Dennis Townhill was the Grand Organist of the Grand Lodge of Scotland for many years
The Grand Lodge of Scotland has decided to institute an annual memorial recital in his name.
The first of these recitals will be held on Friday, 22nd June 2012 and is open to the public. Tickets are available from Freemasons' Hall (telephone: 0131 225 5577) and cost £5 each.
The recital will provide a wide and varied repertoire and will cater for all tastes. We are delighted to announce that three very well-known organists, Dr John Kitchen, Peter Backhouse and Simon Nieminski, have agreed to play at this recital each bringing their own rich and indiviual styles.
Freemasons' Hall will be open at 6.15pm and the recital will commence at 7.00pm. Please note that tickets will be sold on a first come first served basis
During his long musical career Brother Townhill gave unstinting service to the Grand Lodge of Scotland and to give some idea of the scale of that long and successful career below we provide extensive details of his life and achievements. We hope that all who knew (Freemasons and non-Masons alike) Dennis will wish to attend this memorial recital.
Brother Dr Dennis Townhill, O.B.E., D.Mus., B.Mus., F.R.C.O.(Ch.M.), L.R.A.M., A.D.C.M., F.R.S.C.M.
Grand Organist of the Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland
Musician and organist at St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
Born: 29th May, 1925, Lincoln, England.
Died: 18th July, 2008, in Edinburgh, Scotland, aged 83.
In 1961, Dennis Townhill was appointed organist at Edinburgh's St Mary's Cathedral: a post to which he brought a broad knowledge of church music and a desire to enhance the already considerable reputation of the choral music in the cathedral. Townhill was an ardent lover of J. S. Bach (he regularly performed his entire organ music at St Mary's) but supported contemporary composers and commissioned works by Kenneth Leighton, who was Reid professor of music at Edinburgh University.
In 1964 Townhill commissioned Leighton to compose his first piece for the cathedral, Preces and Responses, and later recorded all Leighton's organ works.
Many at the cathedral associate Townhill with the St Mary's School of Music he did so much to nurture and expand. From his arrival at the cathedral he included girl choristers and he and his wife, Mabel, acted as guardians of the choristers. It was intended that the role would last one term but they remained for three years.
The school was modelled on the Yehudi Menuhin School and the renowned violinist agreed to become patron of the St Mary's School, referring to it as "my younger sister-school in Scotland".
Dennis Townhill was born in Lincoln and was a chorister in the cathedral school. He attended Lincoln Grammar School then held appointments at the Choral Society in Brigg, St James' Church in Louth and Grimsby before coming to Edinburgh in 1961. It was whilst resident in Grimsby that he became a Freemason. He was initiated in Saint James Lodge, No.7415 in 1960 and remained an ardent Freemason for the rest of his life. Townhill also taught three days a week at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
In 1971 he became an Affiliate Member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, No.2 (founded in 1677) perhaps because that Lodge was, and is, in possession of an organ made by the London organ maker Schnetzler in 1754.
Throughout his career Townhill proved a patient, understanding tutor. His charm and love of instructing singers and student musicians was immediate and encouraging. He was an enterprising music-maker and chose the music for cathedral with care – the Faur or Brahms Requiem on Remembrance Sunday and the St Matthew Passion at Easter.
In 1972 the first four instrumentalists entered the school – all from Scotland – and it proved a challenging time for Townhill. He had many duties within the cathedral and was director of music at the school. In addition, he organised or played at many concerts at the cathedral. These often included organ recitals during the Festival, which became a popular feature.
In 1962 Townhill played at the opening concert in the Usher Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra under Lorin Maazel. Beethoven's Missa Solemnis was the sole item on the programme and the scheduled organist, the acclaimed Dr Herrick Bunney of St Giles' Cathedral, was taken ill. Townhill proved an able substitute, but it was no straightforward task. The organ in the Usher Hall was notoriously temperamental and as Townhill wrote in his autobiography: "At the first rehearsal I didn't play a single note because we couldn't even get the main power switch to work. It was an absolute nightmare."
In 1988 he was appointed Grand Organist of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and he had a great fondness for the large Brindley and Foster organ, manufactured by that company in Sheffield for a special place designed for it in Grand Hall.
In 1987 at the Festival, Townhill was a member of a trio that played trumpet sonatas, accompanying on the St Mary's organ.
Typically, Townhill was involved in raising funds to save the Usher Hall organ. In 1992 the Townhill family raised £1,000 at a concert in Palmerston Place Church to restore the organ: he played the piano and organ and various members of the family (of all ages) were heard on a wide variety of instruments.
Townhill remained active in the musical world after his retirement in 1991. He fulfilled many commitments to music throughout Scotland, was a keen member of the British Institute of Organ Studies and was grand organist of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. He gave his last recital during an Edinburgh Festival in 2002 at Cluny Parish Church.
Townhill was the representative of the Grand Lodge of Scotland to the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island and was also Proxy Master of Lodge Saint Andrew, Perth, Western Australia.
On his retirement he was appointed organist emeritus at the cathedral and he was awarded an OBE in 2008.
Hazel Sheppard, the concert administrator at St Mary's, confirmed that the cathedral "owes much to Dennis's musical enthusiasm and wide understanding of church music". She said: "He was a lovely man and much loved by the entire congregation here and revered by all his students. He is remembered with great affection at St Mary's."
At the funeral there was a delightful human touch. The soprano Susan Hamilton had been the first head chorister pupil at the school and she brought her eight-day-old daughter to the service as a mark of respect to her former teacher. During the service the provost explained a gurgle and added "Dennis would have much approved of your presence."
In his autobiography (The Imp and the Thistle) Townhill recalled those early years in Edinburgh in charge of the school. "The 22 young people were great fun and delightful to live with, and we treated them as an extended family. Many of 'our babies', as we called them, have returned to see us in later years, often trundling their 'babies' with them."
Dr Dennis Townhill is survived by his wife, Mabel, whom he married in 1949, a son (who is music master at Cargilfield) and a daughter.