Gramophone - December 1997

The English pianist, harpsichordist and conductor, George Malcolm, has died aged 80. A pupil of Wanda Landowska, he was one of the first keyboard players to be associated with the baroque revival in Britain, and as organist and Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral he transformed the choir and helped it win international acclaim.

Born on February 28th, 1917, George Malcolm began his musical education in 1924 at London's Royal College of Music. He returned there in 1937 to train as a concert pianist, having read classics and music at Balliol College, Oxford. After war service with the RAF, he devoted himself to building up a large repertoire, principally music of the eighteenth century and of the English virginalists. He became Choirmaster of St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Clapham, where he remained until 1947.

Between 1947 and 1959 Malcolm was at Westminster Cathedral, where he extended the choir's repertory to include early and contemporary works. He insisted on a bright, continental-style choral tone, very different from that cultivated elsewhere in England at the time. In 1959 he composed a Mass for the cathedral, as did Benjamin Britten (his Missa brevis). Malcolm conducted the latter work just before he left Westminster in July of that year.

Between 1962 and 1966 Malcolm was Artistic Director of the Philomusica of London and from 1965-7 Associate Conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra. He was made a CBE in 1965.

On disc, Malcolm collaborated with a number of distinguished artists, among them Ian Partridge (in Purcell songs, ASV, 11/85 — nla), Michala Petri (Philips, 12/85) and Julian Bream (on several volumes of the Julian Bream Edition, issued by RCA). His solo recordings include Bach's Italian Concerto, works by Daquin, Rameau and Couperin and two witty Bach imitations his own Bach before the mast and Templeton's Bach goes to town (Decca, 11/95).

The Independent - October 1997

George John Malcolm, harpsichordist, pianist, organist, conductor, choirmaster, composer: born London 28 February 1917; Master of the Cathedral Music, Westminster Cathedral 1947-59; CBE 1965; Papal Knight of the Order of St Gregory 1970; died London 10 October 1997.

Was George Malcolm a harpsichordist, pianist, organist, conductor, choirmaster or composer? He was all those and a very good man, a loyal friend too, even if he was reserved and something of a loner.

As a pianist he was virtuostic but his performances somehow lacked depth; as a harpsichordist this did not show and he was a star performer on the instrument, although he never concealed his preference for the piano, seizing the opportunity of playing it whenever possible, as for example in a duo he enjoyed for some years with the violinist Manoug Parikian. On the jangle box - as he often called his harpsichord - he played for many years with Yehudi Menuhin.

Malcolm enjoyed great success for many decades, but principally in the Fifties and Sixties. This was an age when authenticity had scarcely been heard of. The instrument- maker Tom Goff's harpsichords were the order of the day, rich-sounding, although they required constant attention.

In many ways Malcolm was a conservative but he coaxed sound out of the harpsichord that seemed to emulate the resources of the modern grand piano and concert organ. For example, he used the registers and pedals in a way that eventually was regarded as unacceptable; he could even achieve the impossible by making a crescendo (which shocked especially some German recording producers).

Concurrently with his career as an instrumentalist George Malcolm was Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral for 12 years from 1947, during which time he made perhaps his most lasting contribution to the music of our time; he made the boys put aside the typical Anglican ethereal sound (that often becomes a hoot) for a more natural sound - "the sound boys make in playground" was how Malcolm sometimes put it.

Benjamin Britten heard the Westminster boys and composed a little masterpiece for them, his Missa Brevis. First performed on 22 July 1959, it turned out to be a leaving present for Malcolm, who resigned that year, tired of struggling with administration and administrators. Although he was himself a good organiser, and a tireless worker, Malcolm always spoke his mind to the point of being prickly. He was a brilliant organist. As a choirmaster he was strict, even testy at times, but there was a mutual affection with the choir, particularly with the boys, whom he loved.

Malcolm's ancestry was Scottish but he was born in London. His father having died when George was a boy, he lived with his genial battleaxe of a mother for the rest of her long life. At seven he became the first child to be admitted to the Royal College of Music in London and played the violin at his interview with Sir Hugh Allen.

At Balliol College, Oxford, Malcolm become famous as a roof climber, indeed notorious when he nicked a Christopher Wren-designed bauble from the roof of a rival college. Came the Second World War and he directed a RAF band, conducting a lot of light music and becoming a heavy drinker. In the 1940s, he fell from a second floor window, surviving with difficulty and facial surgery.

