A Tribute to John Underhill




 When John took over as Conductor of Seaford Choral Society, the choir was languishing with a membership of two dozen members or so. His eleven years at its helm saw the numbers rise to some 120 singers – no mean achievement by any standards – and exceptional on the part of someone who had no formal music qualifications.

However, his knowledge and understanding did embrace a lifetime’s experience of playing piano and singing, first as a boy treble in his local church in Birmingham and subsequently with his fine baritone voice in the small professional choirs of two famous London churches, St Bride’s and St Marylebone.

John’s parents were not musicians, but they knew how to keep him occupied! When he was about 10, they suggested he join the local choir for “something to do”. At that time, the choir in Aston Parish Church in Birmingham had about 30 boys from local schools (those were the days!) and, from the start, the Choirmaster recognised John’s potential. He encouraged John to take piano lessons and, before long, John was also having regular singing lessons and taking the solo line in Mendelssohn’s ‘Hear My Prayer’ – or anything else he was asked to sing.

At the age of 18, while still at school, not only did John gain his Grade 8 on the piano, but he also won first prize in the Birmingham Grammar Schools Music Festival. This award gave him a solo spot in the Music Festival Concert given in Birmingham Town Hall. The programme shows that John P. Underhill from Handsworth Grammar School, performed Vaughan Williams’ ‘Songs of Travel’, accompanied by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with a certain David Willcocks conducting the performance. Not a bad line-up for a beginner!

National Service followed, memorable only for the good friends he made. He discovered a group of like-minded musicians, and they sang and performed together, made records and also founded their own club, ‘The Order of The Inverted Beer Mug’, complete with specially printed stationery which was used to arrange their annual reunions! The group continued to meet every year, until they, or their wives, thought it was time to grow up!

When John moved to London, following National Service, he began taking lessons from Ellis Keeler as a part-time student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. These lessons broadened both his knowledge of music and his technique. When he sang ‘Why do the Nations?’ in Handel’s Messiah, his ability to sing those long phrases, without taking a breath, became almost legendary. And so, when he read that St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street was looking for a baritone chorister for its professional choir, he took the plunge, auditioned, and much to his amazement and delight, was offered the post.

It was whilst he was singing at St Bride’s Church that he met Val, his wife. Gordon Reynolds, the Director of Music at her teacher training college was also the Director of Music at St Bride’s and, ever ready to jump at the chance of providing useful experience for both singer and pianist, he arranged for them to work together, then sat back and waited for something to happen. Which it did! And id 1969, John and Val were married in the beautiful setting of St Bride’s Church.

John continued to hold down a full-time job as an Insurance and Risk Manager, first with Hawker Siddeley Aviation then with the National Bus Company, and finally in the world of merchant banking. In every case, he either had a very sympathetic boss, or was able to arrange things so that his job did not interfere with his singing commitments! He became a regular soloist with various choral societies, and he and Val were invited to give song recitals to music societies, often combining with friends to sing Victorian and Edwardian parlour songs.

Their three children, Christopher, Miriam and Elizabeth, were born within three years of each other. Yet another achievement for all concerned!

And then, in 1985, John was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. Although he made a full recovery, the radiotherapy treatment affected his vocal chords and, having made up his mind to no longer sing as a soloist, he returned to another great love, that of conducting. Happily for us, this coincided with the family moving to Seaford, where John could benefit from the fresh salty air.

During the past 25 years, John has been responsible for the Cowbeech Chorale, The Heritage Singers, a choir he and Val established in Eastbourne, the Seaford Community Choir, Seaford Choral Society and The Peacehaven Players. The latter were a newly established amateur musical theatre group where John coaxed singers and non-singers alike into performing shows like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Kiss Me Kate’, ‘Oliver’ and ‘Hello Dolly’.

There was also a memorable Sing-Along performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Trial by Jury’, where, much to everyone’s enjoyment, the conductor dressed as a teddy boy, and a similarly attired cast was accompanied by some very enthusiastic audience participation.

In his time with Seaford Choral Society, he introduced the members to many exciting new works and also instituted the Almost Instant concerts which take place each year in St Leonard’s Church. On Good Friday, anyone can come and join the choir to sing well-known works with a minimum of rehearsal. The chosen work this year is the beautiful Faure’s Requiem which was a particular favourite of John’s and this performance will be dedicated to his memory.

John’s ability to demonstrate what was required, his patience and boundless enthusiasm persuaded even the most reluctant choir member to at least try and produce the goods. His natural musicianship and good humour eased tensions before performances and we all just wanted to do our best for him.

When he retired as Conductor of Seaford Choral Society, he continued to direct the U3A Recorder Group and also conducted the U3A’s Hotch-Potch Orchestra. Who could forget their unique rendition of Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ , when John distributed paper bags to the audience with instructions to blow them up and burst them when directed, to imitate the cannon-fire in the original score? Absolutely wonderful!

More recently, John had been investigating many different types of music, including Russian opera and South American classical music, through his participation with WEA classes. These classes really filled his time and gave him a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. He had an endless interest in all types of music and a thirst for learning about all manner of things which left his family quite breathless! The shelves in the Underhill household are now bulging with the many books, recordings and DVD’s which he bought in his quest for knowledge.

John may have been taken from us, but he has left quite a legacy.

March 2015