John Christmas Beckwith (1759 – 1809)

John Christmas Beckwith (1759-1809)

John Christmas Beckwith

John Christmas Beckwith (1759 – 1809) was an 18th century English composer with an original and distinct style which was recognised and noted by his contemporaries at a time when most lived under the shadow and influence of Handel. He was also recognised as a virtuoso organist with a particular ability in extemporisation.

Born 25th December, 1759, “Christmas” was probably an acquired nickname, possibly to differentiate him from his uncle, John Beckwith (1728 – 1800) or his son John Charles Beckwith, even though he was buried with that name. He was born into a musical family whose activities were almost entirely concentrated on Norwich Cathedral and the city’s Church of St Peter Mancroft as well as the Norwich Music Festival.

Six voluntaries

His father, Edward Beckwith, was Master of the Choristers at the cathedral and John grew up in the Lower Close in the cathedral precincts. Edward also became acting organist of St Peter Mancroft in 1769 and was duly elected to the post by the congregation in 1780. That same year, his son, John, at the age of 21, published a set of six voluntaries which included the examples performed here.

Norwich had a thriving and proactive musical community. The cathedral organist was Thomas Garland (1731 – 1808), who had been appointed at the age of 18 and who started the music festival to raise funds for the local hospital around 1773, an event that enabled several of Handel’s greatest works to be heard locally. Garland had been a pupil of Maurice Greene and was himself a good composer and performer. The cathedral Precentor, Charles Millard, had been a boy chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford, regularly performing the soprano solo at public concerts of larger scale choral works by Handel and others.

Norwich Cathedral music

An anonymous account of the music at Norwich in those days stated: “Well do I remember the delight with which I used to listen to the Service in Norwich Cathedral, when the minor canons, eight in number, filed off into their stalls, Precentor Millard at their head, whose admirable style and correct singing I have never heard surpassed; Browne’s majestic tenor; Whittingham’s sweet alto; and Hansell’s sonorous bass; while Walker’s silver tone, and admirable recitation found its way into every corner of the huge building. Vaughan was then the first boy who acquired his musical knowledge and pure style under his master, [Edward] Beckwith. Frequently it would happen that the entire music of the day was written by members of the choir, for Garland, the organist (a pupil of Greene) was a composer of no mean talent.”

In 1775, at the age of 15 and probably through the influence of Charles Millard who had come to Norwich in 1771, John was apprenticed to Dr William Hayes (1708 – 1777), the university’s Professor of Music, who was also Organist at Magdalen College. Hayes was by this time complaining of the effects of old age and needed help with his duties. Beckwith studied under Hayes, and also under his son, Philip Hayes, and was sub-organist at Magdalen until he returned to Norwich in 1784. This arrangement was outside the university, and it wasn’t until he was aged 43 that he returned to Oxford, formally to matriculate through Magdalen Hall (now Hertford College) on 1st July, 1803, in order to be awarded the degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Music four days later.

Organist of Norwich Cathedral

On his return to Norwich, the cathedral created the post of Assistant Master of the Choristers so that John Christmas Beckwith could help his aging father. When Edward died in 1793, John was elected in 1794 to succeed him as Organist of St Peter Mancroft. And when Thomas Garland died in 1808, John was appointed to succeed him as Organist but died himself a year later, 3rd June, 1809, probably from a stroke which paralysed him. Garland had been buried under the cathedral organ and John ‘Christmas’ Beckwith chose to be buried under the organ at St Peter Mancroft.

He was succeeded by his son, John Charles, in all his posts, and it was a pupil of John Christmas Beckwith – Zechariah Buck who Garland had heard singing in the streets and recruited to the cathedral choir – who in turn succeeded his son in 1819.

Pointing the psalms

It is interesting to note that John Christmas Beckwith is also credited with having been the first church musician to suggest the modern system of pointing the psalms, a system which works with Anglican Chant and shows the singers where to change notes. In 1808, Beckwith had published a book called The First verse of every Psalm of David with an ancient or modern chant in score adapted as much as possible to the sentiment of each Psalm. In it, he recommended that the organist and choir should meet every morning and afternoon for a month in order to work on the set of psalms prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer for each day; that between them they should agree on the best words and syllables on which to move to the next note of the chant, and mark such words by underlining them in red in their own copies. This, he said, would ensure they all changed notes together as one body.

Free PDF samples of John Beckwith’s organ music published by SHP are available HERE for a limited period

Listen to recordings of Beckwith’s music

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