George Malcolm was a devout Catholic, and he never practised the homosexuality I am certain was part of his nature. The drink was a way of escaping, perhaps; however, just when it seemed to be ruining his career, Malcolm grit his teeth and gave it up. He was nothing if not courageous. But he still continued to roll his own cigarettes, dropping them in the saucers of the unending cups of coffee. His taste in food was schoolboyish - the meal he enjoyed the most was smoked salmon, followed by meringues and cream.

I first encountered George Malcolm when he played continuo for some concerts in the BBC's Maida Vale studios, with the Boyd-Neel orchestra conducted by Georges Enesco. Like others of his generation Enesco barely tolerated the harpsichord and shushed Malcolm whenever he could hear him. Except when Malcolm played the solo quite magnificently in the Brandenberg Concerto No 5 by Bach: there was this deadpan musician giving the most virtuostic yet somehow penetrating performance - there was no one to touch him at that time.

Even if George Malcolm's style of playing eventually went out of fashion, there must be thousands who cherish the memory of his playing that illumined the great masters, especially Scarlatti, Bach and Handel, even if one suspected that what he really enjoyed more was playing Mendelssohn on the piano. His recitals with Julian Bream on lute and guitar were a source of great joy to performers and audiences alike.

He did quite a bit of conducting, mainly with the now-defunct Philomusica of London, where he was artistic director 1962-66, and the BBC's Scottish Orchestra. He often directed the Cantata Academica for Britten, in the pit for the operas and on Decca recordings. He never became a big-time director partly because his body language seemed too angular, all elbows, not pleasing to watch.

Malcolm composed too: some pleasing church numbers and a fine set of variations on a theme of Mozart (he came from a generation, who, like Beecham, pronounced the name "Modesart") for four harpsichords composed for himself and others to play at one of Tom Goff's unofficially termed "jamborees" at the Festival Hall.

Malcolm had no original gifts at composing but was an attractive pasticheur, at his best in a three-minute number that should have been called "Bach Goes to Sea" but became "Bach Before the Mast".

The day before he was due to record on the harpsichord Alec Templeton's "Bach Goes To Town", the producer rang up and asked what they could put on the other side of the record. "Oh, I'll bring something," he said and sat up all night writing a brilliant fugue in the style of Bach with a subject based on the sailor's hornpipe. Brilliant, and typical of a great all-round musician. John Amis

Memorial Service - January 1998

George Malcolm was without doubt one of the most outstanding and original figures in 20th-century British choral music. His work as Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral between 1947 and 1959 is still highly influential today, not just within the Cathedral but far beyond. It is no exaggeration to say that he turned on its head the traditional British perception of how a boys’ choir could (and in his own strongly-held view, should) sound. He opened up a new range of choral possibilities by seizing on the inherent drama of liturgical music and projecting it strongly in his full-blooded performances. By the time he left, the Cathedral choristers had achieved a widespread reputation for the tonal brilliance and interpretative maturity of their singing. The two recordings the choir made in George Malcolm’s last few months at the Cathedral (of Victoria’s Tenebrce Responsories and Britten’s Missa Brevis in D) bear witness to this.

l was struck by how fully the obituaries in the major newspapers covered his time at Westminster, particularly since he had subsequently become so well-known internationally as a harpsichordist and conductor. He was, however, devoted to Westminster Cathedral and was a generous supporter of its music, not to say its Masters of Music. It seems eminently fitting that a memorial fund is to be established in his name with the object of maintaining and supporting the Cathedral's choral foundation and musical tradition. I am convinced that this will be a worthy tribute to a unique musician who had such a formative influence on the choral personality of this place.

James O’Donnell

Donations towards the George Malcolm Memorial Fund should be sent to:

The Music Department
Westminster Cathedral
42 Francis Street

Absolute Astronomy

Malcolm's first instrument was the piano, and his first teacher was a nun who recognised his talent and recommended him to the Royal College of Music. Malcolm went on to study at Balliol College, Oxford. During the Second World War he was a bandleader.

After the war, he developed a career as a harpsichordist. Like Wanda Landowska, he favoured rather large 'revival' harpsichords with pedals, built in a modern style, that now are seen as unauthentic for Baroque music. While aspects of his interpretations may seem outdated by the standards of today's historically informed performance practice, his recordings and live performances introduced many people to the harpsichord and influenced a number of today's musicians. As well as Baroque works, he played modern harpsichord repertoire including his own composition "Bach before the Mast", a humorous set of variations on The Sailor's Hornpipe in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach. Malcolm also composed for voices, a well-known piece being his Palm Sunday introit Ingrediente Domino.

