He may be 95, but former Minster organist Francis Jackson is still performing – with a date at Helmsley this weekend in the Ryedale Festival. He spoke to STEPHEN LEWIS.

FRANCIS Jackson is waiting for me as I approach the lovely village of Acklam near Malton. There he is, an elderly gentleman standing in an orchard overlooking the road, clearly keeping a lookout.

As I drive up, he gestures at me to park under a fruit tree, then advances to shake my hand, his face beaming with good nature.

“You’re the first person who’s been able to find us without having to telephone ahead,” he says.

The composer and former Master of the Music and organist at York Minster – he held the job for 37 years, from 1946 to 1982 – is almost 96 now. He is a little stooped, and his voice occasionally quavers with age. But his thought processes are as keen as ever; his love of music burns as bright as ever it did; and his warmth and courtesy leave you pining for the days of English good manners.

I’m here to chat to Dr Jackson because, at the age of 95, he has just written his autobiography.

“It is one way of, well, unearthing your memories and remembering things that you have forgotten,” he says.

Before the interview proper begins, however, he leads photographer Frank Dwyer and myself into an outhouse in the beautiful garden of the home he shares with his wife, Priscilla.

Inside, it is cool. There is a grand piano, supporting a forest of green plants in pots. The walls are lined with books and volumes of sheet music, and on a balcony that runs above your head there is a huge old gramophone, shaped like a giant, old-fashioned ear trumpet. “It still works,” Dr Jackson says.

Taking pride of place, however, and dominating this tall, delightfully cluttered room, is a magnificent church organ, all gleaming pipes and dark, polished wood.

It used to be in a church in Derbyshire, he says. When it stopped working, the church got a new one. A friend of his who is an organ builder repaired it – and here it is.

He switches the machine on with a sigh of air, and seats himself at the keyboard. And then he begins to play.

It is magical. The music swells and throbs, notes soaring high, or dipping low to vibrate your very bones. It goes on and on, until finally, reluctantly, he lets his fingers come to rest and the last note dies away to silence.

“What was that?” I ask.

“Oh, I was just improvising,” he says. “That’s something we do a lot of.” I’m speechless.

Photograph taken, we retire to his sitting room to talk about his autobiography, Music For A Long While, over a cup of coffee.

“My musical gifts were discovered early,” the book begins. “To whoever’s house I was taken, I was sure to be asked to play the piano.” He didn’t always enjoy these early performances, however. “Very often the company talked throughout my efforts.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t enough to put him off music. Nor were his elder brother Paul’s occasional concerns that his little brother would become ‘swelled headed’. “He was determined I shouldn’t, and always took the opportunity to take me down a peg,” Dr Jackson writes. “I think I became very sensitive to this and tried my best to appear as unremarkable as possible.”

Despite this, his was clearly a happy childhood. He grew up in Belmont Terrace, Malton. His father, William, was the borough engineer and sanitary inspector. “He was in charge of roads and drainage,” Dr Jackson says. “He had an office in the town hall.”

So he wasn’t a musical man, then? Not especially. “My mother was the musical one. She was a good pianist.”

His parents both sang in the Malton parish church choir, however: and the brothers, Francis and Paul, followed them, becoming choristers.

Francis went to the National School, in Malton, and the Minster School. He was there for four years, and was afterwards taken under the tutelage of Dr Edward Bairstow, the Minster organist. But the winds of war were blowing; and on October 15, 1940, the young Francis Jackson joined the Army. He was a trooper in the 9th Lancers, a tank regiment, and he saw action in North Africa, Egypt and in the push through Italy.

He didn’t make a particularly good soldier. “I tried my best, but it wasn’t really what I was cut out for.” More than once he found himself getting a severe dressing down from an NCO. “They were largely good chaps, but there was the occasional person who felt that in order to keep the initiative he had to be as brutal as possible,” he says.

He doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about his war years; but awful things happened, he admits. He remembers one battle in particular, against Rommel’s forces near Sollum in North Africa, which he calls in his book ‘the grimmest episode of all’. It was searingly hot, and there was a wind blowing sand everywhere.

“The sand got into your hair, your eyes and ears… and the thirst was the worst that could be imagined,” he writes. “And all the time the noise of the engagement, each side trying to blow the other to bits – and to what purpose?”

He repeats that phrase as we sip coffee in his home. “It was simply blowing each-other to bits, and for what reason?”

But he survived, and in 1946, war over, he found himself back at York Minster. His mentor, Dr Bairstow, became ill and at the age of 29, Francis Jackson succeeded him as Minster organist. It was a post he was to hold for the next 37 years.

It was a wonderful life, he says. He estimates that during his career, he has performed more than 1,600 recitals – and not only at the Minster. “I performed all over the place: the US, Australia, France, Denmark.”

One of the joys of travelling, he says, was discovering and learning to play different organs. “No two organs are the same. And the acoustics play a part – the size of the building, the seating capacity, they are all different.”

He has played on many fine organs, but the one at York Minster is among the finest.

“It is superb,” he says. “One of the best organs there is.” One of the great pleasures of his life, he says, has been accompanying the Minster choir in full song. “It is such a privilege.”

He has been a prolific composer, too, as well as master organist: in fact, his entry on Wikipedia lists him as ‘Francis Jackson (composer)’.

His book lists all his compositions: from an un-numbered hymn tune he wrote in 1935 for a diocesan choirs festival at York Minster, through the Symphony in D Minor he wrote while doing his doctorate to the anthem The Mind of the Maker written for the Shakespeare Service at Stratford earlier this year. That is Opus number 164 – a substantial body of work.

He may have retired as Minster organist on his 65th birthday back in 1982, but he continued to play at the Minster every summer until this year. Even now, his playing days are not over.

He will play the organ during Evensong at All Saints Church, Helmsley, on Sunday during a service of thanksgiving for the Ryedale Festival, performing Easthope Martin’s Evensong in E Major – a work very close to his heart. “I used to play it to my aunt when I was staying with her in Helmsley, and I played it at her funeral.”

When you get to the age of 95, he says, you don’t perform ‘quite as easily’ as in your prime.

Don’t you believe it. That Evensong will be one to raise the hairs upon the back of your head: have no doubt about it.

• Music For a While, the autobiography of Francis Jackson, is printed by York Publishing Services, priced £17.95. It is available from York Publishing Services, 64 Hallfield Road, Layerthorpe, York, or call 01904 431213.

Dr Jackson will be at Banks Music in Lendal, York at 10am on Saturday to sign copies of his book, and then at York Minster on September 28.

He will perform Easthope Martin’s Evensong in E Major at All Saints Church, Helmsley, on Sunday as part of the Ryedale Festival.


"The name Francis Jackson is synonymous with York Minster..."

The publication of Dr Jackson’s autobiography has been welcomed by Robert Sharpe, Director of Music at York Minster. “The name Francis Jackson is synonymous with York Minster to those with a love for church and organ music,” he said. “Both a chorister and then Master of the Music at the Minster for many years, Dr Jackson’s organ recitals have been treasured by countless people.

We are delighted that his autobiography is now published and commend it to anyone with an interest in the Minster and its remarkable 95-years-young Organist Emeritus.”