RICHARD HICKOX CBE (1948-2008)

There is a spirit in St Endellion Church, on which we all feed. The place is a magnet for many of us as well as a refuge. The festival concerts are unique in blending professional and amateur yet the place seems to raise us to musical heights we find difficult to repeat anywhere else. (Richard Hickox, CBE (1948-2008))

The two St Endellion music festivals have had several conductors associated with them throughout their history but none more distinguished, or more closely identified with them than the late Richard Hickox CBE (1948-2008). Richard first came to the Summer Festival when still an organ scholar at Queen’s College Cambridge. By the mid 1970s he was sharing conducting honours with Roger Gaunt and in 1974 he and his second wife, Fran, founded the sister Easter festival and from then until his death in November 2008, he was Artistic Director of both. He occasionally had to miss a concert in order to conduct a Prom, and in recent years his commitments as Artistic Director of Opera Australia obliged him to hand over the baton of the Easter Festival to James Burton, but nonetheless he clocked up an astonishing number of St Endellion festivals

A casual observer early on in his career would have assumed that the festivals were no more than a testing ground, a charming eccentricity he would surely give up once more important engagements were on offer. Those lucky enough to work with him at St Endellion, however, saw at once that our unglamorous, unsubsidised, and barely publicised concerts in an out-of-the-way Cornish church were deeply important to him both spiritually and artistically.

Richard was proud that, with a cottage only yards from the church’s door, he had become a St Endellion parishioner while the rest of us remained mere tourists. Now that he has been laid to rest in St Endellion’s churchyard, it will be no surprise to find him as closely identified with the church in the future as that other champion of vanishing English culture, Sir John Betjeman, has become with nearby St Enodoc.

Richard Hickox – an appreciation by Stephen Varcoe

I first met Richard when we were new undergraduates together in Cambridge, he as Organ Scholar of Queen’s, I as a choral scholar of King’s. It wasn’t long before our paths crossed, because he was looking for a ‘pleasing light baritone’ for one of the concerts he was putting on, and I seemed to fit the bill. At the age of nineteen Richard was already a seasoned conductor and festival director, having cut his teeth at Wooburn and in his father’s parish church, and the musical politics of Cambridge and the jostling for recognition amongst other aspiring conductors seemed to hold no fears for him. Many years later, looking back at those days and our decisions to press on with the idea of careers in music, we found that we both had an inner certainty that it was not only the thing we must do, but that we would succeed: failure was simply not an option. I know that sounds like horrible youthful arrogance, but I honestly don’t think it was (in his case, anyway), and anyone who knew Richard even slightly knew also that he did not have an arrogant bone in his body. Indeed, although he always knew what he wanted from his musicians and how to get it, he was never complacent, and was even rather endearingly anxious to hear our opinions about a performance we had just given.

After Cambridge, where we both achieved solid third-class degrees (a fact we proudly reminisced about together from time to time), I joined the Richard Hickox Singers as one of the basses. My ambition was to become a soloist, and this was a way of making ends meet for a while. He knew this perfectly well, and he also knew that my keen, rapt expression at rehearsal sometimes concealed the fact that I was only coasting (never in performance, I hasten to add). He also gave me my first paid professional solo job, and when I recently reminded him of this and said he’d paid me £20, he came back quick as a flash to say he’d never have given me that much, and that it was actually £15. He was quite right, naturally, and when it came to such matters of memory and mastery of detail he was without equal. Many’s the time he’d be deeply involved in one project when someone would speak to him about something completely unrelated and perhaps a year or two in the future. Without hesitation he would start discussing the new subject as if it were the only thing he’d been thinking about all day.

In many ways Richard did not match the standard pattern of the great conductor, though he proved through his wonderful career that he was one of our very best. He was too modest to be the grand Maestro, too much interested in the people around him, and too much absorbed in simply enjoying what he did: Richard loved music as a true enthusiast, and he loved it more than anywhere else amongst his friends at St Endellion. He was often so wrapped up in the music that his barely suppressed groans became audible beyond the strings’ front desks. And yet he was always the consummate professional, knowing his scores intimately, timing his rehearsals to perfection (with the unfortunate result that you’d never be let off early), and controlling his recording sessions beautifully. If a session ended before its allotted amount of recording had been completed, he never let it ruffle him, or never appeared to anyway, and without fuss and drama the time would be made up in the next session. On the very few occasions when I experienced any slight shortness of temper from Richard it was so unusual as to be shocking, whereas with most of his fellow conductors it was just what we’d expect.

