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John Dillistone – International Organist

Max Cashback

‘One of the worst moments of my life was when I saw the water that had poured into the organ at St. Mary’s Church during a severe storm,’ says John Dillistone who was the organist there between 1976 and 1986. ‘Barry Stone was due to give a recital and he phoned me to say the organ was flooded. I rushed down there to find that the leading had blown off the roof and there was water everywhere. The organ was completely unplayable. We had to cancel the performance. But once it had dried out only superficial repairs were needed despite a certain amount of warping, because it was very well built in the first place.

John, a familiar figure around the town, chose to live in Godmanchester when he took up a teaching post as Head of Art at St.Peter’s Comprehensive School in Huntingdon in 1967. Many people will recall that he was soon writing music reviews for the Hunts Post that were illustrated by the most delightful cartoons of the musicians. Drawing is one of his main pursuits as he regards it as the basis of all art. But it was while he was at St.Peter’s that the late Rev.Paul Bennett, the Head of Music suggested that John, already an accomplished organist, took his professional qualifications.
‘It was hard work,’ admits John. ‘I was all right on the practical side. I’d been playing the organ at home in Brighton since I was a schoolboy but the theory was hard. We used to spend two hours every Friday evening on theory at his home in Upwood.’

‘We liked Godmanchester because it has a strong sense of history,’ he went on. ‘Then when I moved on to The Leys School in 1971 it was still convenient to live here.’

Many people remember John as a driving force behind the campaign to save Plantagenet House in Earning Street. For six years its future was in doubt until architect Tony Sursham bought it with the insight to preserve its 17th Century character. He was able to restore it and bring it into a habitable state. John designed the plaque on the front commemorating the conclusion of the restoration in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and presented it to Tony. Together they had devised the inscription in old French, which Edmund Plantagenet would have spoken. It reads ‘In God Trust…To Friends Welcome.

John became organist at St..Mary’s in 1976.

‘When I came it was a vintage instrument that was very little changed from when it was built by Bryceson and Ellis in 1857,’ he says.

He oversaw the first complete restoration of the instrument carried out by Norman Hall and Sons of Cambridge. John gave up his post at St.Mary’s due to being away so much giving recitals as well as doing his full time job but now helps out at Alconbury Church. He managed to run his two careers in parallel enjoying the position as Head of Art for almost thirty years but since retiring from the Leys his career as an international recitalist has flourished. Responsible for the international recital series at All Saints Huntingdon, he gives an annual recital there himself and practises there.
‘It’s a wonderful organ. The original pipework goes back to Schultz, it was rebuilt in 1890 and moved from the other end when Gilbert Scott refurbished the church but it still has strong hints of German sound. It was judiciously restored seven years ago with strict adherence to its original specification.
‘One of my most thrilling moments was giving a recital in the National Cathedral of Washington. It’s the sixth biggest cathedral in the world. You can almost hear the organ from here. I played the variations on the Bach Chorale, a version of Nun danket alle Gott – Now thank we all our God – by the American composer Virgil Fox.

And St.Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent was also a great honour. It has five manuals (keyboards) the top two are 16th century and the other three 1937 when it was restored.’

He tries to match the music with the venue. For a recital in Rochester Cathedral in May he included two pieces by Percy Whitlock who was assistant organist at Rochester.

‘He was an important twentieth century composer but sadly he died in 1946 when he was only forty-three’ John says. ‘I ended the programme with music by Henry Smart, the Victorian composer. In October I shall play it again at St.Pancras Parish Church where he was the organist.’

John’s still keeping up his art career by teaching calligraphy, which is one of his specialities, and interior design at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge. Over the years his work has appeared on posters and is now in demand for official charters and other documents. He’s also illustrated a delightful children’s book The Knight and the Candle Flame, by Jan Arriens, who lives near Cambridge, that relates the tale of a knight returning from the Holy Land while trying to keep the sacred flame alight.

‘Art and music are equally important to me,’ he says. ‘We live in a world that needs the arts more than ever and I have a great urge to share them with others.’

With his pictures enchanting the young generation and his first CD, the Bay Area 1998, a recital tour of San Francisco, gripping the older ones, he’s certainly doing his best to reach all ages. But he doesn’t stop there. His future recitals include return invitations to Montpellier Cathedral, in France and The Lüdwigskirche, Saarbrücken, in Germany. Although he’s truly an international organist he doesn’t rest on his laurels and can often be heard practising his notes in All Saints, Huntingdon.

Jean Gardner

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