Martin How: organist who devoted his life to church music

DAVID MORGAN pays tribute to the emeritus organist at Croydon Minster, who has died, aged 91

A lifetime in music: Martin How, 1931-2022

Martin How, who died on Monday, aged 91, spent a lifetime working in music, much of it with the Royal School of Church Music when based at Addington Palace. He was awarded the MBE in 1993.

In a conversation we had a few years ago, he told me how very different his life would have been if it wasn’t for two particular, influential teachers: Miss Keene and Miss Lax. Both could be described as being “ahead of their time”.

The former worked in a dame school in Brighton, the latter in Holm Park prep school in Moffat, Dumfriesshire. Neither knew the other nor did they ever meet. Both were dedicated professionals who looked to do the very best for the pupils in their charge.  They were nurturers and developers, not pen-pushers or bureaucrats.

Little did Miss Keene realise that a chord sequence she wrote for a six-year-old pupil in response to his request to be given some chords to play would still be remembered and played by him 70 years later. Miss Lax had no idea that when she wrote for a third time to persuade some sceptical parents to let their son resume piano lessons, the positive response which eventually arrived was to be a pivotal moment for a scholar who was to go on and spend a career in music.

These are the sort of teachers that every parent would like their children to meet in school. They were educationalists who, when they saw potential, would go that extra mile for their pupils. In doing so, they helped shape Martin How’s future.

Repton School: Martin How won a music scholarship when aged 13

Because of his mother’s ill-health and death when he was just six, Martin and his sister Ruth were sent to a boarding dame school in Brighton.

The second was his father’s appointment as the Bishop of Glasgow, resulting in the family moving to Scotland. It was during this period before starting at his new school that Martin gave up practising the piano. Thus, Martin’s father and step-mother were sceptical when they received his letter asking to resume piano lessons. It was the persistence of Miss Lax who persuaded both of them to have a change of heart.

Years later, Martin would tell me that he felt that this was the turning point in his whole musical education. More than 80 years later, he could still hear the clear tones of Miss Lax insisting that he did his practice on the piano.

The prep school How attended also supplied the choir for the local episcopal church, “The Tin Tabernacle” as he described it to me, and it was for the choir that How composed his first real tune. This was a single chant. It might have been simple, but it worked. This is a theme which was highlighted in his successes with church choirs in his later career.

From Holm Park, at the age of 13 How was sent to Repton, one of the leading public schools in the country, where he was awarded a music scholarship in his second term. This was a school with a fine musical tradition. At Repton, How was able to achieve a notable musical ambition.

While living in Glasgow, his main source of music was to listen to the gramophone with its old 78rpm records. Martin’s favourite was a recording of Mendelssohn’s “Hear My Prayer”, sung by Ernest Lough, a famous boy soprano. In his first term at Repton, How saw that “Hear My Prayer” was to be performed and soloists were required. With his voice not yet broken, he auditioned and was chosen to sing the very piece he had listened to in his own front room in Glasgow and had longed to sing in public. The chapel at Repton was to be that venue where his voice could be heard aloud!

One aspect of music that How especially appreciated at Repton was congregational singing on a big scale. The settings of the canticles for the Sunday services contained special parts for the congregation and he began to understand the impact of this sort of music making.

As he was nearing the end of time at Repton, young How was unsure of what to do. His father, having researched the rather complicated and not-very-well-advertised ways of appointing organ scholars , found the colleges which were seeking such a person. How duly started his three-year position at Clare College, Cambridge.

The enormity of his task hit him on day one. There was no handover from the previous incumbent to show him the ropes. He was solely responsible for the music in the chapel. He found a noticeboard and duly pinned up the first request for a choir practice so he could have an idea of the resources at his disposal.

A benevolent and tactful Old Reptonian immediately came to Martin’s room and said, “I say old chap, if you don’t mind my saying so, we normally spell choir practice with a ‘C’!”

“I never was much of an academic,” How said as he recounted the tale.

Receiving much support from the college dean, Rev Charlie Moule, an eminent New Testament scholar, How came to realise that he had other gifts to offer as well as his music. The modern word for this is “outreach”.

How made connections with local schools, had advertisements placed in local newspapers, all to build up his group of singers and musicians. This trademark of involving and motivating a whole range of singers in his work was of particular importance throughout his professional career and into his retirement.

He also spent much time running for the University cross-country team and nearly got a “Blue”, at a time when among the leading student runners were the likes of Chris Brasher, Roger Bannister and Chris Chattaway – a trio who between them would go on to work together to run the first sub-4min mile, win Olympic gold medals and launch the London Marathon…

College setting: Addington Palace once the home of the Royal School of Church Music

After leaving Clare, How did two years National Service in the Royal Army Service Corps, where he was awarded a commission. He often said that the army training was useful in so many ways. He then worked for the Royal School of Church Music at Addington Palace, where he was choirmaster with the students and the three boys’ choirs.

After three years there, How returned to Cambridge in 1960 to complete his degree, with a year studying Theology. This was his one year of intense study with not much music. He found it deeply rewarding in terms of his personal understanding and faith.

How returned to the Royal School of Church Music in 1964, following a three-year stint as choirmaster at Grimsby Parish Church, where he started the “Travelling Choir” which visited churches in the county on Saturdays for demonstrations and special services.

He was to remain with the RSCM in one capacity or another until his retirement in 1993. It was during the latter years with them that HOw composed music for the huge amount of work he was doing throughout the south of England as their commissioner.

How described it as “composing little tunes” for “little choirs” with “limited resources.”

Teacher and composer: Martin How spent much of his life encouraging others in their love of music

That he was so successful was down to three things. First, not having perfect pitch he knew that if he couldn’t sing his own melodies and harmony lines well, then others couldn’t either. Second, his style of working to inform and motivate young singers via the Chorister Training Scheme was appreciated and recognised by all. Third he realised that by bringing in the “little choirs” to sing with larger resources the singers would be inspired and raise their own standards accordingly.

This was done mostly through One Day Choir events, choir visits and courses. The number of choristers trained and influenced by Martin How must run into thousands.

After his retirement, How wrote four Seasonal Cantatas, several piano suites, of which he was particularly pleased, and a series of organ pieces called “Gospel Colours”.

“I am not that great with rhythms or counterpoint but rather better, perhaps, at melody and harmony where my clichés are well known.” He had a book of organ music, Organ Album, which he composed earlier, to which he constantly returned.

There is a story that the excellent vintage Broadwood piano that he played almost every day in the Minster was once owned by Charles Lloyd, the organist of Christ Church Oxford. Lloyd and Basil Harwood were the two directors of the cathedral choir when his father sung there as a young chorister. The picture of Martin How playing the piano around which his father may well have stood singing in Oxford is such a poignant one.

But then much of what Martin achieved in music has a poignancy about it.

Here was a humble and sincere man who encouraged others to love music and to participate in it. His words, as well as his music, have been both comforting and challenging to a great many people. His own faith was a constant source of strength throughout his life.
“I have been very lucky,” Martin said as we came to the end of the interview. “God moves in mysterious ways.”

  • A Requiem Mass to remember Martin How will be held in Croydon Minster at a date to be announced

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1 Response to Martin How: organist who devoted his life to church music

  1. Glass of wine!!! Top man

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