John Byrt obituary

Other lives: Composer, conductor and music director at East Devon College for more than 20 years

My husband, John Byrt, who has died aged 80 of Covid-19, was a conductor, scholar, composer, author and teacher. For more than 20 years he was music director at East Devon College in Tiverton. Among his compositions was a carol, All and Some, which was performed in the annual festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge.

John was born in Bristol, son of Clare Byrt, a master cooper, and his wife, Marion (nee Curtis). At Clifton college, he was a pupil of the one-armed organist Douglas Fox; he became a fellow of the Royal College of Organists, then he read music at Oxford as an organ scholar of St John’s College, tutored by the composer Edmund Rubbra. As a junior research fellow he completed a DPhil on the music of CPE Bach in 1969.

John was deeply involved in the university’s musical life, and in 1964 succeeded László Heltay as conductor of the Schola Cantorum, turning an outstanding student choir into what was arguably the best in the country. Alumni included Dame Emma Kirkby, Andrew Parrott and Dame Liz Forgan. The choir’s performance of John Taverner’s Corona Spinea in Christ Church Cathedral in 1966 was subsequently recorded for SagaPan records, inspiring the general revival of the large-scale choral works of the 16th-century composer.

At about the same time, John developed an interest in the unnotated jazz-like swung rhythm of the French baroque. In 1968 he mounted a demonstration performance of Handel’s Dixit Dominus in the Sheldonian theatre, recordings of which remain in the National Sound Archive. He eventually wrote a book on the subject, An Unequal Music (2016).

John Byrt’s All and Some, one of his carol compositions

After Oxford, John conducted the leading early-music group Musica Reservata for a few years before becoming music director of East Devon College in 1974. Here he also directed the East Devon choral society, turning it into a force to be reckoned with, and founded several specialist early music groups. Highlights of his Tiverton years were a mammoth concert of unknown “West Gallery” carols for Radio 3 in 1994 and, in 2000, productions in Tiverton of the six great proto-operas of the Florentine Intermedi of 1589, with Kirkby among the soloists.

He left East Devon College in 1995 and devoted himself to his own music, to conducting a choral group, Exeter Chorale, and to helping me on my allotment.

All and Some was sung at King’s College in the annual Christmas service in 1969 and the advent service in 1990. John’s last commissioned composition was another carol, The Offering of the Eastern Kings, in 2018. On Christmas morning 2002 he wrote a delightful setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen for the family to sing – as it was every Christmas Day until the last, when he was in hospital.

John is survived by his sons, Simon and Matthew, from his first marriage to Linda Gosling, by his stepdaughter, Meredith, and by me.

Celia Boden

The GuardianTramp

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