A tribute to John Beckett

by Lindsay Armstrong


From a speech made at a concert of Bach Cantatas at St Ann’s, Dawson Street, Dublin on Sunday 11th February, 2007,
dedicated to the memory of John Stewart Beckett.


John Beckett was a pioneer, trail blazer and innovator in the cause of early music in Ireland. Returning to Dublin from London in the early 1970s where he had distinguished himself as a member of the Renaissance music group Musica Reservata, he conceived the idea of presenting an annual series devoted to Bach’s church cantatas. The choice of St Ann’s Church as the venue was sealed when he discovered that the building was completed in 1723, the same year that Bach became Cantor in St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. An auspicious link was established from the outset.


The first series took place in 1972 and it was apparent immediately that here was something new and very special. John conveyed energy, sincerity, freshness; but above all, a magisterial authorithy as to how this music should be performed. He was direct; he was blunt. Diplomacy was not exactly a Beckett trait, but the power and conviction of his personality opened our ears, our minds, our hearts to this wonderful music. Even his initials J. S. B. seemed to us to be but confirmation that the spirit of Bach was embodied in that burly and forceful figure.


Those of us who were privileged to take part in and those of us who were present at those performances were touched by an experience which has influenced and affected us ever since. The continuation of the tradition that Beckett started, reflected in this present series, and in the many current developments in early music in the country, can trace their origins in John Beckett’s endeavours.


John’s Cantata series ran for ten years from 1972 to 1981, during which time some sixty-five Cantatas were revealed, and I use that word advisedly. The concerts achieved almost a cult following. A formidable team of soloists (Irene Sandford, Bernadette Greevy, Frank Patterson and William Young), a specially-formed choir, The Cantata Singers (trained by David Milne), and the New Irish Chamber Orchestra, led by Mary Gallagher with John O’Sullivan and Betty Sullivan on continuo, were inspired by John to give consistent performances of an outstandingly high quality.


It was not only in Dublin that these performances were admired. A BBC music producer, Nicholas Anderson, finding that many Cantatas were not in the BBC’s archives, came to Dublin several times to help fill those gaps, by recording John’s series. This happy association culminated in an invitation from the BBC for the whole ensemble to give an all-Bach concert – two major Cantatas and two Sinfonias – in the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the 1979 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Almost immediately after this Prom appearance the group performed at the Flanders Early Music Festival in Bruges, the first of two visits in consecutive years. When the New Irish Chamber Orchestra toured China in 1980, John was the conductor and naturally a Bach Cantata – this time the Wedding Cantata (No. 202) with Irene Sandford – featured in all the programmes.


While fiercely self critical and almost perversely depreciating of his own efforts, John always remained proud of the recording he made of Bach Arias with Bernadette Greevy and the New Irish Chamber Orchestra. This is still available on CD on the Claddagh label. I can vouch for the excellence of the disc – I am playing oboe on it!


John revered the music of many composers other than that of Bach. Monteverdi, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart (though a little more grudgingly as he felt Mozart did not write such good development sections), Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Fauré and especially Mahler. He also cherished an ambition, unfortunately not realised, to conduct a concert consisting entirely of Strauss waltzes!


He had intensely strong musical dislikes. The works of Handel and Vivaldi were anathema to him. Messiah was consigned to outer darkness and he once told me that the only worthwhile piece in it, the recitative ‘Thy rebuke has broken his heart’ must have been written by somebody else, as it was too good for Handel!


Vivaldi fared even worse. It was, in John’s view, one of Art’s great tragedies that Bach stumbled across some Vivaldi scores in the library in Weimar. Even a hint of Italianate style in a Bach movement would produce a sorrowful shake of the head and an expression of regret for what he called ‘Bach’s Vivaldi mode’!


Not surprisingly, being a cousin of the great writer Samuel Beckett, John had a gift and flow of language. Many people came to his Cantata series not only for the music, but also to hear John’s pithy and idiosyncratic introductions.


His aphorisms were many, memorable and incisive. One example must suffice. Exhorting the choir for better diction he told them in the sternest Beckett voice, ‘I want your words to be so clear that I can feel the spittle of your consonants on my chin’.


In all, John was a remarkable and unforgettable person and the artistic debt we owe him is immense.


Now that the passage of time has washed away any trace of the dust and rust of prejudice, we can see his achievements for what they truly are: musical monuments etched in high relief, uncompromising, adamantine, noble, beautiful.


I am not going to ask you to stand for a moment’s silence in his memory – John would have deplored such outward show on his behalf. But I am sure he will be in our thoughts during this afternoon’s performance and none more so than at the words of the second verse of the Chorale in Cantata No. 102:


Help, O Lord Jesus, help me,

Before sudden death takes me,

So that I today and evermore

May be prepared for my journey home.


Afterwards, when we leave this place, perhaps to repair to some old watering hole, to drink a dish of tea or a cup of wine, we will reminisce about he who is gone, and give thanks for the insights he brought to Bach, whose music he loved and served so well.


(Reproduced by kind permission of Lindsay Armstrong.)




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