Simon Preston, Westminster Abbey organist and Messiaen specialist who played at Royal weddings – obituary

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Simon Preston in 2005
Simon Preston in 2005

Simon Preston, who has died aged 83, was organist and master of the choristers of Westminster Abbey from 1981 to 1987, directing the music for major state occasions including the wedding of the Duke of York and Sarah Ferguson in 1986; earlier in his career he played the organ at the consecration of Guildford Cathedral in 1961 and the wedding of Princess Alexandra and Angus Ogilvy at Westminster Abbey in 1963.

Preston had an engaging personality; he was good looking and entertaining company. But there was an element of the prima donna about him that made collaboration with others, except on his own terms, difficult – and this trait led ultimately to an unhappy parting of ways with the Abbey.

From his position at the console Preston brought gravitas to any occasion while also entertaining large audiences with thrilling accounts of the repertoire, particularly in the music of Olivier Messiaen, in which he excelled. A Prom at the Albert Hall in 1964 led to a 10-minute standing ovation as the audience cheered and stamped their feet, while an early-evening recital of music by Bach and Messiaen at the Festival Hall, which would normally attract a modest audience, required a rare opening of the hall’s upper balcony.

He also assisted Neville Marriner in composing much of the music attributed to Salieri in Milos Forman’s film Amadeus and helped to create the Calgary Organ Festival in 1990, which is still going strong.

By the mid-1960s Preston’s performances on the organ were receiving the highest praise. “His technique is as good – and in some cases superior – to that of the continental virtuosi,” wrote one critic after a concert in 1967, adding: “In addition, he brings to his playing an individuality and warmth that reflects his own engaging personality.”

He was hardly less talented as a choir director, and it was his career at Westminster Abbey that brought Preston the most attention as he sought to revive interest in English composers. Until that time “the choir didn’t sing a great deal of the [Henry] Purcell music, so it’s been something of a new thing for them,” he told Gramophone magazine in 1986. He was also an enthusiastic admirer and frequent user of the 20th-century choral works of Herbert Howells.

The music for the Duke and Duchess of York’s wedding on July 23 1986 included Walton’s Crown Imperial march and was watched by a television audience estimated to be 500 million worldwide. But with the arrival of a modernising dean, Michael Mayne, just before the wedding, life at the Abbey was already changing, not least with the introduction of the Alternative Service Book – to the disdain of a musician who was wedded to the Book of Common Prayer.

Meanwhile, the inevitable tensions between his duties in the Abbey and the exigencies of his performing career were never satisfactorily resolved, and his demands for leave – often extending over several weeks – taxed the patience of an otherwise tolerant Dean and Chapter. Indeed, the waggish comment that the residents of New York and Cape Town stood a better chance of hearing Preston play the organ than the congregation of Westminster Abbey contained an element of truth.

A 1967 recording by Preston
A 1967 recording by Preston

Also unresolved was his relationship with the choir, the performance of which he transformed, though never to his own satisfaction. He sought the dismissal of half the lay vicars and their replacement by other singers on five-year contracts, neither of which was feasible. A voice trial of 19 boys led to the acceptance of none of them, though several of those rejected were eagerly recruited by other cathedrals. He was also not prepared to play for the Christmas Eve midnight service on the grounds that it was not in his contract.

After much tension Preston left the Abbey in 1987 to pursue a freelance life. He was diplomatic about his departure, telling a Canadian newspaper that he had never seen the job as an end in itself and that rehearsing for a service every day, as well as playing for three services on Sundays and festivals, had become rather tedious.

“It was always very difficult to practise at the Abbey because there were so many tourists,” he said, adding that the limited rehearsal time available in the evenings had to be shared with his three assistants.

Simon John Preston was born in Bournemouth on August 4 1938. He was aged five when he heard an organ recital by George Thalben-Ball, which piqued his interest in the instrument. At first he studied piano, but was encouraged to take up the organ by an uncle who played at his local parish church.

With the choir stalls being the traditional route to the organ loft, the 10-year-old Preston approached David Willcocks, seeking a place in his choir at Salisbury Cathedral. But with no vacancies Willcocks recommended him to Boris Ord at King’s College, Cambridge, where a couple of boys’ voices had broken prematurely and the young Preston was able to study organ with Hugh McClean. Later he was educated at Canford School in Dorset.

In 1957, when Willcocks took charge at King’s, he remembered the eager young Preston – now studying organ with C H Trevor at the Royal Academy of Music – and offered him the post of organ scholar. He remained at King’s for five years, taking the opportunity to conduct and compose; among his many duties, he was entrusted with accompanying the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. A recording from this time of Orlando Gibbons’s Fantasia brought him to the attention of a wider audience.

Preston had planned to study modern languages and join the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but if he still had any intention in that direction it disappeared after hearing Arthur Wills at Ely Cathedral perform Messiaen’s Transports de Joie, which opened a whole new avenue of music to him.

His first appearance in London was at the Festival Hall under Willcocks in 1962, in a performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, a work that has a terrifyingly exposed part for the solo organ that, according to one critic, he played “with dumbfounding brilliance”. Preston recalled that Willcocks had “asked me to play instead of their regular organist, which was very brave of him … It was something of a baptism of fire.”

One of Preston's many recordings for the Deutsche Grammophon label
One of Preston's many recordings for the Deutsche Grammophon label

That year Ossie Peasgood, the long-serving sub-organist at Westminster Abbey, died suddenly and Preston stepped into his shoes, working under Sir William McKie and later Douglas Guest as one of the youngest professional musicians to serve the Abbey since Purcell some 300 years earlier.

There, he attracted critical attention for a series of recitals featuring Messiaen, of whose music he was by now the leading British exponent. He also made his first appearance at the Proms and toured the United States and Canada.

After a brief spell as acting organist at St Albans Abbey, Preston was appointed organist and tutor in music at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1970 – where he replaced the instrument with one by the Austrian firm of Reiger – before returning to Westminster Abbey to succeed Guest as organist and master of the choristers in May 1981.

After his departure from the Abbey, Preston’s performing career continued unabated, with high-profile concerts and recordings such as the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic under James Levine, Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa, and Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra with the St Louis Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. He also recorded the complete cycle of Bach’s organ works for Deutsche Grammophon.

Like most pianists and organists Preston was unable to take his preferred instruments on tour and had to live with what was provided. He recalled making one recording in the chapel of Knole House, the Sackville-West ancestral home near Sevenoaks, where the organ still relied on a manual air pump.

“It’s freezing cold and you have to stand to play it,” he told Gramophone. “Actually I had someone to pump the bellows for me – it’s a foot pump and I couldn’t really assimilate the technique of pumping and playing at the same time.”

Meanwhile, interviewers found that his wit was as dry as his talent was prodigious. Asked by the New York Times in 2012 to compare an organ in Woolsey Hall at Yale University with some of those he had performed on elsewhere, he replied simply: “This one works.”

He was among the first to play the Albert Hall organ after its restoration in 2004, when he was heard at the Last Night of the Proms in Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva conducted by Slatkin, which has a cadenza for feet alone. He returned to the Albert Hall in 2008, when he performed Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass once more, this time with Pierre Boulez, and nine days later gave the first concert of a Bach Day, opening it with the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

Simon Preston, who listed his recreations as “croquet and crosswords”, was appointed OBE in 2000, advanced to CBE in 2009; in 2014 he was awarded the medal of the Royal College of Organists, the college’s highest honour.

He married Elizabeth Hays in 2012.

Simon Preston, born August 4 1938, died May 13 2022

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