Although Malcolm made occasional appearances as a pianist in chamber music, notably with the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble, he left very few recordings in this capacity (one interesting example is the first performance of the Gordon Jacob Sextet, written for the group). But he also pursued a notable career as an organist and choir-trainer: for 12 years (1947–1959), he was organist of Westminster Cathedral, where he developed the choir's "continental" sound, which contrasts with that of Anglican choirs. Benjamin Britten's Missa Brevis was commissioned for his retirement. Malcolm was founding patron of Spode Music Week, an annual residential music school that places particular emphasis on the music of the Roman Catholic liturgy.

In the 1950s he participated in annual concerts featuring four harpsichordists, the three others being Thurston Dart, Denis Vaughan and Eileen Joyce. In 1957 this group also recorded two of Vivaldi's Concertos for Four Harpsichords, one in a Bach arrangement, with the Pro Arte Orchestra under Boris Ord. Malcolm, Dart and Joyce also recorded Bach's Concerto in C for Three Harpsichords, and all four recorded Malcolm's own Variations on a Theme of Mozart. In 1967, he appeared with Eileen Joyce, Geoffrey Parsons and Simon Preston in a 4-harpsichord concert with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner in the Royal Festival Hall.

In later life Malcolm developed a career as a conductor, forging long-standing relationships with ensembles such as the English Chamber Orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia orchestra. The pianist András Schiff, who left Hungary in order to study with Malcolm, was a frequent concerto soloist under his baton, and the two recorded Mozart's complete works for piano duet together on the composer's own piano.

Malcolm is buried in the graveyard at Saintbury Church, Gloucestershire.

Catholic Herald - October 1997

GEORGE MALCOLM, who died on 10 October aged 80, was a brilliant and influential Master of the Music at Westaminster Cathedral who permanently invigorated the traditional sound of boys' voices and with his exuberance at the keyboard did much to restore the harpsichord to popularity.

Appointed to the Cathedral by Cardinal Griffin in 1947, Malcolm taught the choir an uninhibited and un-English style of singing which owed something to the Vienna Boys Choir and something to the screaming of boys in a playground. The raw, expressive sound contrasted with the prevailing Anglican "hooting" style, but has since become widely accepted. The present Master of the Music, James O'Donnell, said the Malcolm style was still detectable at the Cathedral today.

Hearing the choir in January 1959, Benjamin Britten noted its "staggering brilliance and authority". Britten composed Missa Brevis, which he dedicated to Malcolm and the boys, at great speed, so that it could be played before Malcolm's retirement in July 1959. The recording of the premiere became a hit. One of Malcolm's successors at the Cathedral, Colin Mawby, described his recording of Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories as "a summation of his achievement" that "amply reveals the dramatic emotional depth of his spirituality". Many of Malcolm's other recordings became bestsellers.

During the Baroque Revival of the 1970s, he became one of the international stars of the harpsichord, at which he was a virtuoso. But he considered himself a pianist first and returned to the piano later in life.

George John Malcolm was born on 28 February, 1917, in London, and educated at Wimbledon College, Balliol and the Royal College of Music. His father died when he was very young. A child prodigy, he began playing and composing on the three manual organ and violin at three. The Jesuit choirmaster at the Sacred Heart, Wimbledon, Fr Driscoll, probably contributed to Malcolm's style, and one of the Tenebrae Responsories recorded by Malcolm uses Driscoll's rescoring.

His greatest personal achievement was perhaps his brave battle with the alcoholism which threatened his health and his career in the 1950s. Friends said that his manner could be brusque, but he treated younger musicians with immense kindness and generosity and gave boys a new freedom to espress themselves through singing.

He was an honorary fellow of Balliol, a CBE and a Knight of the Order of St Gregory.


Gratitude pervaded George Malcolm's Requiem. Reference to the eulogy by John Amis near the end of the Mass is a good place to start my own memoir. He spoke jauntily recalling highlights of notable public life, plus a few private episodes. Inevitably, the story of George's mother surfaced; at some gathering, a young woman had said directly to her that Mrs Malcolm's son was the rudest man she had known. Mrs Malcolm's equally direct response was that her son did not suffer fools gladly; a win by a knockout. I am far less qualified than many to write a memoir, but my experience was of a direct man and notwithstanding Mrs M he did suffer certain fools kindly and tolerantly; his generosity to young musicians was proverbial and I experienced it.

Slightly younger than George and also like him recently out of war service, I was hired by him for the bass line at the Cathedral in 1948. This was just a year after he himself had beeen appointed Master of Music. The touch of genius was obvious and musically, I was inadequate, among that category of singer, now rare, who had a voice sufficient to be noticed, but not much else, other than a love of music and a desire to sing. I was grateful for his tolerance about about my effort, with little musical training to keep on top of the sight reading demands.

