Robert Ashfield, D Mus, FRCO (1911 - 2006)

by Paul Hale

With the death of Dr Robert Ashfield we mark the passing of a man who raised music at Southwell — both Minster and Diocese — to a high standard after the Second World War, leaving behind a legacy which remains still.

Ashfield was born on 28 July 1911 at Chipstead, Surrey. He was educated at Tonbridge School and the Royal College of Music where he was taught and inspired by Sir Ernest Bullock, organist of Westminster Abbey, becoming his assistant there. The music of Bullock always featured in Robert’s choir libraries, as it still does at Southwell. Ashfield became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1932 and was organist of St John’s, Smith Square, London, from 1934 until 1941, the year in which he was awarded his doctorate by the University of London. After war service, St John’s Smith Square having been bombed out, he was appointed Organist and Rector Chori here at Southwell Minster, marrying his devoted wife Mary the following year, and bringing her as a bride to 4 Vicars’ Court, where both their daughters were born.

Provost Hugh Heywood both supported and occasionally frustrated Ashfield: each was strong of character and potentially fiery of temperament. Sometimes the Head Verger acted as referee in their heated exchanges by the vestries! Ashfield also had a dispute with Bishop Barry (with whom he had worked in Westminster): the Bishop’s hens had taken to laying eggs in the Rector Chori’s garden which the Ashfields promptly consumed. Bishop Barry claimed them as his property: Robert eventually prevailed. Would that the Bishop’s hens would be so obliging these days...…...

Ashfield brought a regular and disciplined rehearsal routine so that he could create a revived and improved Minster Choir. He appointed new layclerks, one of whom, Don Fox, is still happily actively involved in the Minster. As The Times put it on 1 February 2007: "having seen his hard work successfully translate itself into a bold and incisive sound, Ashfield then set about enriching and enhancing the choral repertoire. Before too long he had expanded all aspects of the cathedral’s musical life, his reputation spreading far beyond his rural outpost". Sir David Lumsden, in writing to The Times following the publication of an extended obituary for Ashfield, wrote: "Three things stand out in my mind after the 50 years since I succeeded Bobby Ashfield at Southwell Minster. First, the immaculate, large choir library, which he supervised, every individual copy beautifully bound, with a complete record of everything performed..... Secondly, his years of work on the psalter and chantbook: he produced a version which to me has never been equalled (the present Southwell Psalter is but a slight revision of this)...... His underlay of words was original and faultless and his choice of chants truly striking and memorable. Whenever he was stuck for an appropriate chant he wrote one himself: these turned out to be priceless gems, much valued to this day by many choirs around the world".

"four Recores Chori" at a Southwell Old Choristers' reunion 1991.
RJA, Sir David Lumsden, Kenneth Beard and PRH

Finding Southwell rather too ill-paid to stay longer (as he once confided in me, saying "the problem with Southwell, you know, is that they never have enough money to do all they wish to", (nothing new there, then!), Ashfield moved in 1956 as Organist and Master of the Choristers to Rochester Cathedral, Kent where he was also conductor of the Rochester Choral Society and a professor of harmony & counterpoint at the Royal College of Music. He retired from all posts in 1977 and spent the rest of his largely fit life in composition — and horse riding. Among his many choral works, his setting of Lionel Johnson’s 1895 poem, The Fair Chivalry, commissioned for the Southwell Diocesan Choral Festival of 1949, is known and loved by choirs everywhere. He also wrote much instrumental music and even an opera. For the Southwell Choir of my day he wrote a set of beautiful boys’ voices responses, which are regularly sung on Tuesday evenings.

In his last years, Robert suffered from blindness, a misfortune which left him unable to enjoy music any more because he could neither play nor compose it. His swift passing on 30 December 2006 after a heart attack was a merciful release for him and for Mary, who had cheerfully tended to his every need for seventy years.

I owe Robert a great deal: principally the inspiration of ‘his’ psalter which Sir David Lumsden had taken with him to New College Oxford in 1959 and where I was to play from it daily from 1971-74 as Organ Scholar, using it again as Assistant Organist (1983-89) at Rochester Cathedral where Ashfield had taken it (improved) in 1956. But also from his support and friendship (in retirement) in Rochester, and his delight in my move to Southwell: a delight which led him to give me his copy of James’ "Southwell Schools" an historic record of the choristers, organists and schoolmasters of the Minster and its school from its origins in the twelfth century to 1927 (its year of publication). Generous to the last. May Robert rest in peace and rise in glory.

Paul Hale

Rector Chori, Southwell Minster


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