Chichester Cathedral’s organist is honoured

Fond tributes have been paid following the death of former Chichester Cathedral organist John Birch.

He was appointed organist and master of the choristers in Chichester at the early age of 29, combining it with a parallel career teaching at the Royal College of Music and as an accompanist for the Royal Choral Society.

Known as JB to generations of his choristers and choir members, he was born in Staffordshire in 1929. In 1958 he succeeded the 78-year-old Horace Hawkins as organist of Chichester Cathedral.

The Very Rev Nicholas Frayling, Dean of Chichester, said: “He was a tremendous encouragement to his successors Alan Thurlow and Sarah Baldock, and will be greatly missed as a friend, a fine musician and a devout Christian.”

Dr Thurlow (organist and master of the choristers 1980-2008) said Birch’s appointment in 1958 marked a turning-point in the development of cathedral music, not just at Chichester but in the country as a whole.

“Walter Hussey had been appointed Dean in 1955, and his vision in selecting a dynamic 29-year-old musician as director of music of a major cathedral broke the traditional mould, helping to pave the way for the major development of the choral tradition in our provincial cathedrals during the second half of the last century.

“Previously, organists had been at least in their forties before receiving such appointments, and usually only after they had served for some time in a major parish church.

“He quickly developed a reputation for the quality of the singing of his boy choristers, with an emphasis on accuracy in performance and the development of a gentle and distinctively beautiful tonal quality, ideally suited to the acoustic of the building, which soon became referred to as ‘the Chichester sound’.”