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John Beckett (Conductor)

Born: February 5 , 1927 - Dublin, Ireland
Died: February 5, 2007 - Greenwich in London, England

The Irish musician, composer and conductor, John S. Beckett, and his twin sister Ann were born to Gerald and Peggy Beckett. Gerald, brother of Bill Beckett (Samuel Beckettís father), studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and became County Medical Officer for Wicklow. Gerald played rugby for Ireland, and captained a golf club. A quiet man with wide interests, he was quite irreligious, with a dry sense of humour, describing life as ďa disease of matterĒ. He was very musical and enjoyed playing piano duets with a neighbour (David Owen Williams, who later became a director in the Guinness Brewery) and also with his nephew Samuel Beckett and with his son John. John inherited his fatherís mordant wit, but not his love of sport.

John attended St Columbaís College, Dublin, where he was taught music by Joe Groocock, whom he admired little short of idolatry, and who furthered his lifelong devotion to the music of J.S. Bach. (John shared the same initials, J.S.B., with the famous composer.) John wrote his first fugue at around the age of 14 in the Groocock family home while visiting one weekend. Johnís fatherís friend Mr Williams, who had served in Germany during World War II, brought home a complete set of vocal scores of J.S. Bachís Cantatas, which made a huge impression on John. The Becketts lived for a time in Dundrum and then, in 1933, moved to Field Place, Greystones, County Wicklow. Johnís father worked in Rathdrum, also in Wicklow.

John Beckett moved to London in 1945 and studied composition at the Royal College of Music for three years - he had been composing from an early age. He spent a year in Paris in 1949 and returned to Dublin in 1950; his father died in September of that year. Between 1950 and 1953, he befriended the pianist, organist and harpsichordist John OíSullivan, the painter and musician Michael Morrow, the singer Werner Schürmann and the harpsichord maker Cathal Gannon. In 1950, the Music Association of Ireland organised a J.S. Bach bicentenary celebration. As part of this, John played the harpsichord continuo part in a performance, in the Metropolitan Hall, Dublin, of J.S. Bachís B minor Mass (BWV 232), sung by the Culwick Choral Society and the Radio Éireann Choir, conducted by Otto Matzerath. The historic Weber harpsichord from the National Museum was used for the occasion.

John returned to London in 1953 but was back in Dublin again by 1958, when the first complete performance of J.S. Bachís Saint Matthew Passion (BWV 244) took place with Victor Leeson conducting the St Jamesís Gate Musical Society. As it was believed that a harpsichord was not available, John played on a piano that had drawing pins attached to the hammers in order to give it a harpsichord-like sound. When the work was performed again the following year, using the same forces, Cathal Gannonís first harpsichord was used. The continuo part was played by John on the harpsichord and by Betty Sullivan on the cello - a collaboration that would last for many years.

In 1960, Musica Reservata, a group specialising in Renaissance music was founded in London and was directed by Michael Morrow and conducted by John Beckett. The group performed in England during the 1960's and 1970's and made many recordings, which are still available. In addition to being a keyboard player, John played the recorder and viol. John also composed music, but although his music was generally considered to be good, he had little success. He collaborated with his cousin Samuel, writing music for some of his radio plays and Samuelís stage works, Act Without Words and Words and Music.

By 1961 John was back in Ireland and was involved in a serious car accident in which he broke his two arms, a hip and an ankle. While recovering in hospital, he practised his music on a clavichord made by his friend, Cathal Gannon. He returned to England, where he taught the recorder and had a viol consort class at the Chiswick Polytechnic, and in 1967 he acquired a Gannon harpsichord.

