An appreciation of the Campaign's Second President
John Derek Sanders
OBE, MA (Cantab), D.Mus (Cantuar), FRCO, ARCM
As organist of Gloucester Cathedral for
nearly 30 years, John Sanders was an inspirational teacher, constantly expanding
the repertoire and teaching his singers sometimes immensely difficult and daunting
As well as being an excellent choral and orchestral conductor, with a complete intellectual and musical grasp of complex scores, he enjoyed well-nigh ideal relationships with all who made music with him. Cathedral choirs worked willingly for him, and together they maintained the highest standards. Sanders was a thoughtful, highly intelligent, kindly and humorous person with a great gift for friendship. As a musician he was accomplished and versatile in the best tradition of the English cathedral organist, and he enhanced the lives of generations of choristers and of the many singers who sang under his direction. He brought fun and enjoyment into their music-making, and masterminded many memorable occasions when all their individual musical abilities were transcended by their corporate endeavours.
He created many opportunities to take the Gloucester Cathedral choir on tour abroad, and the members of the Gloucester Choral Society and the players in the Gloucestershire Orchestral Society enjoyed similarly warm relationships with him, as did the Three Choirs Festival chorus and orchestras, both amateur and professional.
Yet his relaxed manner hid a quiet determination to have things absolutely
right, and all who worked with him knew exactly what was required of them. In
all he did, he was remarkably thorough. His administration was admirable and
his rehearsal schedules and complicated timetables were meticulous, with nothing
ever left to chance.
Composition was important to him - as it had been to his predecessor at Gloucester Cathedral, Herbert Sumsion - and throughout his career he always had some compositional project in hand. After his retirement from the cathedral he was able to follow this interest assiduously, and the commissions became more numerous and larger in scale. His Responses and Reproaches are already sung in most of our cathedrals, as are some of his anthems and the early Te Deum, and there is little doubt that his music will gain even greater currency as the years go by. It is always beautifully written for the voices (and sometimes instruments), and though not always easy, it is usually well-crafted, memorable, effective and entirely apt for its purpose.
Born in 1933, John Derek Sanders was educated at Felsted School and the Royal College of Music before going up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he was organ scholar.
From 1958 he was both assistant organist at Gloucester Cathedral and director of music at the King's School, Gloucester. Five years later he moved to Chester Cathedral to become organist and master of the choristers, but that appointment lasted only three years before he was able to return to his beloved Gloucester in 1967.
He was surprised, the following year, by the vehemence of the hostility to the radical rebuild of the Gloucester organ, which he commissioned under the direction of Ralph Downes. He had underestimated the affection for the old Willis/Harrison organ, and not expected public protests about its demise from figures such as Herbert Howells and John Dykes Bower. He also had to endure much criticism when the heavier pedal stops, which were not wanted in Downes's more classical tonal scheme, were removed.
Sanders was staunchly loyal to the resulting new instrument and came to love it dearly, but the controversy scarred him somewhat, and for a long time he was very defensive about the rebuild.
Needlessly so, in the view of many, because he ensured that Gloucester Cathedral possessed a magnificent organ. This was rebuilt with its original decorated 17th-century Harris pipes restored, combined with new ranks and the Willis reeds, nearly all contained within its expertly restored pair of Harris cases.
Another example of his outstanding ability to see things through to a successful
conclusion was his handling of the crisis in 1977 when Malcolm Williamson, the
Master of the Queen's Music, failed to complete his commission for the 250th
Three Choirs Festival, which was being held at Gloucester. The various movements
of the piece arrived separately, and the chorus had to learn their parts as
they were delivered during the rehearsal weeks - but in the end the work was
There had been enormous publicity about the commission, which was dedicated to the Queen and celebrated a great anniversary in the life of the oldest music festival in the world. Unfinished though the work was, Sanders pulled off the performance magnificently. Everyone involved could only admire his calm and professionalism, though the experience was an enormous strain on him.
As well as the musical duties of Gloucester Cathedral and the conductorships of Gloucester Choral Society, the Three Choirs Festival and the Gloucestershire Orchestral Society, John Sanders's services to the Church of England and to music in general were wide-ranging. He was part-time director of music at Cheltenham Ladies' College for many years, and at various times served the Royal School of Church Music and the local organists' association. He was a most valued member of the Council of the Royal College of Organists.
For many years a member of the Friends of Cathedral Music, he had recently
focused his support for cathedral music by becoming president of the Campaign
for the Defence of the Traditional Cathedral Choir. Though far from being a
cathedral music misogynist, he recognised very clearly the extreme importance
of ensuring boys continue to sing in cathedral and parish church choirs if the
priceless English tradition of church music is to survive in pristine form.
He felt it essential to support the older tradition of the all-male choir and
to make sure that it is not swamped by the introduction of girls to sing the
top line. To raise funds for this new cause he last year established the Traditional
Choir Trust, with the support of the Bishop of Gloucester and the Dean of Hereford.
His wide influence in all of these spheres was recognised by the award of the Lambeth degree of D.Mus, and by his honorary fellowship of the Royal School of Church Music. He was appointed OBE in 1994.
He married Janet Dawson in 1967, and it proved a marriage of rare quality. She survives him, along with their son and daughter.
John Sanders, OBE, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Gloucester Cathedral,
1967-94, was born on November 11, 1933. He died on December 22, 2003, aged 70.
Obituary reproduced by kind permission of The Times