(01224) 485988 Scottish Registered Charity No. SC008157 © 2017 St Machar's Cathedral The Cathedral Church of St Machar The Chanonry Aberdeen SCOTLAND AB24 1RQ

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SYDNEY TOWNSEND (1891 – 1893)

Little is known of St Machar’s first post-Reformation organist, but he came to the Cathedral from St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Aberdeen and was selected for the post by Dr. Albert L. Peace of Glasgow Cathedral, who performed the second public recital on the new Willis organ and was given charge of the selection of organist candidates.

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GEORGE C. DAWSON  (1893 – 1916)              At the organ

George C. Dawson, who died in 1916, was well known in Aberdeen as an organist, pianist and music teacher.  Greatly loved by the congregation at St Machar’s, he may have hailed from Durham, where his funeral was held.

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ARTHUR PIRIE (1916 – 1920)

Arthur Pirie was best remembered as music teacher during the 1940s and 1950s at the nearby Powis School, later Powis Academy and now St Machar Academy, St Machar Drive.  He was at the start of his musical career when he succeeded George C. Dawson at the organ during the difficult days of the first World War.

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MARSHALL GILCHRIST, L.R.A.M, A.R.C.M. (1920 - 1938)


Marshall Gilchrist arrived from Biggar, Lanarkshire,  immediately establishing himself as an outstanding and prolific recitalist.  The organ was by this time failing rapidly and Marshall Gilchrist oversaw its rebuilding and relocation to its present position as part of the Cathedral’s restoration in 1928.  It thereby became the premier recital instrument in the North East of Scotland and was frequently heard on the air in the hands of Mr Gilchrist.  As greatly loved as George Dawson had been, Marshall Gilchrist finally retired to Biggar but remained active in organist circles, being President of Edinburgh Society of Organists in 1941-1942.

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JOHN  B. DALBY (1938 – 1954)


Such was the fame of St Machar’s and its organ from radio broadcasting that on Marshall Gilchrist’s departure John Dalby, a native of Silverdale, Yorkshire, was attracted from his position at the great Schultze organ of St Bartholomew’s, Armley, Leeds, to travel north and take up the post as the Cathedral’s fifth organist.  He kept the organ on the air until the outbreak of the second World War, returning to St Machar’s at the end of hostilities.  An outstanding musical educationalist, he left in 1954 to become Organiser of Music for Aberdeen schools, in which capacity he was one of the most prominent and respected musical figures in the North East of Scotland.  On his retirement he returned to Silverdale but kept up contact with St Machar’s via his colleague and successor David Murray.  He returned to the Cathedral for the last time in 1973 to give the opening recital on the organ after its reconstruction by Mander.

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DAVID MURRAY (1954 - 1981)


A native of Blairgowrie, David served his musical 'apprenticeship' during the 1920s as organist of churches there and in such comparatively humble occupations as piano accompanist for silent films in a Dundee cinema. He moved to the north of Scotland during the late 1940s, taking up a school teaching post in Turriff and becoming organist of St Ninian's Church there. In 1952 he came to Aberdeen as organist of the South Church (now St Mark's), Rosemount Viaduct, and in 1954 he was appointed to St Machar's as successor to John B. Dalby, an outstanding musician and educationalist who became Organiser Of Music for Aberdeen's education authority and who was for many years David's good friend and close colleague.


At that time David Murray was teacher of music at Aberdeen Grammar School, but in 1959 he took up the post of head music teacher at St Margaret's School For Girls where he was held in great affection and spent many happy years until his retirement in 1974. He had a long association with the music at Haddo House, principally as continuo player and before that as trainer of the local section of Haddo House Choral Society during his Turriff days. During the 1960s he was conductor of Aberdeen Bach Choir and served on the Music Committee for the third edition (1973) of the Church Hymnary to which he contributed some harmonisations. He was also responsible for the commissioning of contributions from Kenneth Leighton and other composers working in Scotland. At St Machar's he tirelessly built on John Dalby's work, furthering choral and organ music and developing a choir which was among the foremost in Scotland, with a repertoire of music not generally heard outwith the cathedrals and major parish churches south of the border. He travelled extensively on the Continent, making the acquaintance of such renowned organists as Flor Peeters and André Marchal who were among many recitalists of international standing that he presented at St Machar's, with expenses often defrayed from his own pocket. His own recital work was almost exclusively at St Machar's, with an interesting and adventurous choice of repertoire, much of which was contemporary - at the International Association of Organists' 1965 Conference he gave the first performance in Scotland of the Passacaglia by the Swiss composer Frank Martin.


