Jennifer Lucy Bate
Doctor of Music
20 July 2007 - Orator: Professor Banfield
For many years a tiny professional notice appeared in the monthly Musical Times, announcing that H A Bate of 35 Collingwood Avenue, London N10, gave lessons and courses for organists, be they beginners or diploma candidates. He attested to many successes, but modesty prevented him from mentioning the greatest of them: his own daughter, Jennifer Bate, honoured here today as the internationally renowned concert organist she went on to become. With her father as teacher, mentor and role model—for he was a well-known recitalist—organ-playing was the family business, just as it was for that most famous of all organists, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach never went to university. Jennifer Bate did, for this was the early 1960s and music degrees were a flourishing part of the classical music culture that in post-war Britain was a serious matter as never before or, perhaps, since. Her career was influenced by two universities, but it is as probably the best-known alumna of the Department of Music, University of Bristol, that we first take up her story. She arrived in 1963 in a cohort of nine and to a staff-student ratio of about 1 to 5. That the former was, if anything, large and the latter normal will astound today’s graduands and my younger academic colleagues. Staff worked their students hard, and with most tuition on a one-to-one basis there was little chance of slacking. In fact Jennifer had been accepted for Modern Languages but was hi-jacked for Music by Professor Willis Grant, who subsequently wasted no time in exercising upon her the qualities of a martinet for which he was renowned. If this was a toughening-up regime, she was equal to it. At the end of her first year she went to see him. ‘I’m in the most terrible trouble’, she said. He went pale and asked her to sit down. ‘Of course, I blame the music publisher who got me into this situation.’ Knowing her London connections, he turned, if possible, paler, with visions of national disgrace to his department’s moral reputation. ‘I mean, if the glockenspiel part doesn’t arrive soon I shan’t possibly be able to learn it in time for your concert.’ Visible relief, but he never picked on her again in rehearsal or tutorial. And she was grateful to him and his department for the demanding syllabus. Years later, when Olivier Messiaen first heard her play, not only was there an uncanny artistic rapport between them but he was able to analyse the content of her degree programme on the basis of her performance: the intensive study of counterpoint, conducting, score-reading, orchestration, ear-training and keyboard harmony had all rubbed off on it.
Upon graduation, a research degree in music was a possibility, but London reclaimed her, and we have the student troubles of the London School of Economics to thank for Jennifer Bate becoming a professional organ recitalist. For three years she took a well-paid job there as librarian while building up her musical activities and contacts. But in January 1969, riots closed the LSE for more than three weeks. Jennifer was sent home on full salary and at her father’s church, St James’s, Muswell Hill, had the time to learn sixteen major organ works in fourteen days. This was the making of a concert repertoire, and she soon resigned her library post. In August 1968 The Times could testify to her giving an organ recital at St Michael’s, Cornhill; by August 1969 it was announcing Westminster Abbey as her venue.
An increasingly distinguished career has followed. In 1974 she opened an otherwise orchestral BBC Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall with a 30-minute solo work by Franz Liszt. She has toured the world, including Barbados, Jamaica, Holland, Tenerife, Germany, Italy, Spain, and France, where she became Personnalité de l’Année in 1990, only the third British artist to achieve the distinction, the first and second being Sir Georg Solti and Sir Yehudi Menuhin. She has done great service to dead composers—with César Franck, Samuel Wesley, and now the complete works of Mendelssohn on CD—but among her father’s wise words were the advice that she should adopt living ones, for both creator and interpreter would flourish through a relationship of mutual support, understanding and exposure. Whether or not he specified male composers, Jennifer Bate has adopted a whole host of them, from Lennox Berkeley and Peter Dickinson to Andrzej Panufnik, Peter Racine Fricker and William Mathias. But her most special artistic relationship has been with one of the greatest of all 20th-century musicians, Olivier Messiaen. She became his organist of choice during his last years, recording his (then) complete organ works in Beauvais Cathedral, a series that has won particular acclaim. Messiaen, himself an outstanding professional organist, showed the world, uniquely, that the highest flights of modernist imagination and a lifetime’s devotion to Roman Catholicism were no more incompatible than was the combination of Parisian intellectual with serving church organist. His organ works, heard around the world every Sunday, combine accessible though challenging functionality with the most amazing soundworld of visionary mysticism, and in Jennifer Bate’s hands—and feet—they become what can only be described as the distillation of the honest reverence of Muswell Hill with the awesome glitter of Byzantium.
The life of a concert organist is one of mundane tribulation as well as creative flair and hard-won technique. Her job begins when the church closes for the night and she starts to get to know the sounds and specification of the particular instrument and its building, for pipe organs are extraordinarily complex machines and no two are remotely alike. Of the thousands of pipes in each instrument, any one of them malfunctioning can wreck a performance. But the show must go on and the audience must not know the odds. She has had to play on an organ in Sierra Leone with only one set of pipes working and two notes missing even then. She has had to transpose passages up and down octaves at a moment’s notice when a fanfare note failed. She has wondered why an audience’s attention was unusually rapt, only to be told afterwards that a mouse was walking up the aisle towards the organ and they were waiting for the scream when it reached her. She has found the ideal shoes for playing, without looking, that pedal keyboard of thirty-two notes, only to have to buy up the remaining stock of 150 pairs as the model went out of production. In short, she is a trouper.
Jennifer Bate still resides—she will not mind my saying this—in the perfectly ordinary house in Muswell Hill where H A Bate lived and taught from 1933. Messiaen went to tea there; a three-manual and pedal organ graces the living room; she continued playing her recital pieces to her father for feedback and advice until he died, aged 96, a few years ago. In an age of often bewildering change and of global access to information and values, Jennifer Bate represents her profession as a tradition locally rooted while pursued internationally to the highest possible standards and acclaim. This is truly something to celebrate. Mr Pro-Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Jennifer Lucy Bate as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.