Any appreciation of Richard’s character would be incomplete without mention of his enjoyment of a good laugh, and his son Tom gave a perfect example of that in his eulogy at Richard’s funeral. The story is doubtless art of the folklore of St. Endellion, and concerns the removal of some nude bathers’ clothing and the switching on of his car headlights. Fortunately I didn’t suffer that indignity at Richard’s hands, though I dreaded his cry ‘Make you bow!’ as he lunged at one’s genitals. He usually did this just before going on to some grand concert platform, and I never seemed to be ready for it (and always bowed, of course). It was safer and less stressful to hear him recount something funny which had happened to him, and part of our pleasure was his enjoyment in the telling. One story which he loved to tell was of a Christmas Day service at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. The sermon was about to start, so Ian Watson switched off the organ as usual, and he and Richard crept off through a little door in the organ case and relaxed in a pair of old armchairs around the back. Meanwhile, the verger went outside to have a smoke, again as usual. Unfortunately, not as usual, the rector got up to say that he wasn’t going to be preaching a sermon because he felt sure that everyone wanted to get on with celebrating Christmas at home, so he read out a haiku (which probably took less than ten seconds) and announced the final hymn. The first Richard knew that anything was amiss was when he heard the organ blower come on and someone in the choir started to play the hymn. By this stage of the telling Richard was beside himself with laughter, as was everyone else.

An experience of an entirely different sort showed another aspect of Richard’s character – the warmth of his understanding. He and Fran had asked me to be godfather to young Tom, and not long after that he became godfather to my son Amyas, so we had a mutual family interest. A while later we had another son, but at the age of five weeks he died. I had an engagement a few days afterwards to sing Fauré’s Requiem with Richard, and he rang my wife Melinda with words of comfort and asked if there was anything he could do to help me get through the concert. She replied that in order to keep me going on the day, he shouldn’t let on that he knew, otherwise I might crack up and he might find himself cracking up too. He played his part magnificently, and I had no idea he knew (though of course I should have guessed). But I found myself uplifted by the experience of singing that piece of all pieces with my old friend, and I felt tremendous strength from him that day, something I’ll never forget.

Whenever friends go through the breakdown of a marriage it is always painful, even for those on the outside, and there is usually a strong emotional pull which leads one to support one partner or the other. I never felt this kind of pressure from either Richard or Fran, which I regard as a tribute to both of them, and for which I’m very grateful: friendship with either remained as easy as ever. Easter at St Endellion maintained its hold on so many of us because of two of its presiding geniuses, Richard and Fran, and I could never have imagined it without them both.

I subsequently sang at Richard and Pamela’s wedding, and thereafter shared many happy times with them: I think Adam was within days of being born when Pamela gave a splendid performance of the Composer in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in St Endellion. In spite of that vigorous pre-natal experience he arrived safely, and it was lovely to hear about him and Abigail growing up and thriving.

It was very moving for those of us privileged to be in the church for Richard’s funeral to see Fran and Tom, Pamela, Adam and Abigail sitting together with Jean and Charmain. We were also deeply moved by Tom’s extraordinary address, unsurpassed in my experience for its eloquence and insight. It was at times touching, at times hilarious, and always loving and tender. At the end he spoke to each one of his close family in turn with words of support and comfort, and left a lasting impression on all of us there.

For forty years I sang with Richard, and I should think in that time we worked together on twenty or more recordings, several operas and heaven knows how many concerts, some of them the most enjoyable experiences of my life. It was always such a pleasure for me to see him again at the beginning of a new project, and to feel such a welcome from his beaming, boyish face. And I shall always treasure those marvellous moments when we’d catch each other’s eye and all that shared experience would be focused in the joy of the present.