18 August 2022


This obituary was originally written as an ‘advance’ for The Independent before it became wholly digital and with a different policy for obituaries. So it was never published and is presented here in the format adopted by The Independent at the time.

Martin How was a brilliant organist and inspirational choir trainer who spent the greater part of his career in the service of the Royal School of Church Music, as headquarters choirmaster at Addington Palace and as initiator of the Chorister Training Scheme, now adopted in various forms throughout the world. He inaugurated the RSCM Cathedral Singers, which sang at Canterbury Cathedral and elsewhere and frequently broadcast on the BBC’s Choral Evensong, and was an RSCM Commissioner, travelling widely at home and abroad to conduct courses, deliver lectures and adjudicate at competitions.

He was born in Liverpool in 1931, the son of John How, a clergyman who, when Martin was six, and after a period in Brighton, became primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, moving to Glasgow, where How spent most of his childhood. A music scholar at Repton School, then organ scholar of Clare College, Cambridge, he ran the college’s chapel choir of boys and adults, read music and theology and only narrowly missed being awarded a Blue for cross-country running, an activity he kept up well into his time at Addington.

After university he spent one term as a student at the RSCM when it was still at Canterbury, prior to a National Service commission in the Royal Army Service Corps for two years, where he claims that the experience was invaluable in his future career! In January 1955 he returned to the RSCM – now at Addington Palace near Croydon, former summer residence of the archbishops of Canterbury – intent on resuming his studies, but on 28 April the RSCM’s records state: “Mr M. J. R. How appointed H.Q. choirmaster”, a post he took up the following September in succession to Hubert Crook. From 1961-4 he was organist of Grimsby parish church – at the time the only parish church in England to have its own choir school – together with teaching and other musical activities, but soon returned to his former RSCM post and as Headquarters Commissioner. From 1971 until 1992 he was Commissioner for the South, then worked part-time as a Special Adviser, finally retiring in April 1994, but continuing to live in South Croydon and maintaining links with the music of Croydon Minster as Organist Laureate.

In the 1993 New Year’s Honours List he was appointed MBE “for services to church music”, and his many admirers might have felt that this was a somewhat paltry reflection of the impact and influence he had on the thousands from Britain and abroad who met him and worked with him. Perhaps his innate modesty worked against him in an age of celebrity overreaction, even in 1993.

Martin How’s natural charm and seemingly inexhaustible cheerfulness inspired his choristers as much as musical ability. At a reunion at Addington in 2013, Peter Hood, head chorister in 1963 when the college was still residential, recalled: “Martin’s secret was that he could instil discipline and we all had the greatest respect for him but he made it all such fun. I don’t think we necessarily appreciated what a wonderful thing it was that we were involved in; we just knew that we loved it and we enjoyed it. Addington Palace became our spiritual home and Mr How became our father figure and he constructed an enormous family for us.”

Martin How’s name is also familiar beyond Addington because so much of the music he composed and edited, which therefore bears his name, has a worldwide appeal – and worldwide sales. As a practising musician his aim as a composer had always been to provide practical music, appropriate to circumstances, but challenging for performers to achieve just that little bit more than perhaps they thought they could. So much of it reflects his own personal charm and modesty, but can express strong views and feelings too. As well as anthems and service settings, he wrote solo organ music, including an Elegy in memory of Dr Gerald Knight – director of the RSCM during much of How’s time there – and four sets of Pieces for Organ. Ever mindful that the RSCM’s membership includes choirs of all shapes, sizes and abilities, he also gave special attention to producing good music for limited choral resources.

A skilled accompanist, he was accompanist to the (then) Choirboy of the Year competition organized by the RSCM (sponsored by Rediffusion television) from the first competition in 1975 until 1989; in 1992 it combined with the BBC Choirgirl of the Year competition that had run concurrently since 1986, though from 1989 the RSCM competition had also included girls.


Martin John Richard How, church musician: born Liverpool 3 April 1931; educated at Repton School, Clare College Cambridge (organ scholar), Trinity College London and the Royal School of Church Music; At RSCM: Headquarters Choirmaster 1955-1961 and 1968-70, Headquarters Commissioner 1964-7 and 1970-1, Commissioner for the South 1971-92, Special Adviser 1992-4; organist of Grimsby Parish Church 1961-4; Organist Laureate of Croydon Minster 1994-[year of death]; MBE 1993; died 25 July 2022.

15 August 2022

Old African Proverb

 ‘When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.’

DAVID MICHELL, 1929-2022


David and I were very close at one time – we became friends originally as fellow members of the Hampstead Choral Society which I joined within a week of coming to London for library school (North-Western Polytechnic) in January 1967. I think it was at my second rehearsal that he chatted to me, after which we did so many things together: outings (the destination usually to include a cathedral and a second-hand bookshop), joining the Elgar Society London Branch on its formation, joining the Southwark Cathedral Choir. I remember a visit to Rochester where the discovery of a shop with a large collection of 78s took precedence over Evensong in the cathedral – one of the objects of the visit – which he missed and I attended alone.

David was best man at my first wedding. And, of course, it was through David that I met Robert Tucker. (David was quite alarmed to discover that everyone he met seemed to be a librarian!) I'm afraid that we eventually drifted apart and I always felt guilty about it (Robert kept in touch with him), but I felt I had outgrown the friendship, though we still exchanged Christmas cards. I hope he made appropriate arrangements for the disposal of his wonderful collection of recordings and other memorabilia, which could be claimed as of national importance. I once met his brother, who was at St Thomas’s Hospital when I visited David, who was a patient there in the 1970s.

