We settled into our seats after waiting in a long line to get into the Quire at York Minster. Extra chairs lined the floor in front of the choir stalls, and an usher directed us to sit there. Candles were already lit in the stalls where the choir would be positioned, and Evensong was ready to begin. Absorbing the beauty of the edifice, I focused my sight across the Quire to others who had gathered for the service. In the back row sat a very elderly man, surrounded by seats with placards reading “Reserved for Family.”
I knew that two days before, October 2, was the centenary of York Minster’s organist emeritus, Francis Jackson. Michael Barone’s Pipedreams show for October 2 featured Jackson’s music and included a recent interview with Jackson. Jackson is alive and well, living in a village not far from York. It was a treat to worship at the Minster so close to his birthday. Looking at the service folder I was pleased to see that the Choral Evensong would be sung in celebration of the 100th birthday of Dr. Francis Jackson, CBE, and would be attended by members of the Royal College of Organists. Jackson had been the organization’s president from 1972 until 1974.
Never had I imagined that I would be looking Francis Jackson in the eye, but there he was before me. A tiny man, only his head and shoulders were visible above the choir stalls. The choir sang the opening prayers in the aisle just outside the Quire, then we all stood as the choir processed in and took their places. They sang “O Lord, open thou our lips; And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise. O God, make speed to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us.” It was a setting by Francis Jackson, simple, responsorial.
Dr. Jackson closed his eyes during much of the service, clearly drinking in the music. The choir sang a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Edward Bairstow, Jackson’s predecessor at the Minster as well as his first organ teacher. Robert Sharpe, the Minster’s current director of music, led the choir with precision and grace. The Minster choir program prides itself in having both a girls choir and a boys choir for trebles. Their website notes that York Minster was one of first cathedrals in the UK to introduce girl choristers alongside the boys. The girls and boys share the singing of the eight sung services each week equally, joining forces for major events such as the great Christmas and Easter festivities. On this occasion, the girl choristers and adults were singing. Their sound was ethereal and ably supported by the men.
Dr. Jackson was drinking in more than the music, however. Next we all spoke the Apostles’ Creed and Dr. Jackson made a sign of the cross on his chest as we came to its final lines, “the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.” He was still finding expression for his faith in the same place where he was first a chorister 89 years earlier.
In Anglican Evensong the choral anthem is placed just before the final prayers at the end of the service. Expecting a joyful anthem written by Francis Jackson on this festive day, I was surprised by the choice, Remember for Good, with text compiled by Eric Milner-White and music by Francis Jackson. Jackson and Milner-White served the Minster together for 17 years, from Jackson’s arrival in 1946 until Milner-White’s death in 1963. The words are engraved in a prominent display at the Minster and commemorate those who served in the Royal Air Force in World War II:
Remember for good, O Father, those whose names we commemorate before thee: to whom we render honour and give thanks in thy holy house. They went through the air and space without fear, and the shining stars marked their shining deeds. They counted not their lives dear unto themselves but laid them down for their friends.
O Christ, O Lord of Lords, prince of the armies of heaven, write their names in thy book of immortality. And give to them that on earth were faithful unto death, thy crown of life in the paradise of God.
The music was dark, reflective, yet filled with hope and beauty. It was a deeply moving moment in the room and a fitting tribute that reached beyond the composer’s composition. Jackson again drank it in with eyes closed.
We stood as the choir recessed, then sang the Aisle Prayers outside the Quire. We were seated to enjoy Jackson’s Diversion for Mixtures, finally the joyous ending I believe we were all expecting.
The festivity continued with a reception in his honor. Many from the Royal College of Organists were present, as well as the dean of the cathedral, the Very Reverend Dr. Vivienne Faull. She regaled the crowd with stories of Dr. Jackson’s active life as a gardener and a parish organist! He still serves a small parish near his home in East Acklam, which is also served by a retired bishop. She noted that the parish is well cared for!
Dr. Faull then invited Dr. Jackson to the podium. Without any assistance, either mechanical or human, he approached the platform. A slight gasp came from the group as he had trouble making the small stair, and the dean assisted him up. He then spoke, softly and humbly, about the wonderful life he has had, most of it circling around the Minster. He hadn’t done anything special to be able to live this long, he said; it just happened. He told us that where we were now standing, in the north transept, was his favorite place to hear the organ.
Many of the choristers had stayed through this part of the reception. In front of me were three girls who had sung that night. (Their job was to pass out potato chips at the reception.) At least one couldn’t have been older than six. I wondered what they were thinking as we older ones marveled at this man and these words of humility and grace. Perhaps one of them will be the next organist at the Minster. That would certainly be a fitting legacy for Francis Jackson, his life and work.
Francis Jackson was born October 2, 1917, in Malton, North Yorkshire, England. At age eleven, he became a chorister at York Minister, with Edward Bairstow as organist-choirmaster. He continued studies with Bairstow after he left the choir. He earned the Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists in 1937, having been honored with the Limpus prize. He graduated from Durham University with a Bachelor of Music degree.
In October 1940, Jackson joined the Army and was sent into action in North Africa, Egypt, and Italy. After World War II, he became assistant organist of York Minster, as Bairstow had become ill. Jackson functioned as acting organist in this period. In October 1946, after Bairstow’s death, Jackson was appointed organist and master of the music for the Minster. He earned his Doctor of Music degree from Durham University in 1957.
In addition to his duties at the Minster, Jackson maintained an international recital career beyond his 95th birthday. He has made numerous recordings of solo organ works as well as choral music with the Minster choir. As a composer, he has over 150 published works to his credit, both sacred and secular repertoire, work that has continued beyond his retirement.
Having served as president of the Royal College of Organists (1972–1974) and having been made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (1978), Jackson retired from York Minster in 1982. In 2007, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Numerous other awards and honors have been bestowed on Jackson, as well. In 2013, he published his autobiography, Music for a Long While.