Jennifer Bate obituary

Peter Dickinson

The organist Jennifer Bate, who has died aged 75 from cancer, was a leading exponent of the music of Olivier Messiaen. They met in 1975, when the composer and his wife, Yvonne Loriod, went to hear her play his music at St James’s, Muswell Hill, north London. Afterwards he asked her if she had heard his own recordings. She had not, but it emerged that she played exactly as he did and he was delighted.

They kept in touch, and the uncanny rapport between them lasted until his death in 1992. He heard her play many times and wrote that she was “an excellent organist, not only for her virtuosity. She is a really accomplished musician who loves what she plays and knows how to make others love it too.” She supported many other living composers and made a CD of my own complete organ works and played them all over the world.

Jennifer’s international career led her into some challenging situations. One organist in France was so angry he had not been asked to perform that he sabotaged her recital by locking doors, turning the power off and making noises during the programme. At Medellín, Colombia, she was not met because her contact failed to realise that she could be a woman.

She once had to get to a recital at St Mark’s, Venice, by wading through the square in 2ft of water. Jennifer loved northern Italy, giving some 150 recitals there, and her constant tours outside Europe took her to Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean and South America.

In her first two Proms appearances (1974-75) she played major organ works by Liszt two seasons running. Her first recording, in 1978, again featured Liszt, on the same Royal Albert Hall instrument. Her complete Messiaen is a landmark; so is the complete Mendelssohn, for which she supplied endings to some unfinished pieces, and a complete César Franck; then came a whole series of British works including early music CDs of 18th century composers from John Stanley to Samuel Wesley, on instruments of the period. She was always concerned about the organs she was going to play, matching programmes carefully, and usually expected three days on which to rehearse.

In 1986 she gave the British premiere of Messiaen’s two-hour Livre du Saint Sacrement in a sold-out Westminster Cathedral with the composer present. Her subsequent recording gained a Grand Prix du Disque.

Born in London, Jennifer said of her mother, Dorothy (nee Hunt) that she was “the daughter of an organist, sister of an organist, married to an organist and eventually had me, yet another organist”. Her father, Horace, was the organist and choirmaster at St James’s Church, Muswell Hill, and a well-known teacher of the instrument. An only child, at the age of four Jennifer went to school able to read words as well as music. Her father was influential throughout his lifetime: he was a stern taskmaster, but his insight was invaluable.

In her early teens Bate was a pianist but she realised that her hands were too small. So her father showed her what the organ could do and she was hooked. She gained ARCM (1961) and LRAM (1963) diplomas in organ performance, with record high marks, but her father thought she needed a general education, so from Tollington school she went to Bristol University to study music.

There her professor told her she would never make a living playing the organ, so on graduating in 1966 she became a librarian at the London School of Economics. Three years later, student disturbances there gave her three weeks off on full pay, during which she could learn major works at St James’s, and so encouraged her to return to music.

In 1968 she had married the somewhat older organist George Thalben-Ball, having “fallen in love with his musicianship the first time she met him”. She looked after him during a serious illness, but they divorced in 1972.

When Jennifer embarked on her career as an independent concert artist she had no teaching post to support her, but her tours abroad took off from 1970. For her first recital in Paris she invited the organist of Notre Dame and his assistant as well as the composers Duruflé and Langlais with their wives. They all came.

In these years Jennifer started to open new organs and to broadcast for the BBC. She composed some pieces and recorded them, and in the new century ran an annual course for young women organists aged 13 to 21, the Jennifer Bate Organ Academy. She was also a fluent writer.

Her many awards included being made chevalier of the Légion d’honneur (2011), and in Britain she received an honorary doctorate from Bristol University (2007) and was appointed OBE (2008). She was a radiant personality who endeared herself to everyone when she played, lectured or taught.

Jennifer is survived by her partner, Andrew Roberts.

• Jennifer Lucy Bate, organist, born 11 November 1944; died 25 March 2020