Earlier, John Becett had married Vera Slocombe, but the marriage broke up in 1969. In March 1970 he returned to Dublin, now with his partner, the viola player Ruth David. They lived together in a very basic cottage at the foot of Djouce Mountain in County Wicklow. From here he drove to the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Westland Row, where he taught the harpsichord and viol and directed a chamber music class. Johnís harpsichord students included Malcolm Proud and Emer Buckley. Other students who partook in the chamber music sessions, normally held in the Dagg Hall, included David and John Milne, Clive Shannon, Patricia Quinn, Michael Dervan (music critic of The Irish Times), Siobhán Yeats and even Liam Óg Ó Floinn, who played the uilleann pipes, an instrument that John liked very much. The traditional fiddler Nollaig Casey also attended and John always got her to play an unaccompanied slow air at the class concerts. Sometimes a traditional flute player performed at the concerts, though he did not attend the class.

The famous series of J.S. Bach Cantatas, performed during February in St Annís Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, under Beckettís direction, began in the early 1970s and lasted for ten years. The singers Frank Patterson, Bernadette Greevy, Irene Sandford and William Young were regular soloists. Nicholas Anderson of the BBC took a great interest in these Sunday afternoon concerts and several times recorded those Cantatas that the BBC had not yet recorded for its complete series. Because of this connection, the New Irish Chamber Orchestra and The Cantata Singers, conducted by John Beckett, were invited to perform an all-J.S. Bach concert at one of the Henry Wood Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on July 22, 1979. This was the first time an orchestra and choir from the Republic of Ireland performed in one of these Proms. The Cantata series was revived several years after John left Ireland, with the Orchestra of St Cecilia (essentially the same personnel as the New Irish Chamber Orchestra), whose Artistic Director is Lindsay Armstrong.

John regularly performed music by Haydn, notably his piano trios and songs, which were sung by Frank Patterson and which were recorded by RTÉ radio. John founded the Henry Purcell Consort in 1975 and played a great deal of Henry Purcellís music to Dublin audiences. He recorded an LP of Purcell songs with Frank, re-recording some for a BBC radio programme. He also played with the Dublin Consort of Viols (an offshoot of the Consort of Saint Sepulchre), which specialised in the performance of works by Purcell, Byrd, Lawes, Jenkins (whose music John adored) and other composers of that genre. John worked regularly with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra and went with them to Italy in 1975, where he was unexpectedly presented with a papal medal from Pope Paul VI after an impromptu performance with Our Ladyís Choral Society in St Peterís Square. John went with New Irish Chamber Orchestra to Sicily in 1977 and China in 1980, a trip that he greatly enjoyed. He performed on a Kirckmann harpsichord of 1772 and an early 19th-century Broadwood grand piano, both owned by Trinity College Dublin, and conducted the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra in works by Gustav Mahler, Edward Elgar and Sib. By this time, he and Ruth had moved to Bray, County Wicklow.

At around this time in his life, John Beckett recollected a journey to the Great Blasket Island, off the west coast of Ireland, which was made in a currach over a rough sea during the 1940's, when the island was still inhabited. He enjoyed the experience of living and drinking with the locals in their rough cottages and listened to the simple traditional music and songs that they performed. He relished the earthiness of plain, simple Mediterranean ceramics and loved Byzantine icons (especially those darkened with age). He was heavily influenced by the writings of his cousin Samuel Beckett, James Joyce (whom Samuel had worshipped) and Kafka. He also developed a liking for the sparse, angular shapes of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, which was mirrored in his extraordinary handwriting. The roughness and irregularity of a Japanese tea bowl fascinated him. His two greatest treasures were a bamboo chair, purchased in China, and an old Black Forest clock with an Irish dial, which had been fixed for him by Cathal Gannon and about which he often spoke. He also savoured well-flavoured, peasant food and had a strong penchant for garlic which he often carried in his pocket, using the cloves to flavour his much-loved whiskey.

John Beckett venerated James Joyce to the same extent that he worshipped J.S. Bach. Joyceís Ulysses was Beckettís bible; he claimed that he read it religiously once every year. He visited Joyceís grave in Switzerland with his close friend Paul Conway and went to an exhibition of paintings by Paul Klee, an artist whom he greatly admired. John and Paul also made an extensive trip around Germany, visiting all the places associated with J.S. Bach.

