Early music pioneer who created shockwaves

Sat, Feb 17, 2007, 00:00

John Beckett: In terms of Irish cultural life, the harpsichordist and conductor John Beckett, who died earlier this month, was a man ahead of his time. He was a pioneer in the areas of early music and period performance style when the international movement on those fronts was still in its infancy.

His work with the British early music ensemble Musica Reservata (where another of the co-founders, Michael Morrow, was also from Dublin) created shockwaves in London in the 1960s, and then internationally on record.

Composer Michael Nyman described a concert of Beckett conducting Musica Reservata in 1970 as "the gig of a lifetime" in the Daily Telegraphlast August.

"It was a sheer, bloody-minded shock to the system to find that early music could have the same kind of vitality and heavy-duty effect on your musical senses as Stravinsky, Stockhausen or Steve Reich."

He was born into a musically cultured family, and his father Gerald, the county medical officer for Wicklow, had a good ear. Gerald and his nephew, the writer Samuel, used to play piano together, including duet arrangements of the great classical works.

John was educated at St Columba's, Rathfarnham, and moved to London in 1945, to study at the Royal College of Music. He carved out a freelance performing career, which ranged widely enough to include working under Leonard Bernstein.

He returned to Ireland regularly, and when the Music Association of Ireland organised a Bach bicentenary celebration in 1950, John, then 23, helped source a harpsichord, a virtually unheard-of novelty in the Ireland of the time, for a performance of Bach's B minor Mass at the Metropolitan Hall. The instrument used was a Weber, built in Dublin in the 1770s and held in the collection of the National Museum.

He later offered encouragement to carpenter Cathal Gannon when he started to build harpsichords, and played a Gannon harpsichord in public for the first time in a 1959 performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

In 1963 he persuaded Gannon's employer, Guinness, to open a workshop in its brewery where harpsichord building could continue.

The seeds of what would become Musica Reservata were sown, said recorder player John Sothcott, through "endless hours" of discussion in Hampstead cafes and late-night, sometimes night-long tryout sessions.

The often astringent sound-world of Musica Reservata sparked great debate, and in Ireland it prompted the formation of the Consort of St Sepulchre, effectively "a tribute band", according to one of its founders, Andrew Robinson.

John returned to Ireland in the early 1970s, settling for a while in the Wicklow mountains with his partner Ruth David, and became a driving force in the musical life of the capital. He instituted a series of Bach cantata concerts with the Irish Chamber Orchestra which ran for 10 years at St Ann's Church, Dawson Street, in Dublin. He taught harpsichord and chamber music, and coached a viol consort at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he could be a strict, sometimes harsh taskmaster, and also an inspirational nurturer.

The Bach cantata concerts made an international mark. BBC Radio 3 sent a team to Dublin to tape some studio performances for the series of complete Bach cantata recordings it was broadcasting. No complete commercial recording existed at that time, and the BBC commissioned recordings to fill the gaps.

The Irish cantata team was also invited to the BBC Henry Wood Proms in London and the Bruges Festival in Belgium. Bach also featured when John toured China with the Irish Chamber Orchestra in 1980.

He teamed up with tenor Frank Patterson for vocal music by Henry Purcell, recorded Bach with Bernadette Greevy (Patterson and Greevy along with soprano Irene Sandford and bass-baritone William Young were regular soloists in the cantatas and other works by Bach), and in 1975 was unexpectedly presented with a papal medal from Pope Paul VI after an impromptu performance with Our Lady's Choral Society in St Peter's Square.

He gave concerts on an 18th-century Kirckman harpsichord and early 19th-century Broadwood fortepiano held in Trinity College, Dublin. He also made a small number of appearances conducting the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, giving the Irish premiere of Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, and conducting Elgar and Sibelius.

His recordings with Musica Reservata include A Florentine Festival, Music from the Decameron, Music from the Time of Christopher Columbus, Music from the 100 Years War, and collections of 16th-century dance music from Italy and France. He recorded works by Beethoven and Hummel for fortepiano and mandolin with Hugo D'Alton, and an LP Scarlattiof harpsichord sonatas.

He conducted in Dublin, with his trademark style of taut rhythm, strong projection and monumental grandeur, up until 1989.

He was to have conducted the inaugural concert of the Baroque Orchestra of Ireland in the Third Early Music Festival in Dublin in 1990, but ill-health intervened and put an end to his distinctive and distinguished performing career.

John Beckett: born, February 5th, 1927; died February 5th, 2007.