Who is Francis Jackson?

Organist, choirmaster and composer Francis Jackson is one of our most respected, influential and cherished musicians. Roger Nichols meets a church music legend. Photographs by Rob Whitrow

Organist, choirmaster and composer Francis Jackson

Goodness,’ said my friend, ‘you organists, you do go on and on.’ Oh dear, had I been boring him? Happily not: his remark referred merely to the longevity of the species. André Marchal and Marie-Claire Alain living to 86, George Thalben-Ball to 90, Fernando Germani and Charles-Marie Widor to 92 – he might have a point. But in any case, England holds the record in the person of Dr Francis Jackson CBE, organist and choirmaster of York Minster for over 35 years, who has just celebrated his 103rd birthday.

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When was Francis Jackson born?

Francis Jackson was born in Malton near York and at the age of eleven came to the notice of the Minster organist, Sir Edward Bairstow, who spotted talent of a high order in his piano playing and enrolled him as a chorister without having to serve a probationary year. Francis went on to have harmony, counterpoint and organ lessons with him and still regards him as ‘my example and inspiration’. Others did not see him quite in the same light – rather as ‘the rudest man in Yorkshire’ – but Jackson puts this down to an extreme sensitivity, especially against pretension in any shape or form, and is still quick to support his teacher. When I said how impressed I am by Bairstow’s Five Poems of the Spirit, and why aren’t they better known, back comes the retort: ‘Because they weren’t written by Elgar!’ 

What affect did serving in WW2 have on Francis Jackson’s music?

Between 1933 and his call-up in 1940 he was organist of two parish churches in Malton while continuing his studies with Bairstow. Then army service in North Africa gave him an opportunity to widen his musical experience. While he was still organ-minded enough to track down a Cavaillé-Coll instrument in Tunis, the interests of his fellow soldiers obviously ran on different lines and he soon picked up passable techniques on both accordion and saxophone, to the point that he began to wonder whether light music might be where his future lay.

In 1945 he wrote to his mother saying ‘I feel there are more ways of getting a living at music than burying yourself in a church or playing hymns all the year round’. He still loved the organ, but regretted that it had ‘only Bach’s fugues in its repertoire in the line of really great music’. In the event, the lure of the Minster put paid to the formation of Frank Jackson and the Malton Melodists – not something for which I think we need feel much regret.

While he was in Tripoli, his brother Paul, who was also out there as a sergeant in the Royal Air Force, came looking for him. He tried various appellations – Jackson? Francis? Frank? without success. Then he mentioned that his brother played the piano. ‘Oh, you mean Fingers!’ Among the celebrities who came out to North Africa to entertain the troops was Marlene Dietrich. Jackson remembers that at an officers’ dance ‘they fell over one another in wanting to dance with her’, and after Captain Jackson had had his turn, she turned to him and said, ‘Tank you. Dat vas vunderful!’ I asked him whether she was very glamorous. ‘No,’ he says, ‘she was very nice.’

When did Francis Jackson become the organist at York Minster?

With the return of peace, Jackson found that the Minster now needed an assistant organist. No need for a curriculum vitae or a competition – Bairstow’s say-so, and that of the Dean, Eric Milner-White, who had introduced the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s, Cambridge, were enough. Then, in 1946, Bairstow fell terminally ill. Again, Jackson was offered the post without competition; only some 30 years later did he discover that various noses had been put out of joint…

Over the next 66 years he gave over 2,000 organ recitals, only two of which were at his own request, the remainder all asked for by others. Quite apart from Jackson’s habit of spreading cheerfulness wherever he goes, an organist friend, now retired from cathedral service, suggested to me that one reason was simply that Jackson, together with Thalben-Ball, was technically way ahead of other British organists in those post-war years. As an example, I make a brief diversion to note that one of the first pieces to be played on Jackson’s newly bought gramophone in 1933 had been the Ravel String Quartet, recorded by the Galimir Quartet in the composer’s presence. ‘I couldn’t have enough of it,’ says Jackson; ‘what I considered the weird, spooky harmonies gripped and fascinated me.’ Ravel’s music has continued to absorb him, both as listener and performer, to the point that he is one of the handful (pun intended) of British keyboard players to have tackled the daunting Left Hand Concerto in public. If you, reader, require further proof of his mastery, do find his rendition of Dubois’s Toccata on YouTube: a sparkling performance, bringing an alchemist’s touch to base metal – and done at the age of 92.

