Celebration of Martindale Sidwell's memorable career

PUBLISHED: 16:36 21 January 2008 | UPDATED: 14:41 07 September 2010

by DAVID SONIN Looking back over the career of organist and choral conductor Martindale Sidwell, he was in every way a truly remarkable musician. His life and achievements were recalled when a concert was held at Hampstead Parish Church, where he was organist and music

Looking back over the career of organist and choral conductor Martindale Sidwell, he was in every way a truly remarkable musician.

His life and achievements were recalled when a concert was held at Hampstead Parish Church, where he was organist and music director between 1945 and 1992.

Sidwell was born in Warwickshire in 1916 and christened John William Martindale, a combination of his father's Christian names and his mother's maiden name. At the age of seven the young Sidwell won a place as a chorister and pupil in the choir school at Wells Cathedral and at the age of 16 he was appointed the cathedral's sub-organist.

He served in the army during the Second World War, partly with the Royal Engineers, which involved him working on south coast defences and taking part in a number of hazardous operations across the Channel.

He was invalided out of the forces and, despite the difficulties imposed by the hostilities, he managed to maintain his network of contacts in the music world. Post-military service he became, respectively, director of music at Warwick School, organist of Holy Trinity Church, Leamington Spa and conductor of the Leamington Spa Choral Society.

These led to his subsequent post-war achievements at Hampstead Parish Church, when he came to London for organ studies under C.H. Trevor at the Royal Academy of Music.

In 1944 he married the pianist and harpsichordist Barbara Hill, a regarded performer in her own right who later became Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music, the college which had turned Sidwell down for a place as a student.

He was appointed to Hampstead in 1946, at a time when its strong musical tradition had suffered as a result of the war. However, it did not take long to establish the church's choir of men and boys as one of the finest in the country, not excluding cathedrals.

In the 1950s the choir made broadcasts and recordings with conductors of the stature of Otto Klemperer, and appeared at the Royal Festival Hall and the Wigmore Hall, as well as touring in Europe.

Among the historic churches to be restored following the Blitz was St Clement Danes in Aldwych, which was reopened in 1958 and designated as the RAF church.

Sidwell was called in to restore a battered music tradition.

At St Clement Danes, Sidwell was given permission to set up a core of eight professional singers who would take up a round of duties that included special RAF occasions, from memorial services to weddings. Among his singers were the distinguished countertenors James Bowman and Paul Esswood.

A man of boundless energy, Sidwell founded the Hampstead Choral Society in 1946, which provided him with a platform for a host of British oratorio soloists. Other ventures included the founding of the Martindale Sidwell Choir in1956 and the London Bach Orchestra in 1967, which staged regular concerts under his direction at the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Sidwell also taught the organ at Trinity College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music between 1963 and 1984, and fulfilled duties as a professor at the Royal School of Church Music.

While he had a love of English and French music, Bach was perhaps closest to his heart, and Sidwell's readings of Bach's music were lighter and faster than audiences were used to in the 1950s. They certainly anticipated the style of early music performance that has since become familiar.

Sidwell and his family made their home in Frognal Gardens, a few yards from Hampstead Parish Church. One of his former trebles, who later became a distinguished composer, asked him if he wouldn't prefer to drive rather than walk to church. Sidwell, who could be curt, replied with what was also characteristic good humour: "Bless my soul, I walk miles during a Bach prelude and fugue."

After 50 years as organist at Hampstead and St Clement Danes, Sidwell retired in 1992 at the age of 76. However, he did not lose contact with either and on alternate Sundays could be found among the congregations. In the case of St Clement Danes he could be found with a couple of friends enjoying a convivial pint at a pub across the road.

Sidwell died in 1998 and his legacy as one of the true godfathers of English church music is as valid today as it was in the years from 1960s onwards.

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