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Bower, Sir John Dykeslocked

(1905–1981)
  • Henry Chadwick

Bower, Sir John Dykes (1905–1981), organist, was born at Gloucester on 13 August 1905, the third of four sons (there were no daughters) of Ernest Dykes Bower MD, a general practitioner and ophthalmic surgeon, and his wife, Margaret Dora Constance Sheringham. Two of his brothers (Michael and Wilfrid) became well-known doctors, and the other, Stephen Ernest Dykes Bower, an architect, designed the baldachin at St Paul's Cathedral. All four sons inherited from their parents a powerful interest in music, and as children were daily set to practise the piano during the hour before breakfast. The family worshipped regularly at Gloucester Cathedral.

Dykes Bower was educated at Cheltenham College and at the same time was a pupil of Herbert Brewer, organist of Gloucester Cathedral. From Cheltenham he went in 1922 to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and there won the John Stewart of Rannoch university scholarship in music. He was again awarded a Rannoch scholarship, together with his brother Wilfrid, in 1925. At Cambridge he was organ scholar in succession to Boris Ord; his brother Wilfrid succeeded him. Ord and Dykes Bower were lifelong friends, both dedicated to the pursuit of flawless performance of church music and very austere in the demands they made on choirs. Both hated any element of ‘show-biz’ about the conductor's role.

From Cambridge, Dykes Bower went to be organist at Truro (1926–9), where Bishop Walter Frere as musician and liturgist made his stay congenial. At Truro he succeeded in expelling from his choir a tone-deaf lay clerk who was mayor and a potentate in the city. This difficult achievement commended him to H. A. L. Fisher, warden of New College, Oxford, and Sir Hugh Allen, when New College needed an organist in 1929. In 1933 he was invited to be cathedral organist at Durham, with a university lectureship. His Cambridge college simultaneously elected him a (non-resident) fellow (1934–7). The incomparable acropolis of Durham was congenial to Dykes Bower, but there were also difficulties to contend with (he did not get on well with those who wanted no changes and resented his perfectionism); and in 1936, aged only thirty-one, he was appointed by W. R. Matthews, the dean, to St Paul's Cathedral to succeed Stanley Marchant. Matthews and Dykes Bower became instinctively drawn together in friendship as well as by their common responsibility for cathedral services. They perfectly understood their respective spheres. Moreover, Dykes Bower was a punctilious administrator and letter writer. He enjoyed to the full the great occasions that came to St Paul's, such as the thanksgiving service after the Second World War or Sir Winston Churchill's state funeral in 1965, when the huge congregation singing the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' was totally controlled by his masterly rhythmic playing.

St Paul's had resources making it possible for Dykes Bower to include music of a complexity that other cathedrals could hardly attempt. Characteristically, unless an anthem were unaccompanied, he would always direct from the organ loft; his intense sense of pulse and rhythm was conveyed with the minimum of external sign. He disliked anything flamboyant or histrionic. In part this reflected the quiet reticence of his personality. But it was more an expression of his deep feeling that the sublimity of church music is diminished or even destroyed if the performance and the performers are perceived to be somehow distinct from the act of worship to which they help to give expression.

During the Second World War the cathedral was under frequent threat from the air. In the destruction of the City of London by firebombs in December 1940 Dykes Bower lost everything, including his exquisite grand piano to which he was devoted; he was at least as fine a performer on the piano as on the organ. In 1940 he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and, with the rank of squadron leader, worked in the Air Ministry with a group which included the viola player Bernard Shore, with whom he used to give occasional wartime recitals when life made such relaxation possible. After the war he combined his continued work at St Paul's with the post of associate director of the Royal School of Church Music (1945–52). He held the professorship of organ at the Royal College of Music (1936–69) and sent out a series of distinguished pupils to many of the major cathedral posts in England. Only Boris Ord at King's College, Cambridge, had a comparable influence on the standard of musicianship in English cathedrals.

In 1967, aged sixty-two, Dykes Bower found his eyesight threatened by cataract, and once, playing some difficult Bach at the end of a service, he suddenly found himself unable to see the printed page. Immediately he decided to retire from the great position he had held so long. He also had such an attachment to W. R. Matthews, with whom he had collaborated for thirty-one years, that he did not want to continue after Matthews's retirement from the deanery. He took a flat near Westminster Abbey, which he attended regularly. Weak sight robbed him of the earlier pleasure of reading Victorian novels and railway timetables, on which he was remarkably expert (he loved to plan imaginary cross-country journeys with Bradshaw). But he continued to do much for the Royal College of Organists, of which he was president (1960–62).

Dykes Bower was appointed CVO in 1953 and knighted in 1968. Oxford made him an honorary DMus (1944) and Corpus Christi, Cambridge, made him an honorary fellow (1980). He was master of the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 1967–8. He did much for the council of Hymns Ancient and Modern, of which he was chairman; the hymn writer J. B. Dykes (1823–1876) was his forebear.

Dykes Bower's fastidiousness and relentless quest for flawless performance made him hard to please, and could combine with his quiet reticence to make him silent where a word of encouragement could have been beneficial. A very private man with a horror of the limelight, he asked only to be allowed to offer perfection through music in the worship of the Church of England. He inspired awe but also deep affection in everyone who worked alongside him. He died, unmarried, on 29 May 1981 in a hospital at Orpington, Kent.

Sources

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, news footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance recordings

Wealth at Death

£132,919: probate, 20 Aug 1981, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1920–)
S. Sadie, ed., , 20 vols. (1980); 2nd edn., 29 vols. (2001)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]