St John's College

James Gordon
James ' Jimmy' Gordon

St John’s College is sad to learn of the passing of James Gordon on 22 September.

James Gordon, affectionately known as Jimmy, was the Director of Music at St John’s College for nearly 20 years.

Jimmy was educated at Sherborne School in the United Kingdom. He later won a choral scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, where he read for BA and B Mus degrees. He taught music at Twyford School and at Eton College, where he also served as Assistant Organist.

Jimmy arrived at St John’s College after relinquishing his post as Director of Music at the Duke of York School. He was an exceptionally talented singer and possessed a superb tenor voice and vocal technique. His sense of pitch was unerring. He gave many recitals and was invited to perform as a leading soloist in many choirs throughout his years in Johannesburg.

He inspired the Chapel Choir to great heights and produced memorable performances of Faure’s Requiem, Poulenc’s Gloria and Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, among other works.

Jimmy was also an outstanding organist and his impeccable taste and interpretation of the organ masterpieces were greatly admired. He was often commissioned to give performances at St Mary’s Cathedral and Johannesburg City Hall.

Jimmy Gordon was a talented intellectual and a gifted scholar but remained humble. He was known to be shy and retiring. He never thought of his talents as being exceptional and was always modest about his accomplishments.

Many Old Johannians and members of the St John’s Community will remember Jimmy with great fondness and affection, and they will remain eternally grateful for all the musical experiences he was able to provide them.

We at St John’s College treasure his memory, and some personal tributes will follow about this special man.

His funeral takes place at 11am on Friday 2 October at St Martin’s in the Veld in Rosebank.

Tribute to Jimmy Gordon

By Ron Gill (OJ, 1968)

As I write this tribute to Jimmy Gordon, I don’t have any accurate dates, but I do have the few memories of the boy that I was when he arrived. I started my musical life at St John’s under the famous Noel Iverson, a brilliant but brutally uncompromising and increasingly intolerant musician. After a brief stint under Malcolm Tyler, Jimmy arrived to take up the post of Director of Music. The school appointed a totally different character to the music room. Quiet and gentle, many of the boys took advantage of his nature and I am sure that there must have been some classes that he dreaded facing!

Those of us with musical bines in our bodies, however, soon recognised what Jimmy had to offer and it wasn’t long before he put a very good choir together. He was, after all, a choir specialist and a fine singer himself. I remember that he granted me special entry into the Thursday service because I could read music and was already playing the organ in my home church. I appreciated that.

One of my memories of my Remove year was the building of the chapel organ. I would sometimes sneak into the chapel to watch the organ builders working. Of course, the school needed someone who would do justice to this splendid new instrument and Jimmy fitted this task perfectly. He was an excellent organist and gave me a few organ lessons when I was in Sixth Form and even allowed me to accompany a few hymn practices. This was just the kind of thing an aspiring young musician needed and the type of thing Jimmy did in his quiet way.

My overall impression as I look back now is of a very unassuming man, competent yet gentle in his manner. The word humble springs to mind. In later years after I had qualified and was now a fellow musician, he often gave me the impression that I was his equal. I wasn’t! His knowledge of church music in particular and his ability as a choir director and organist will always be something I look up to. Like I said, the man displayed amazing humility and I owe a large part of my upbringing to Jimmy Gordon. Rest in peace Jimmy and enjoy the choirs of angels and saints in Heaven for eternity!

Jimmy Gordon – A Personal Tribute

By Andrew J Carter (OJ, Thomson, 1982)

With the passing of Jimmy Gordon, a great and humble soul has departed this earth life. He was a gentle, modest, unassuming man of towering and truly extra-ordinary talent and natural musical ability. Ironically, his character made him one of the great 'unsung' hero's to have blessed life and St. John's College with his many gifts.

I was fortunate enough to be a pupil at St. John's for much of Jimmy's time at the school. During this time, he made a lasting and colossal contribution to my own formative development and person – a powerful gift beyond words to express. I sang under him as a chorister and soloist in the choir, in concerts and on stage for almost 12 years, and had piano lessons with him for at least 5 years. This ongoing close involvement afforded me the privilege of a personal relationship with him.

He was a wonderful, warm, kind and considerate man with a light humour, highly educated, with a memorable gift for engaging conversation. He was also a rare, exceptional and un-ostentatious musical talent - a brilliant, attentive and inspired choir master, musical director and conductor, widely recognised as one of the finest organists of his day, and a singer with one of the finest voices one could ever hope to hear.

I recall as a young man feeling a deep innate frustration at how little his outward accomplishments – and they were many and great – reflected his true potential. He could have done anything and gone anywhere, musically, with his gifts and abilities. St. Johns was indeed fortunate to have him.

Rather than merely list his many outward accomplishments, I shall speak personal memories.

Memories of countless carol services, eagerly attended and relished by so many in a packed church, with Jimmy adorned in his fine Canterbury robes, filling the school calender with such atmosphere. I recall how his studied and accomplished organ recitals were fulfilled and even eclipsed by the crowds of pupils lingering in the school chapel when he ended a service with his legendary performances of Bach's “Toccata and Fugue”, or his unforgettable rendering of the “Trumpet Tune in D” that thrilled all alike. He could hold a church profoundly emotional and spellbound as the OJ choir performed the Russian Kontakion under his direction, and then virtually explode the building with a thundering “Now thank we all our God”.

He was the largely unnoticed and extremely successful musical director of many stage musicals and opera, and equally many concerts performed with multiple choirs and soloists of repute. He lead the choir that lead carol services in the Johannesburg cathedral, lead a most successful choir tour to the Lowveld in the mid 1970's, and grew many individual pupils along their own musical paths, both choral and instrumental. Through all, he was the unseen, tireless presence rehearsing and conducting orchestras, choirs and soloists with equal competence, generosity, skill, patience and aplomb.