In 1983 John Beckett sold his house in Bray and left Ireland, moving to Greenwich in London. As his health was poor - he had suffered a number of heart attacks - his doctor had warned him against any more conducting. (He later had a hip replaced.) He worked, until he retired, for BBC Radio 3, producing music programmes and assessing audition tapes that were submitted by musicians applying for recitals.. In 1990 he was invited to conduct the inaugural concert of the Irish Baroque Orchestra at the Third Early Music Festival in Dublin, but ill health intervened. When he lost his beloved Ruth in 1995 and then, in December 2002, his sister Ann, he lived alone but was visited regularly by his friends in London and Dublin. John had visited Ann in Dublin on a regular basis and more frequently when she became ill; after she had died, he could not be persuaded to return to Ireland and declined to attend a reunion of the Beckett family in Dublin. He died, sitting in his chair, on the morning of February 5, 2007. He was discovered by his close friend, Paul Conway, who had travelled from Dublin to surprise him on his eightieth birthday. He was cremated at Lewisham Crematorium on February 16, 2007 after a simple ceremony consisting of Japanese music for the shakuhachi (an end-blown flute), which he had requested to be played at his funeral.

Assessment and Character

John was one of the first generation of brilliant harpsichordists that emerged in the middle of the last century. His playing was marked by energy and ebullient rhythm, always with the utmost clarity, and he was highly regarded as a continuo player by his contemporaries in the UK. A most affectionate and faithful friend, John could be a bitter opponent with a very sharp tongue. He worshipped J.S. Bach, and held George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli in extraordinary contempt. He also disliked Heinrich Schütz ('too many root postions' was his comment). Apart from J.S. Bach and Purcell, other favourite composers were G. Mahler, Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin and Gabriel Fauré. He came to appreciate the French baroque composers late in life, thanks to the encouragement of one of his students. He disliked the sound that certain contemporary orchestras made when performing baroque music on period instruments. He once told Cathal Gannon that he would love to conduct a performance of Strauss waltzes.

Like many conductors who are wonderful with choirs, his relationship with orchestras was (by comparison) slightly stand-offish. They saw little nuance in his arm movements, which tended to be extra large; and while orchestral players prefer to be shown things by gesture in the course of rehearsing, Johnís method was to mark each playerís part, in great detail, in soft black pencil (having completely erased all previous markings) in advance of the first rehearsal, and then to give further instructions verbally. Reading his handwritten music, especially his continuo parts, which were thick with chords, was just as difficult as reading his handwriting.

When recording, John nearly always delivered the goods on the first take. Very often the best buzz of all was to be had in the final rehearsal. Despite a confident exterior, he was not at his happiest in public performance, appearing to scowl at the musicians when conducting. This did not prevent him, when a performance went particularly well, from repeating an entire J.S. Bach Cantata at one of the Sunday afternoon concerts.

Often regarded as a formidable, gruff individual, he was generally a good and encouraging teacher, though he could at times be demanding. He stretched his students to their limits, but most were grateful to him for what he had taught them and for the fact that he had made them play music that, without his encouragement, they would never have tackled. Inwardly, he was very tense; it was his custom to leave for work very early in the morning lest he get caught in traffic, which was something that he absolutely dreaded. He regularly arrived at venues hours ahead of schedule and the 8 o'clock rehearsals for the J.S. Bach Cantatas always began at one minute to eight.


John Beckett (left) with Cathal Gannon in China, 1980 [1]

John Beckett (left) and Otto Matzerath at the Weber harpsichord in the National Museum, Dublin, 1950 [2]


Source: This article is based on a transcription of an interview between Charles Gannon and John Beckett (recorded in 1998), with contributions by Andrew Robinson, Gillian Smith, Lindsay Armstrong, Rhoda Draper, Paul Conway and Brigid Ferguson. This article will be updated when new material is submitted.
Contributed by
Charles Gannon (February 2007)

John Beckett: Short Biography | Irish Chamber Orchestra | Recordings of Vocal Works

Links to other Sites

John S. Beckett Website

John S. Beckett (Wikipedia)

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