On one occasion, in some tricky polyphony, he said after Mass, "I didn't hear you". I said: "I'm sorry, but I was struggling with the sight reading and the tessitura". His comment was simply that we would work on it, and we did. As to the specialist work of the professional lay clerk, it is harder on the bass to cope with a high tessitura, than for a baritone who may have the general register of the piece in the meat of his voice, or for the tenor, who, particularly in unison plain chant, for example, may be in his lower register.

Any insecurity in vocal technique strains the bass rather than the baritone or tenor. George himself had singing lessons about this time and quite often took over as cantor and intoned. Naturally, it was always immaculately sung and his voice, while not outstanding, was more than adequate.

At that time, I was not sure whether I was to change from years in uniform to a life in monk's habit, or whether with the optimism of 24, I was to be the new world-class bass. I had the succession to Kipnis, Pinza or Chaliapin in mind and the Cathedral seemed a convenient half-way house, keeping body and soul together while things worked out. I loved the Cathedral and George was an inspirational and awesome man to work for. Also on the bass line at that time, were Messrs Negus and Head, who, incredibly, were veterans from the days of R R Terry. I never knew their first names, they were just Negus and Head with an aura of two of the church's great marble pillars solid and reliable.

Another neighbour in the choir stalls was John Hoban, younger than I and with a fine baritone. Perhaps the most remarkable and striking of the voices there belonged to George Rizza, a counter-tenor who sang with Alfred Deller but in the many uncertainties of the musical world eventually found himself as Managing Director of Novello, the music publishers. John's well-earned KSG came from near 25 years directing music at Brompton Oratory. One example of George Malcolm's kindness was to get "our trio" auditions with his friend and fellow top musician, Anthony Bernard, known in those early days as "King of the Third Programme".

Before joining the army, I graduated with a rather inferior, rushed war-time degree, but my Catholic upbringing and something in the genes, had given me a double first in priggery. This had survived all the discouragements of rude soldiering. On one occasion at Mass in the Cathedral, hidden as the Choirmaster is by that slab of marble behind and above the old high altar, George had given vent to a fit of temper with a violent hissed verbal assault, on a section of the boys. Commonplace as this was elsewhere, I was nevertheless shocked and moreover brash and righteous with it. I asked to see George and remonstrated. He was meekness and contrition personified and I felt awful! Much later, when I was engineering in Lincoln and making what music I could, I had a another contact with him. I was running the choir at Our Lady of Lincoln and also singing with a quite expert little madrigal group of eight. We needed a celebrity for particular concert and I agreed to sound out George Malcolm, already a great man. I did it the wrong way round, but at the time it seemed appropriate to say how much we expected to have in the kitty. He wrote a nice letter back saying the sum mentioned would get his harpsichord about halfway to Lincoln!

Back in the great Sacred Heart church in Wimbledon, John Hoban, George Rizza and I were together in a pew on the "old epistle side" just a few feet from the catafalque. That most beautiful of Requiem settings by Anerio was sung exquisitely by the Oratory Choir, up in the loft where I had spent 16 years of Sundays in the middle part of my life. That was nostalgic enough, but I felt particularly for John down in a pew listening to the choir he himself had brought to a peak of perfection. The Anerio was exquisite, but so was the plainsong and unusually these days in church, as distinct from the concert hall, we had the full Dies Irae, in Gregorian, of course. It was impossible to feel sad; Amis had mentioned the great 80th birthday celebration concert, which George had directed and that was an occasion not given to everybody. Then we were grateful most especially to the celebrant, Fr Kevin Donovan SJ, who had only Known George briefly but gave an accurate, humorous and altogether touching homily.

Chatting on the eminence of Edge Hill or in the parish hall, there was more nostalgia. It was a brilliant day and Eastwards, the usually drab prospect of London suburbs looked wonderful in the sunshine and the City towers seemed almost next door. I spoke to an obviously younger man, nevertheless with grey hair. A cathedral boy chorister in the Fifties, he said it had been one of the most memorable times of his life. Then in a reunion with two of the three Milward brothers, (the third, Peter SJ, being in Tokyo), 25 years seemed to slip away. Preparing to leave, a man asked directions to the station. The obvious thing was to take him. Asking what his connection with George was, it seemed that he was a violinist to whom George had shown a particular professional kindness. Gratitude was in the air all round. Arthur Wells, Catholic Herald, Oct 1997

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