Inspirational Dennis lived a musical dream
As a cathedral city, Lincoln has been fortunate to enjoy a great musical heritage going back to the 1560s when William Byrd, one of the greatest English musicians and composers of all time, was organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, and lived at 6 Minster Yard.
It is perhaps due to the influence of the cathedral that the tradition was maintained in the 20th Century.
Lincoln School in the 1930s and 40s was not known for the quality of its music teaching, and neither was it possible to take the subject to ordinary or advanced levels at GCE.
Despite that, and due to the efforts of visiting music teachers such as Clifford Hewis, assistant organist and choirmaster to Dr Gordon Slater at Lincoln Cathedral, coupled with the skills and dedication of local private music teachers, the school produced some outstanding musicians during that period.
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These included Graham Patman FRCO, Graham Garton GRSM, LRAM, and Steve Race OBE. Race went on to achieve a considerable national reputation as a composer, pianist and broadcaster.
But perhaps the most eminent of musical scholars in the 1940s was Neville Marriner, who played in a jazz band at Lincoln School with Steve Race, and achieved an international reputation as conductor and music director of the Orchestra of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
However, today's article features a lesser-known but perhaps equally distinguished musician, Dennis William Townhill, who was a pupil at Lincoln School from 1934-1942.
My colleague John Males has researched his fascinating life and has written the following tribute to his background, work and achievements.
Imagine a small boy, writes John Males, raised by his blacksmith grandparents at their backstreet Lincoln smithy. Then look at his obituary in The Times some 80 years later.
'The death of Dr Dennis Townhill, OBE, has robbed the musical world of one of its venerable elder statesmen. Organist, composer, teacher, administrator, lecturer, adjudicator and noted choral conductor … he enriched music far beyond the confines of the organ loft and, in the process, nurtured generations of aspiring musicians … (He was) one of the finest organists of his generation.'
This snippet is from just one newspaper obituary.
Dennis's unmarried mother had become pregnant after falling in love with a musician at Butlins in Skegness, and was abandoned.
Dennis was born in Lincoln on May 29, 1925, but within three years his mother had died of tuberculosis, aged 23.
He was unaware of any of this until he became a teenager when a family friend accepted the task of spilling the beans, choosing to explain the facts of life at the same time. Until then Dennis had accepted his grandparents as mum and dad.
While a toddler he loved making noises on the smithy's piano in the front parlour. Auntie Vera, his mother's sister, gave him rudimentary lessons until she, too, died at 23, of peritonitis.
At the age of six, his grandparents started paying for his piano lessons.
He went to St Peter at Gowts Primary School until he was nine when his Sunday school teacher recognised his promising singing voice and suggested auditioning for Lincoln Cathedral choir.
While being assessed there he not only spotted and explained an error by the examiner but also demonstrated perfect pitch, and so became one of only three to win a place out of 14 applicants. Once at the cathedral he studied under Dr Gordon Slater until he left at 15 as Head Chorister.
As a chorister he attended the Lincoln School, now LCHS, enrolling on May 29, 1935. Documents in the LCHS Garton Archive reveal how quickly he demonstrated prowess in running, cricket and, of course, music.
From as early as spring 1936 the school magazine mentioned him as a useful sprinter and middle-distance runner.
His achievements included being awarded colours for 1st XI football, 1st XI cricket, under-14 cricket and senior running, as well as becoming captain of the athletics team.
His musical progress was equally rapid – at 13 he began to learn the organ and at 14 he was credited as piano soloist in the Christmas concert.
The next year the magazine announced his spare-time appointment as Sunday Organist and Choirmaster at Glentham Parish Church, followed by a similar post, aged 16, at Burton.
Six months later found him at Lincoln's St Mary-le-Wigford church and finally at St Mary Magdalene, Bailgate, where he once got locked in and had to summon help from the street by playing all the notes together at full volume!
In July 1942, a year into the sixth form, he left school to take up a position as articled pupil-assistant to Dr Slater at the cathedral, his meagre salary augmented with fees from a few private pupils.
Five years later he was appointed Conductor of Brigg Choral Society thereby extending his repertoire to include popular music for larger choirs.
On July 7, 1957, he gave the first of many Radio 3 recitals from the church, and that year was awarded the Archbishop of Canterbury's Diploma in Church Music.
By the end of 1961 he had become Organist at St James's Church, Louth and music master of Louth Grammar School, followed by a stint as organist and choirmaster at Grimsby Parish Church, appointed from 53 candidates.
In June 1961, he and his wife Mabel left Lincolnshire with his grandparents to embark upon what was to become his life's work for the next 30 years, as organist and Master of the Choristers at St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh. Highlights of his time there included extensive broadcasting and recording; playing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with the LSO under Lorin Maazel at the Usher Hall; giving organ recitals in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and America; and serving on a panel of adjudicators at the 17th International Festival of Organ and Church Music in Nuemberg, Germany.
In between, he took the Cathedral Choir on 18 overseas tours, including to the USA, where they enjoyed great acclaim.
But his biggest satisfaction was closer to his Edinburgh home, safeguarding and expanding the cathedral's choir school.
In 1970 it was transformed into the St Mary's School of Music, modelled on the Yehudi Menuhin School with Lord Menuhin as its patron.
In 1978 he controversially enrolled girls into the cathedral choir for the first time.
As if this wasn't enough, he also taught at the Royal College of Music, Glasgow, and the Theological College, Edinburgh.
Soon after retiring in 1991 he was awarded the OBE for services to music. But his retirement was not as placid as might be sought by lesser men.
For example, in 1993 he was at the International Organ Festival in the Ukraine and played throughout the country; in 1994 he gave recitals in Bermuda and the Bahamas; and in the same year he spent time in Hong Kong examining for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.
John Males concludes his article by summarising Dennis Townhill's 'rags to riches' story in a nutshell;
'From unprepossessing beginnings in a little back street to becoming a luminary of his generation, his life was indeed the stuff of dreams.'
In stark contrast to Lincoln School in the 1940s and 50s, LCHS has a flourishing music department, with facilities for pupils to study to GCSE and A Levels, and opportunities for extra-curricular activities, including choir, orchestra, band, string quartet and jazz group.