DCSIMG

Dr Dennis Townhill

Musician and organist at St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh

Born: 29 May, 1925, in Lincoln.

Died: 18 July, 2008, in Edinburgh, aged 83.

IN 1961, Dennis Townhill was appointed organist at Edinburgh's St Mary's Cathedral: a post to which he brought a broad knowledge of church music and a desire to enhance the already considerable reputation of the choral music in the cathedral. Townhill was an ardent lover of JS Bach (he regularly performed his entire organ music at St Mary's) but supported contemporary composers and commissioned works by Kenneth Leighton, who was Reid professor of music at Edinburgh University.

In 1964 Townhill commissioned Leighton to compose his first piece for the cathedral, Preces and Responses, and later recorded all Leighton's organ works.

Many at the cathedral associate Townhill with the St Mary's School of Music he did so much to nurture and expand. From his arrival at the cathedral he included girl choristers and he and his wife, Mabel, acted as guardians of the choristers. It was intended that the role would last one term but they remained for three years.

The school was modelled on the Yehudi Menuhin School and the renowned violinist agreed to become patron of the St Mary's School, referring to it as "my younger sister-school in Scotland".

Dennis Townhill was born in Lincoln and was a chorister in the cathedral school. He attended Lincoln Grammar School then held appointments at the Choral Society in Brigg, St James' Church in Louth and Grimsby before coming to Edinburgh in 1961. Townhill also taught three days a week at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Throughout his career Townhill proved a patient, understanding tutor. His charm and love of instructing singers and student musicians was immediate and encouraging. He was an enterprising music-maker and chose the music for cathedral with care – the Faur or Brahms Requiem on Remembrance Sunday and the St Matthew Passion at Easter.

In 1972 the first four instrumentalists entered the school – all from Scotland – and it proved a challenging time for Townhill. He had many duties within the cathedral and was director of music at the school. In addition, he organised or played at many concerts at the cathedral. These often included organ recitals during the Festival, which became a popular feature.

In 1962 Townhill played at the opening concert in the Usher Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra under Lorin Maazel. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis was the sole item on the programme and the scheduled organist, the acclaimed Dr Herrick Bunney of St Giles' Cathedral, was taken ill. Townhill proved an able substitute, but it was no straightforward task. The organ in the Usher Hall was notoriously temperamental and as Townhill wrote in his autobiography: "At the first rehearsal I didn't play a single note because we couldn't even get the main power switch to work. It was an absolute nightmare."

Typically, Townhill was involved in raising funds to save the Usher Hall organ. In 1992 the Townhill family raised 1,000 at a concert in Palmerston Place Church to restore the organ: he played the piano and organ and various members of the family (of all ages) were heard on a wide variety of instruments.

In 1987 at the Festival, Townhill was a member of a trio that played trumpet sonatas, accompanying on the St Mary's organ.

Townhill remained active in the musical world after his retirement in 1991. He fulfilled many commitments to music throughout Scotland, was a keen member of the British Institute of Organ Studies and was grand organist of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. He gave his last recital during an Edinburgh Festival in 2002 at Cluny Parish Church.

On his retirement he was appointed organist emeritus at the cathedral and he was awarded an OBE in 2008.

Hazel Sheppard, the concert administrator at St Mary's, confirmed that the cathedral "owes much to Dennis's musical enthusiasm and wide understanding of church music". She said: "He was a lovely man and much loved by the entire congregation here and revered by all his students. He is remembered with great affection at St Mary's."

At the funeral there was a delightful human touch. The soprano Susan Hamilton had been the first head chorister pupil at the school and she brought her eight-day-old daughter to the service as a mark of respect to her former teacher. During the service the provost explained a gurgle and added "Dennis would have much approved of your presence."

In his autobiography (The Imp and the Thistle) Townhill recalled those early years in Edinburgh in charge of the school. "The 22 young people were great fun and delightful to live with, and we treated them as an extended family. Many of 'our babies', as we called them, have returned to see us in later years, often trundling their 'babies' with them."

Dr Dennis Townhill is survived by his wife, Mabel, whom he married in 1949, a son (who is music master at Cargilfield) and a daughter.

 
 
 

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