are better than if I had taken up the violin.
Celebrating Francis Jackson 100 years
Viscount had sponsored the celebrations that took place on October 4th in York and so it was that I joined a small and distinguished group of the countries most accomplished organists and church musicians at the Bishop’s Palace at Bishopthorpe to celebrate with Francis and his family him reaching his 100th year.
The lunch there was hosted by Archbishop and Mrs Sentamu and we were also joined by the Duchess of Kent, herself a keen organist. Francis had played for her wedding in 1961 where the Widor Toccata was used as the departure music.
Francis musical life in York started early on when at the age of 11 in 1928 he joined the Minster choir. He saw war service overseas ending up in Italy returning to the Minster in 1946 as assistant organist and but a few months later taking over as organist when it was clear Sir Edward Bairstow would not return due to ill health.
He had become a fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1937 and the was the first Limpus prize winner in the same year. Later he was President of the RCO. He compositions output is considerable with choral and orchestral works in addition to his organ pieces.
Our afternoon at Bishopthorpe began with a service in the private chapel lead by the Archbishop and we all delighted to the sing the hymn ‘For the fruits of his creation’ to the tune East Ayton written and on this occasion also played by Francis Jackson. As we sat through this service I could not help to think that if one were to set out to repeat the celebration for our next distinguished centenarian musician it may well be a very long wait. So how special to participate in such a rare occasion with the 100 year old composer playing for us all to sing.
And in what a setting, the private chapel at the Palace.
Lunch at Bishopthorpe Palace
We then moved on to a very relaxed lunch. This is the first time I have dined in a Bishops Palace so I was not quite sure what to expect. I certainly had not expected to find junior clergy and nuns amongst the staff waiting at table. If I may now make a remark in dubious taste I turned to my neighbour and said that his was the first time I had been served by a nun to get the reply that he was thinking just the same but did not have the courage to voice it!
After lunch and an address of appreciation for Francis given by Philip Moore, the immediate past president of the RCO and also Francis’s successor at the Minster. This had been in part published in booklet form by the RCO as a permanent record of the day. It contains a number of pictures of Francis at various stages in his career including ones drawn from the RCO archives.
Francis then stood up and replied in a charming and appreciative manner, speaking mostly from memory clearly enjoying every moment of the day. But more was yet to come.
Choral Evensong at York Minster
The next phase of this event was a celebration evensong in the Minster at 5.15pm with the RCO guests invited to attend the rehearsal in the choir at 4.15pm. So off we went by taxi to take our seats. Another first for me was attending this cathedral choir rehearsal taken by Robert Sharpe. It featured the girls’ choir and as they processed in I was struck how young some of the members were, perhaps no more that 6 or 7 and a fine sound they made.
Coordination with organist was also faultless during the many rehearsal stops and restarts at various places in the score. It was a very well-oiled machine and the organ at times at magnificent full tilt in the way only an English organ can to evensong created a most moving presentation of the English choral tradition at its very best. We should make attendance at evensong compulsory for all for at least one year. How can one not be moved emotionally (even if not spiritually) by evensong in the choir of any of our great cathedral churches surrounded by the history from our medieval past.
Close to 5pm the choir filled quickly with congregation including again Francis and his family for a service that used a setting of his responses and one of his anthems. But the day did not then end at 6pm for there was a reception for him, this time in the north transept where at 6.30pm a group of perhaps 200 were gathered to hear an address by the dean.
I do not know Francis Jackson but it was clear that he has had a huge impact on the life of the minster, of York and of course on church music. He is clearly a humble man who even though 100 years young was able once again after the dean stand and talk for the second time in a day to his appreciative audience. I hope that he returned home that evening for a well-earned rest. He most surely deserved it.