An appreciation of our Founder President

Bernarr Rainbow

Born at Battersea 2 October 1914 - died at Esher 17 March 1998
Address by Professor Peter Dickinson

Bernarr Rainbow (pictured right) was a Londoner, born just over two months before the outbreak of World War 1. His grandfather was a member of the Royal Household at Sandringham; his father was a cabinet-maker at Buckingham Palace and later Curator at Hampton Court, so Bemarr grew up with an awareness of historic places - and people. He went to Rutlish School, Merton, and whilst still there became organist and choirmaster at St. James, Merton, later holding similar posts at St. Mary's, East Molesey and St. Andrew's, Wimbledon. At an early age Bemarr knew how to make his presence felt. He gave piano recitals - and his playing was found to have 'an understanding and depth beyond his years'. He acted in plays; he formed the Merton Players' Guild and wrote a Morality Play for them, and he also directed and painted the scenery.

His 21st birthday was marked by a reception and dance at Hampton Court for some 80 guests. In these years he attended Trinity College of Music part-time whilst earning a living in the Map Branch of the Land Registry near Lincoln's Inn. All his multifarious activities continued until the war interrupted his studies and so much else.

It was during the war, in August 1941, that Lance-Corporal Bemarr Rainbow, of the Royal Army Ordinance Corps married Olive Still before a large congregation at Merton Parish Church - and he composed the music for the occasion himself.

In April, 1944, now Lieutenant Rainbow, he was discharged from the army on medical grounds after four years' service, latterly in Italy. The following September he became Organist of the Parish Church of All Saints, High Wycombe and, a few months later. Senior Music Master at The Royal Grammar School.

He made a considerable public impact at High Wycombe. He produced Gilbert and Sullivan, put on concerts at the Parish Church, and started a week-long annual Festival there in 1946. In 1950 Benjamin Britten wrote the preface to the programme book. Bemarr played the virginals in an Elizabethan and Jacobean programme and the organ in an eighteenth-century one. He also conducted a Bach programme with two cantatas and the Suite in D followed by Festal Evensong the next day. Quite a week! And anyone who bought the Illustrated Guide to the Parish Church would have found it had been written by Bemarr himself - not many Parish church organists could have done that.

Bemarr's pupils won awards and scholarships and in 1947 representatives from 30 local choirs joined in Handel's Messiah. Bemarr conducted the High Wycombe String Orchestra and was the soloist in his own Piano Concerto. In 1951 the High Wycombe Parish Church Choir was chosen to sing Evensong in the Festival Church on the new South Bank site. No wonder that the critic, Hubert Foss, wrote, "If 1,000 other towns would follow the example of High Wycombe, then English music would be vitally alive again as it was in the days of Queen Elizabeth 1."

We younger friends and colleagues knew little about all this. As one local paper said, "Bemarr Rainbow seems to have succeeded in imparting to his pupils his own brisk enthusiasm. They take their music seriously - but not too seriously." That was the Bemarr we knew - serious, but never too serious!

He turned the Royal Grammar School at High Wycombe into a singing school. So much so that when Olive was out walking their dog and passed a couple of the boys she heard one say to the other; 1 bet that dog has to sing!' Bemarr realised that the quality of music teaching in schools was paramount. This meant focussing on the teachers themselves. So in 1952 he became Director of Music at The College of S. Mark and S. John, Chelsea, the Church of England College for teachers, a remarkable community whose members have stayed friends. Later he became Head of Music at Gypsy Hill College, now Kingston University, and retired in 1978.

At Chelsea Bemarr was again much loved by his pupils but, encouraged by Hugh Pollard, he also became a scholar and researcher. He already had several music diplomas but went on to gain three postgraduate degrees from the University of Leicester, including their first DLitt.. His distinguished record was acknowledged when he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1994 and an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College in the following year. To the end, he continued to write chapters, articles and reviews. Finally it was against the odds of ill health. But in all these tribulations he was blessed in the rare quality of his friends and neighbours.

Bemarr's earlier books were practical aids for teachers and his later ones were historical, although driven by a concern about how to do the job well today against what he saw as seriously declining standards. His most comprehensive study is Music in Educational Thought and Practice. In 1991 the International Journal of Music Education said: "Bemarr Rainbow, already the most distinguished scholar in English of the history of music education, presents us here with his major opus, a work that has been long awaited and that more than fulfils all of our rosiest expectations."

Bemarr started this work at Chelsea but he went on to an exemplary use of his retirement years, supported as ever by Olive at home. Only last year he established the Bemarr Rainbow Award for School Music Teachers. This will now lie supported by the Bemarr Rainbow Trust, which is endowed to continue into the foreseeable future - a fitting memorial.

I found a scribbled note on Bemarr's desk when going through his papers. Somehow it encapsulates much of what he stood for: '...and then I think, well, if that's all I've done, at least I've enjoyed doing it immensely'.

We can be profoundly thankful that Bemarr Rainbow did do so much and that in whatever he did he communicated his zest for living. This we shall never forget.

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