As well as introducing a new way of playing Bach, in which fugues did not always begin on an 8-foot stop with additions on every subsequent arrival of the subject, but allowed for greater variety in colour and dynamics, Jackson can claim at least two particular organ pieces for which his promotion has been vital and continuing. In 1964 EMI brought out a recording of him playing the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue by the Canadian composer Healey Willan, which instantly brought this majestic piece into the main organ repertoire: Jackson’s performance remains a touchstone not only in its superb command of the Minster organ, but in its shapely phrasing and imaginative use of colour, including some stunning contributions from his favourite tuba stop. The second piece, admittedly not quite so much in need of publicity, was the Toccata from Widor’s Fifth Symphony which Jackson chose as the recessional voluntary for the wedding in the Minster on 8 June 1961 of the Duke of Kent and Miss Katharine Worsley. But while the Toccata had long been a popular warhorse among organists, and had also featured at Princess Margaret’s wedding the year before, after this broadcast of the wedding ceremonies it suddenly became famous on an astonishing scale. Suddenly those organists among us who, on wedding duty, had for years automatically reached for our well-thumbed copies of Mendelssohn or Wagner, were receiving requests (demands even) for ‘the Widor’ and had to put ourselves through some serious practice, faced with fast right-hand semiquavers that go on almost relentlessly for some six minutes. I suspect that, as well as happy couples and congregations, osteopaths and chiropractors may also have benefited.

By all accounts, choir rehearsals under Jackson were at once relaxed and utterly professional, even if it took a little time to come to grips with his rather florid terminal beat. In the late 1960s there was great concern over the serious cracks that had been found in the Minster’s structure. Jackson’s typically light-hearted determination to make the best of things is recalled by one of the lay clerks. The problem had been traced to the ancient foundations which were little more than earth, so a programme of excavation and cementing began that went on for several years. The organ, for which dust was a lethal danger, was duly encased in what Jackson calls ‘the largest polythene bag in the world’, although he claims he made no changes in his usual stop registrations as a result. In order to move the excavated debris out of the church, a small railway had been laid to the west door. At evensong one afternoon, the lay clerk received a green light on the system communicating him with the organ loft. Expecting to hear perhaps some final, nuanced instruction for the Nunc dimittis, he was treated instead to Jackson’s solemn announcement that ‘the 4.21 from the west door is now approaching the central tower.’

What compositions is Francis Jackson most known for?

Who is Francis Jackson
Who is Francis Jackson

Jackson is still composing, and on the day my wife and I arrived he’d just finished his Op. 168, a commission like so much of his music. Probably his best known work is his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G (known familiarly as ‘Me in G’), undoubtedly one of the finest settings made since the war. Dating from 1952, it briefly predates the arrival of Jackson and his, fairly new, wife Priscilla in his present house, complete with separate studio in the garden. He calls this his ‘Montfort l’Amaury’ after the village where Ravel spent his last years, and where the happy couple made their first foreign visit. It contains not only a grand piano and a two-manual, late 18th-century chamber organ, but a lifetime’s collection of cards, plaques, medals, citations, record covers etc. An enchanted cave. 

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And so, dear Francis, on behalf of the thousands of your friends and admirers all over the world, I wish you a happy 103rd birthday, with our profound gratitude for the fine music you have given us as both composer and player over so many years, and in the belief that, if ever there is a competition for ‘the politest man in Yorkshire’, the prize will be yours by acclamation.