Obituary: Dr Francis Jackson, organist and composer

Dr Francis Jackson CBE, who has died at 104, was an internationally renowned organ recitalist, composer and former Master of Music at York Minster, who played the organ at the 1961 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Kent.

Francis Jackson at a celebration concert for his retirement in 1982. Picture: Archive of Recorded Church Music.
Francis Jackson at a celebration concert for his retirement in 1982. Picture: Archive of Recorded Church Music.

Dr Francis Jackson CBE, who has died at 104, was an internationally renowned organ recitalist, composer and former Master of Music at York Minster, who played the organ at the 1961 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Kent.

Born in 1917, he was the son of William Jackson, an engineer and sanitary inspector, and Eveline Suddaby, who both sang in the local church choir at Malton.

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He could trace his association with the Minster to 1929, when he became a schoolboy chorister. After active service in the Second World War, he returned to York in 1946 to become Master of the Music, succeeding his teacher and mentor, the Edwardian organist Sir Edward Bairstow, whose biography he later wrote. He served for a remarkable 36 years and maintained a parallel career as an organist and composer.

Known to many as The Good Doctor, he knew nine Archbishops of York, and held a pivotal position in the county’s cultural life. He was not only an organist and composer but also a choir director, organ designer and musical editor for the Yorkshire publisher of choral music, Banks Music Publications.

He wrote more than 150 works for organ and choir, including his Toccata, Chorale and Fugue in 1955, the hymn East Acklam, a symphony and an organ concerto, as well as liturgical works.

His output also included two monodramas with music devised by Dr Jackson and his friend and colleague, the actor John Stuart Anderson, which appeared in the 1960s – Daniel in Babylon and A Time of Fire for the opening festival at Coventry Cathedral, and for the Norwich-based Broadland Singers, respectively. There was also a Concerto for Organ, Strings, Timpani and Celeste, a commission from the Carnegie Trust – memorably recorded in 2000 with Dr Jackson as soloist and the Orchestra of the University of York along with the Percy Whitlock Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.

Yet it was for his remarkable 90-year service to Minster, latterly as Organist Emeritus, that he will be chiefly remembered, and many of his concerts and solo recitals serve as benchmarks for standards of interpretation.

He also made an extensive canon of recordings which took in many of his own compositions and the complete works of Bairstow. In later life, there came a number of significant recordings by the Minster choir under his direction – all hallmarked with the distinction of sincere and authoritative musical projection.

A second cousin once removed of the celebrated lyric soprano, Elsie Suddaby, Dr Jackson was always at pains to pass on his knowledge in the way that Bairstow had done to him. In York, he mentored the young musician John Barry, who became one of Hollywood’s most distinguished creators of film scores.

In his earlier professional life, Dr Jackson had served as chorus master of the Leeds Philharmonic Society and later as conductor of both York Symphony Orchestra and York Musical Society. His trail-blazing setting of the Benedicite in G set a new template for later figures to follow; indeed, his complete G major service for morning, communion and evening, hold a firm place within the Anglican 20th century tradition. Their creator was wont to refer to as “me in G” with the pleasant, self-deprecating wry smile for which he was known.

Dr Jackson was an active supporter of the work of the Church Music Society, whose senior Vice-President he was, and the Royal School of Church Music, from which he received an Honorary Fellowship. More recently he was appointed as Fellow of the Burgon Society for the study and historical background of academic dress, in which he had more than a passing interest. He was also a vice-president of the Prayer Book Society.

He was awarded an OBE in 1982 and a CBE in 2007. His autobiography, Music for a Long While, was published in 2013.

In 1950, Dr Jackson married Priscilla Procter and they had a daughter and two sons, all of whom survive him. Priscilla died in 2013.