Though best known as an organist and choirmaster David also took a deep and active interest in the study of organ building and of the history and construction of other keyboard instruments, particularly the clavichord. Unknown to many, his musical refinement was paralleled by great talent as a craftsman in wood and other materials. Whereas many clavichords and harpsichords are now constructed from kits he made three clavichords in their entirety, a matter of justifiable pride. He was in quite some demand as advisor on the provision, restoration and rebuilding of organs, and many other churches benefited from his knowledge.


His musical craft extended to composition, writing a large number of pieces for the young singers at St Margaret's, while for St Machar's he wrote descants, carols and other choral settings which still remain in the repertoire. It is hoped that through the good offices of the Friends Of St Machar's, of which David was a prominent member, this music may soon be published.


David's lasting contribution to the music at St Machar's may also be seen and heard in the highly successful rebuilding, in 1973, of the Cathedral's superb Willis organ. His choice of organ builder to carry out this work was the London firm of Noel P Mander, which was not well known in Scotland but was noted for its sympathetic treatment of Willis work. Through the combined expertise of David Murray and Noel Mander, the Cathedral organ retains its distinctive Willis character while possessing a new dimension through carefully matched additions.


After retiring from St Margaret's David 'commuted' to St Machar's at weekends from a new home to which he and his wife Jean (formerly teacher of piano and recorder at St Margaret's) had moved in Burrelton, near Coupar Angus - a picturesque spot with a view over the Sidlaw Hills. On his final retirement from the Cathedral at the end of 1981 he was made Organist Emeritus and was still often to be seen at services and musical events. Before failing eyesight severely limited his activities, he also derived great reward and satisfaction from being called upon to tune and maintain the harpsichords and other instruments in the extensive collection belonging to Aberdeen University. He was subsequently made a Master of the University.


David Murray's lifetime was in many ways devoted to music. Outwith his school teaching he did not have many formal pupils, but the many to whom he was friend and mentor may count themselves as his students. One of Aberdeen’s best loved and most respected musicians and teachers, David Murray died on 23 December 2003 at the age of 91.

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JAMES GEORGE LOBBAN MA (1981 - 2006)


James Lobban devoted his entire life to the development of music in his native Aberdeen. A tall ascetic figure who occupied a conductor’s podium so often that few concerts seemed complete without him, he boundlessly enthused about his subject, persuading choirs and orchestras to strive that bit more in the furtherance of musical excellence. Latterly virtually every concert he conducted posted a “house full” notice.


The fact that his face was rarely seen by the audience was a theme continued in a specially commissioned painting in 2004 of Aberdeen Bach Choir at a concert in their home venue of St Machar’s Cathedral. Dominating the work in oils of the 130-strong orchestra and choir is James, rear view as always, in formal dress. It rather summed up a man whose generosity of talent was curiously matched by an avowed shunning of publicity and personal attention.


His exceptionally quiet demeanour was matched by a rare line in dry wit. When at one dress rehearsal a section of “the Bach” failed to make a good entry, he rounded on them: “That widna knock stew aff a bap”.


Teacher, performer, examiner, conductor of the Bach Choir for 37 years and director music at the city’s St Machar’s Cathedral for a quarter of a century, Lobban’s musical direction shone early. He made plain that music was to be his career, somewhat to the initial surprise of his parents, Aberdeen couple George Lobban and Christine Calder. But he prospered at Aberdeen Grammar School, played the organ at 17 in Handel’s “Messiah”, and in 1964 graduated from Aberdeen University in music.


Already noted as a pianist, organist, accompanist and bass singer, he formed working partnerships well. An organ master class with Dr Francis Jackson at St Machar’s led to an introduction in 1963 to Graham Wiseman, then president of Aberdeen & District Organists Association. Two years later, he was Wiseman’s assistant in music at Inverurie Academy, and within six months, both took the school choir to the Edinburgh Festival. The following year he gave his first organ recital at St Machar’s, and then followed two tours as accompanist to the tenor Wilfred Brown.


First contact with the Bach Choir came at Christmas 1965, and within three months Lobban performed the solos in a recital of works by Monteverdi, Buxtehude and Howells, with his teaching boss Graham Wiseman conducting. It was a performance in which not for the first time Lobban showed his ear for perfect pitch, and he proved a natural candidate to take over the conductorship in 1969 at just 26.


Head teacher of music at Hazlehead Academy for the past three decades and producer of many pupil productions, James took the same diligence to examining as he took to teaching, and in 1987 had become principal examiner in music for the Scottish Examination Board.


At Aberdeen Grammar, a classmate was Martin Dalby, son of the music academic John Dalby, and who went to make a career as a composer. In 1985, the Bach marked its 30th anniversary by having Lobban commission Martin for a piece.


