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Giving Dorset – ‘All his soul with music offered’

The Michael James Music Trust celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. Tony Burton-Page went to meet its founders.

When Michael James died at the untimely early age of thirty, he left behind not only a multitude of bereft friends and a musical world saddened by the loss of such a gifted musician, but also some unfinished business: in the words of one of his favourite poems, ‘these dear unfinished tasks of mine’. He had spent his life as a musician inspiring the young people whom he had taught or conducted or accompanied, and many people – musicians and others – felt that this inspiration should somehow continue and be passed on. Raymond and Margaret James, Michael’s parents, already astonished by the way their son’s passing had affected so many, agreed, and in a remarkably short time the Michael James Music Trust had been set up. It was September 1981, and it was only in July that he had died. Raymond and Margaret attribute this expedition largely to Edward Monds, who has been the Treasurer from the very start.

Michael at the organ of Wimborne Minster, where he was Assistant Organist for seven years

Michael at the organ of Wimborne Minster, where he was Assistant Organist for seven years

The Trust’s stated aim was ‘to advance education in music, particularly music performed in a Christian setting for the enrichment of worship’. It was to give grants to those who were truly dedicated to music but might never be able to achieve their goals without some financial help, with a particular leaning towards organ scholars, lay clerks, singers, instrumentalists and cathedral choristers. This was a reflection not only of Michael’s teaching career but also of his own life: he was a musician and a Christian. He had decided at a very early age that he wanted to be an organist, although this was a revision from his first choice, which was to be a vicar – probably inspired by a youthful visit to Southwark Cathedral, on which occasion the organ had burst into splendid sound the second he walked through the door. From that moment, his life revolved around music and the church.

Michael came from an artistic background. Both his parents had worked in the theatre: Raymond became a television producer, while Margaret was in demand as an actress in radio, television and film, remembered to this day for her rôle in Brief Encounter as Beryl in the station buffet. Michael’s gifts as a musician were evident: ‘he could sing before he could speak,’ says his mother. He started the piano aged five (at his own request) and was accepted as a chorister at the Temple Church in London in 1960, when he was nine. The choirmaster was George Thalben-Ball, one of the greats of English church music. He had brought the choir international fame with its recording of ‘O for the wings of a Dove’ with Ernest Lough as the solo treble. Strangely, when Michael joined the choir Lough was still in it, even though the recording had been made in 1927 – but he was now a baritone.

Michael stayed at the Temple for eight years, the last two of them as head boy – not merely a nominal appointment, for part of his duty was to lead the choir in performance. A highlight was being chosen to sing a solo for a BBC radio production of William Mayne’s classic novel A Swarm in May. His time at the Temple was also responsible for his love of Dorset, as the choir went every summer on a camping holiday to Langton Matravers for a fortnight. Every year they would give a concert in the village church, an event much loved by the local people, but it was not all work; and these visits acquainted Michael with a county to which he always wanted to return. The family had always felt they had a connection with Dorset, as their London home was in Dorset Street – within shouting distance of Blandford Street, Bryanston Square and Durweston Street: this was Portman territory, and still is.

After the Temple, Michael had a year at the Royal College of Music. One of his teachers there was the composer Herbert Howells, who took Michael with him to hear a performance of his masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi. It is ominous in view of later events that this work was written in memory of a son who died prematurely – and his name was Michael.

The Baptistry window at Wimborne Minster was commissioned by Michael’s parents in his memory and designed by the stained glass artist Henry Haig

The Baptistry window at Wimborne Minster was commissioned by Michael’s parents in his memory and designed by the stained glass artist Henry Haig

The next step was Durham University, where he was Organ Scholar, training the choir and playing for services in the university’s chapel. Another Dorset connection was made here: one of his fellow students was Richard Hall, from Bere Regis, now Director of the Dorset Rural Music School in Blandford and one of the county’s foremost musicians.

He spent a year at Jesus College, Cambridge, studying for the Certificate of Education which would enable him to teach – a necessary chore but one enhanced by the position of Assistant Organist at Jesus College Chapel. It was in his last term here that the enduring link with Dorset was made: Michael applied for post of Assistant Director of Music at Canford School, was offered it and joyfully accepted. He started there in 1974, and before the end of his first term there, the post of Assistant Organist at Wimborne Minster became vacant. He was accepted for this too, and also took charge of the Blandford Choral Society.

His commitments at the Minster, as well as his playing and teaching outside the school, grew ever greater, and after four years at Canford he reluctantly left. There were more and more concerts at home and abroad to fill his busy schedule, but the Minster was the centre of his musical and spiritual life.

Then, at the crest of a musical wave, cancer struck. After a scare with a lump in 1980, tests proved negative; but the cancer returned a year later and claimed him six weeks after he had played for what proved to be the last time, at the Minster’s Ascension Day service. But his unshakeable faith never deserted him: a few days before he died, he assured his mother that he was going ‘to be in absolute bliss’. On his grave is the phrase ‘All his soul with music offered’.

The work of the Trust celebrates his commitment to music and worship. It has helped hundreds of organ scholars over its thirty years, and at least 400 of them are currently directors of music at cathedrals in this country and abroad. It has also helped choristers and other musicians, many of whom have gone on to careers in orchestras or as teachers or in music therapy. Many local institutions have benefited: St Michael’s, Colehill, receives an annual music bursary, as do Queen Elizabeth’s School in Wimborne and the Highcliffe Junior Choir. The beneficiaries give concerts which raise funds for the Trust, as do other groups: the choral group Laudemus has been singing in Dorset churches every summer for twenty years in aid of it, and every year there is a recital for the Trust in Southwark Cathedral, commemorating not only the visit Michael’s Durham choir made in 1973 but also that inspiring visit half a century ago.

The choir of Truro Cathedral, whose Organ Scholar is one of many who has been helped by the Michael James Music Trust

The choir of Truro Cathedral, whose Organ Scholar is one of many who has been helped by the Michael James Music Trust


Address: Michael James Music Trust, 4 Onslow Gardens, Wimborne Minster, BH21 2QG

Telephone: 01202 842103

Margaret James’s book, Michael, is available from The Michael James Music Trust at the above address

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