Harrison Oxley (1933-2009)

Organist who championed mixed-voice choirs dies

Harrison Oxley, organist, choirmaster and controversial pioneer of the admission of girls into cathedral choirs, has died aged 76.


Oxley was working as organist and choirmaster at St Edmundsbury in Suffolk, where he moved to at the age of 24, when he first introduced girls into the cathedral choir. When extra singers were needed for a televised service inaugurating a new bishop, Oxley drafted in eight girls to sing – convention demanding that they stand out of sight of the television cameras. Under Oxley’s direction girls remained in the choir from this point until 1981, when a more traditionally minded Provost took office. A few years later Oxley resigned.

Known to his friends as Fred, Oxley was a gifted keyboard player from a young age, winning the Associated Board Silver Medal for piano at the age of 12. He went on to become an organ scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, and graduated in 1954 with a first class degree in music. A renowned interpreter of 20th-century organ music, Oxley toured the US as a solo organist several times. In 1985 he formed a choir, the St Cecilia Singers, and he was a regular contributor to the BBC radio programme Children’s Hour.


Though some frowned upon Oxley’s efforts to ensure equality in choirs, he argued ‘I do not see why we should bar half of humanity from the benefits and opportunities of cathedral choir membership.’ Nowadays many cathedrals accept girls both as members of mixed-voice choirs or of separate girls’ choirs.