Robert says that, despite his infirmities, David sounded quite unchanged on the telephone, and I can imagine his frustration at having his freedom curtailed so irrevocably. I could have provided the stimulating conversation Andrew Neill says David craved – which makes me feel even more guilty – but the trouble was that David didn’t want anything to change, and was very put out when I (and I think Robert too) got married and, of course, made changes to our lives. He wasn’t a misogynist or (so far as I am aware) homosexual, but just felt that women were a bit of an irrelevance in his life.

I loved his dry sense of humour, though this could sometimes be hurtful or embarrassing: I remember we were in a cafe near Southwark Cathedral, probably when we both sang in the Cathedral choir, and a poor old down-and-out came up to him saying ‘Can you help me, sir?’ to which he replied, rather sharply: ‘No! No one can.’ I remember Ron Taylor complaining that once when David visited him he started picking up and reading letters that were lying around. There was one occasion when, on Christmas Day, he missed the only bus to Southwark (when there were buses on Christmas Day!) for the cathedral services (and presumably taxis were completely booked up or unaffordable) and so, unexpectedly, had to spend the day at home, probably lunching on beans on toast (lunch would have been provided at Southwark, where the choir was also required for Evensong); on hearing this I invited him to Kennington (where I then lived – by then I had moved on from Southwark to St George’s Hanover Square) on Boxing Day for a repeat Christmas lunch when he also had the challenge of entertaining my mother, who had come from Nottingham for the occasion. As my best man (at St George’s), he was a bundle of nerves and, the day before, had to be sent home by my prospective mother-in-law to prevent him driving everyone mad! As I think we said at the time, anyone would have thought that he was the one getting married! Everything was fine on the day, but Janet did not help by telling him (teasingly) that if the groom fails to turn up the best man has to marry the bride!

He had a great love of names: in the musical world Graupner (composer) and Bronsgeest (singer) amused him; it was David who named Wulstan Atkins (with his utter devotion to Elgar) as ‘the Thirteenth Apostle’ (also, ‘Woolsack’). Other Elgarians earned similar epithets (no names no pack drill). We once visited (I think on a dull November day, having travelled by train, including an excellent lunch on board – those were the days! – and walking from Worcester to Lower Broadheath) the Elgar Birthplace, met by Alan Webb and – sworn to secrecy – CAKE provided by Mrs Webb! And there was that instantly recognizable cough that punctuated many a London Branch talk. He was a great friend (and fellow Cornishman) of Bill Harris (William Lewarne Harris), composer, whom I also got to know, the baritone Donald Francke, and of course Inglis Gundry. We were also frequent visitors to William Reeves, near him in south London, for second-hand books and music and I remember hesitating to spend the then considerable sum of £3. 10s. on the two volumes of Percy Scholes’s The Mirror of Music (I succumbed. They sell for up to £90 the pair now!). I remember my first wife Janet commenting on how his flat was surprisingly (for a bachelor!) comfortable and ‘chintzy’. There was also the Block instrument, indicating ‘train on line’ when the doorbell was rung. Did you ever notice that, though tall, he had very small feet?

The Hampstead Choral Society often sang in Promenade Concerts, usually as part of a vast composite choir: we sang in the Beethoven Choral Symphony conducted by Boult in place of Malcolm Sargent who was mortally ill. We thought how slow the scherzo was, until we heard the broadcast repeat and realized it was spot-on, the more particular pointing of the rhythm giving far more impetus than mere speed; another year we sang in Belshazzar’s Feast (David loved the alternative German title that then appeared in the vocal score: Belsazers Gastmahl!), conducted by John Pritchard with a choir of thousands; so many in fact that we planned, when they all shouted ‘Slain!’, to shout ‘Shit!’, but I can’t remember whether we did. David later joined the London Philharmonic Choir.

He often played recordings down the telephone when talking to me: I remember in particular the Eugene Goossens recording of the 1920 revision of the Vaughan Williams London Symphony and comparing it with the published score. He recalled, as a very young man, meeting Vaughan Williams (I think in Cornwall) and discussing a piece for which not all instruments were available locally (unfortunately I can’t now remember what the piece was) and RVW suggesting ‘You could try saxophones’, of which there was no shortage in the dance bands of the local seaside hotels at the time! David also recalled as a child witnessing the Crystal Palace fire (1936), which could be seen from the road where they lived.

This has been mostly about music, but David's interest in railways was significant too (I think he was in ‘planning’ at Waterloo when I first knew him) and he relished a recording of steam locomotives tackling the Lickey Incline. He was also a Territorial and, in our early days, was occasionally called for periodic training sessions; I think he may have been awarded the TD (Territorial Decoration).

As for the pronunciation of his name, it was definitely ‘Mitchell’, despite the actor Keith Michell pronouncing it ‘Meeshell’. I remember Robert Tong ringing me up about a concert at Queen Mary College that he was conducting and in which David was interested and Tong asking if my friend Michelle was coming – my first reaction was that I didn’t know any girl called Michelle!

Finally, as David tended to collect friends who were younger than himself, I always used to refer to him, teasingly, but quite truthfully, as ‘my oldest friend in London in both senses of the word’. (Actually John Bishop and Betty Roe probably also qualified but it was a pity to spoil the joke!) David was quite sensitive about his age (compared with us) though he would only have been in his 30s/40s at the time.