Order mattered in James’s life, from his own immaculate appearance to the arrangement of his desk in the music room, and the presentation of his back garden. The same fastidiousness showed through in earlier days in the preparation of his Boys’ Brigade uniform and cricket whites. As a former pupil, he turned out for Aberdeen Grammar 1st IX as a notable fast bowler.


James Lobban fell victim to cancer in 2006 and died on 10 November at the age of 64. His legacy to his native city is a tradition of commissioning new works by contemporary composers, and the establishment with the Bach Choir of a music scholarship as to assist talented young musicians from north-east Scotland with tuition fees.


From an obituary by Gordon Casely.

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MICHAEL THOMSON B.Mus.

 Acting Organist     (2006 – 2007)

 Director Of Music  (2007 -  2016)


Born in Aberdeen in 1949, Michael Thomson has been associated with music at St Machar’s for many years.  He commenced education at Aberdeen Grammar School while David Murray was a member of the music staff,  progressing later to formal music studies under Donald Hawksworth and James Hunter with organ tuition from Richard Galloway and Frederic Fea.  Under the mentorship of David Murray he became a choir member, playing his first services at St Machar’s while still in his teens.

 From 1967 to 1970 he studied music at Edinburgh University under David Kimbell, Sidney Newman, Kenneth Leighton, Leon Coates, Colin Kingsley and Peter Williams, with organ studies continuing under Dr Dennis Townhill at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.  Graduating as Bachelor of Music with specialisation in the music of the Baroque era, he spent a year in Manchester, returning to Aberdeen and to St Machar’s where he performed deputy and other work until David Murray’s retirement in late 1981.  On  James Lobban’s appointment to the post of Organist he became the Cathedral’s first appointed Assistant Organist.  Following James Lobban’s illness, he was appointed Acting Organist then in April 2007 Director of Music, with overall responsibility for all aspects of the Cathedral’s musical life.  

Active in various areas of music in the course of his career, Michael Thomson has given organ recitals in Scotland and in France. In addition to his usual weekly commitments he is responsible for the introduction and planning of the Cathedral’s annual Festival of Sacred Music.

Michael fell victim to cancer and died in 2016.

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DR. ROGER B. WILLIAMS, M.B.E., D.Mus.(Aberdeen), Ph.D (Cantab.), B.Mus.(Wales) FRCO, FTCL, ARCM.

Music Director and Organist (2016 - )


Born in Swansea, Dr Roger Williams graduated BMus with honours from University College Cardiff before gaining a PhD at King's College Cambridge for research on the early works of Schoenberg.


Dr Williams spent eight years in London as a free-lance conductor, singer, organist, harpsichordist and composer.   He held various church appointments whilst also running a small opera company, singing with the BBC Singers and performing at major London concert venues.  


He was, briefly, Head of the Chiswick Evening Music Centre and Lecturer at the West London Institute. In 1978 Dr Williams took up the post of Lecturer in the Music Department at Aberdeen University, being later appointed Senior Lecturer and Head of Department.  


During the 1980s he conducted the Aberdeen section of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and was for five years Chorus Master to the Scottish National Orchestra (now RSNO), working with many of today’s greatest conductors.


He has an active recording career, and has given recitals at King’s College, Cambridge, Durham and Guildford cathedrals, New Orleans, Clermont Ferrand and Entrevaux in France, St. Stephan’s Cathedral, Vienna, the Priory Church of Bolton Abbey. Yorkshire, and at Union Chapel, Islington.


Until his retirement in 2010, Dr Williams was Master of Chapel and Ceremonial Music and Organist at Aberdeen University, sharing his time with teaching in the Music Department and the following year was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of the University of Aberdeen.


He continues to teach and work in Aberdeen, where he has enjoyed a long association with the Haddo House Choral & Operatic Society. He is currently researching the music collections of Scottish castles and country houses. Dr Williams was made MBE in the Honours list of 2009. For the last 15 years he has organized the highly successful Lunchbreak series of 35 concerts for the City of Aberdeen. As Music Advisor to the National Trust for Scotland he is currently researching the holdings of musical instruments and music collections in their properties.

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Organists of St Machar’s

Sydney Townsend (1891 – 1893)

George C. Dawson  (1893 – 1916)

Arthur Pirie (1916 – 1920)

Marshall Gilchrist, L.R.A.M, A.R.C.M. (1920 - 1938)

John B. Dalby (1938 – 1954)

David Murray (1954 - 1981)

James George Lobban MA (1981 - 2006)

Michael Thomson B.Mus. (2006 – 2016)
Dr Roger Williams MBE (2016 - )