Nor was he shy of tackling musical works of substance – such as Faure's Requiem, a Mozart Mass, Handel's Messiah or Poulenc's Gloria – he had the skill to exact the best from all performers.

Countless memories flood back that enrich his portrait with dabs of colour: How seriously he took and how great his contribution to the weekly school mass, or its many festivals; his brave, singlehanded efforts to raise the school's contribution to its own life in weekly hymn practise; the ritual changing of his shoes as he prepared for his next effortless foot-marathon at the organ he commanded with such authority; his two Scottish terriers swirling about his legs as he ushered them into his car; his indulgence of the raucous, riotous bellowing of “Yo, ho, and up she rises...” for the thousandth time when he acquiesced in class music lessons in the backstage music-room to the perennial teenage penchant for “The Drunken Sailor”; the quiet, profound, strains of acapella plainsong echoing and reverberating through the chapel under his skilled, unimposing direction.

Music was his love, his life and his passion. Whenever and wherever I went to see him, or if I ever phoned him, he was either directly engaged with his music or had some work of substance playing in the background, to which he always listened attentively.

And I have said nothing yet of his voice. Ah, his voice! It was simply one of the most sublime voices I have ever heard. And he could do virtually anything with it! From concert performances to leading, teaching and coaching soloists and choirs, with a vocal range that still exceeds any I have encountered – from the deepest basso to the highest falsetto, produced on demand... well, you had to be there to hear it, and it was, in my experience, utterly and transcendently captivating and mesmerising, always! I could have listened to him sing forever!

On one occasion, he was leading the production of Mendelssohn's Elijah with a mixed Old Johannian choir and professional soloists. On the night we performed in Pretoria, when a leading soloist was indisposed, Jimmy simply stepped into his place. To this day I recall the entire auditorium, choir and audience alike, held enraptured by what he poured into that most elevated performance.

He was a quiet, 'unsung' giant among us. Conjecture, if you can, what our lives would have been like without him. Thus will you notice how great, how enriching, and how often unnoticed his contribution to our lives.

While I will revere Jimmy forever as one of the finest musicians I will ever know, who could in a moment have had a global career as a performing soloist, I am perhaps most indebted to his personal gifts to me. He took me seriously, gave me time, showed me respect, honoured me, and spoke to me as a person. The immense, unspeakable blessing of that gift has stayed with me forever. I am still moved at the poignant recollection of those humble initials quietly penned at the bottom of one of his arrangements: “MJG”.

I will remember Jimmy most for his profound love of music, his deep and abiding warmth, and his very great kindness to me. So to Jimmy I say – thank you forever, for all you gave us and all that you are. Wherever you go, life will be richer and more beautiful. The heavenly realms are indeed fortunate to have you! Sing choirs of angels! Henceforth will your melody be the richer and the sweeter!

Comments from James Ridley (OJ, 1959)

It was moving to read the warm and heartfelt tributes from Andrew Carter and Ron Gill, and to hear more over Zoom from the funeral service at St Martin’s. My own contact with Jimmy was not as close as theirs, but my respect and admiration for him are certainly equal. I met Jimmy after my return to Johannesburg in 1968 after studying overseas, and I sang in the Old Johannian Choir under his direction until he retired. I was immediately struck by the breadth of musical experience that he brought and was able to impart to ordinary choir members. One notable performance I remember was “Te Deum” by Flor Peeters, after which Bishop Tom Stanage, who had been celebrating, ran up to the choir gallery to congratulate us all immediately after the service, saying it was the best choral singing he had heard for years. Another was Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” in 1977, possibly the one described by Andrew, in which he (or was it his brother Roddy?) sang the part of the youth sent out by Elijah to look for the rain clouds. In that performance Jimmy sang the part of Obadiah, which includes a short recitative containing the words “or cause the heavens to drop their showers”. The exquisite delicacy with which he sang this simple phrase gave me gooseflesh at the time, and the memory remains to this day. Another vivid memory is of the motet “O Rex Gloriae”, composed by Jimmy on a text for Ascension Day, which was when Gaudy Day was held in those days. It is short and simple, but very effective, with a sudden change of key on the third word that really makes the glory shine out. On another occasion, on one Good Friday with the Cathedral Choir, I remember Jimmy singing “This is the Record of John”, by Orlando Gibbons, in which the beauty of his singing, easily comparable with that of Fischer-Dieskau, was apparent throughout.

During my schooldays there was no organ in the chapel, but, like Ron Gill, I was volunteered into playing the organ at our parish church, even though I was untaught. When I found myself in a similar position in the late ’70s, I decided that I should have some lessons, even though I was a late starter. Jimmy was the obvious choice, and he agreed to teach me, showing his infinite kindness and patience with a rather clumsy and inept pupil, and only reluctantly accepting a nominal payment for sharing his talent and experience. For all Ron’s modesty, I do remember Jimmy once telling me, about a piece that was beyond me, that one needed to have a technique like Ron Gill’s to do justice to it.

During one of the readings on Ascension Day this year I was reminded of “O Rex Gloriae”, and decided to ask Jimmy’s permission to collect and typeset his compositions, most of which existed only in manuscript, in order to make them more widely available as a lasting tribute to him. I sent him drafts of three of them, hoping to meet him after lockdown for a final edit together, which unfortunately is no longer possible. Sidney Place has been of invaluable assistance to me so far, but anyone else who would like to help guide the project through to its completion, or to use any of the pieces as they stand, is most welcome to get in touch with me through the OJA.