Thomas Armstrong (conductor)

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Memorial in Exeter Cathedral

Sir Thomas Armstrong (15 June 1898 – 26 June 1994) was an English organist, conductor, composer, educationalist and adjudicator. He had a substantial influence on British music for well over half a century. From 1955 to 1968 he was principal of the Royal Academy of Music. He was knighted in 1958 for his services to music.


Thomas Henry Wait Armstrong was born in Peterborough, the son of A.E. Armstrong, music teacher, organist of St. Augustine's Church, Woodston, and conductor of the local orchestra and operatic society. Thomas became a choirboy at the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace from 1907 to 1910 where he sang at the funeral of King Edward VII in Westminster Abbey in 1910. From 1911 to 1915 he attended The King's School, Peterborough. During this time he took lessons from his father and practised on the organ at Woodston every day before school, paying a boy a shilling each time for pumping the bellows. After a short period as organist of Thorney Abbey he became articled to Haydn Keeton, organist of Peterborough Cathedral. His fellow apprentice was Malcolm Sargent, the future conductor, who became a lifelong friend. James Blades, the future percussionist, was a chorister there at the time. Armstrong served as assistant organist in Peterborough for a year before being elected organ scholar of Keble College, Oxford in 1916.

His studies were interrupted by service in France during World War I. After the war he completed his studies in Oxford, studying music with Professor Sir Hugh Allen and organ under Dr Henry Ley at Christ Church. After going down from Oxford in 1922 he briefly took up an appointment at Manchester Cathedral (assistant organist), during which time he worked with Sir Hamilton Harty. The following year he was appointed organist of St. Peter's Church, Eaton Square, London. During this period he studied at the Royal College of Music with Holst and Vaughan Williams, the latter becoming a lifelong friend. During this time he played the piano in cinemas for silent films, thus developing his skills as an improviser. From 1928–1933 he was organist of Exeter Cathedral. During this period he was Director of Music of University College of the South-West. In 1929 he was awarded the Oxford DMus. He returned to Oxford in 1933 as organist of Christ Church in succession to William Harris who had been appointed to St George's Chapel, Windsor. Armstrong immersed himself in the musical life of the town, teaching, examining and conducting the Oxford Bach Choir and Orchestral Society. His career reached a highlight in 1955 when he was appointed Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, a post from which he retired in 1968.


Armstrong was a born teacher and his influence is apparent in the book of tributes which was published after his death. He is remembered by generations as an inspiring conductor and skilled organist. Even when quite infirm in his old age he would accompany on the organ with great sensitivity and alertness. He was a widely sought-after adjudicator at music festivals, with a thirty-year association with the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, where he drove regularly to adjudicate until he was ninety. The success of the festival owed much to his dedication and leadership.


Although his other activities left him little time for composing, he composed 25 anthems, carols, services and a large number of songs, many of them remaining unpublished. The ambitious secular works composed for his doctorate remained unperformed until after his death, when they were recorded on a Chandos CD which brought together several of his best works. His musical roots lie with Parry and Elgar, and the music of Vaughan Williams and Delius had a profound influence on his style. Two of Armstrong's compositions remain part of the musical fabric of the Church of England to this day. Firstly, a descant to the hymn tune 'Forest Green' sung at Christmas to the words "O little Town of Bethlehem" and the Te Deum Laudamus in F Major, originally written for Paston Grammar School in North Walsham, Norfolk, but now regarded as a leader in its genre for its innovative structure and compositional devices.[citation needed]


Armstrong was Senior Adviser to the Delius Trust, Chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society, a member of the Countess of Munster Trust, a member of the board of directors of the Royal Opera House, a Governor of the Old Vic-Sadler's Wells Foundation, Chairman of the Governors of the Central Tutorial School for Young Musicians (founded in 1962), now renamed the Purcell School. He was Chairman of the Musicians Benevolent Fund, and in 1981 was elected an Honorary Student of Christ Church, Oxford (this was the equivalent of a "Fellow" in other colleges). He was made Honorary DMus of Edinburgh University. He was knighted in 1958.

Private life[edit]

In 1926 Armstrong married Hester Draper, daughter of the Rev. W. H. Draper who was Master of the Temple. They were married for 52 years and had two children, one of whom followed a career which took him to the top of the civil service, becoming Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. When he retired in 1968 they moved to the village of Newton Blossomville in Buckinghamshire, close to the Bedfordshire border. Here he transformed the humble village choir, which won several prizes at local music festivals.[citation needed] After the death of his wife, he moved with Rosemary Rapaport, his former colleague from the Royal Academy of Music, to Olney, just a few miles away, where they shared a cottage. There he played at the local Roman Catholic church until he became too frail.


Cultural offices
Preceded by
Ernest Bullock
Organist and Master of the Choristers of Exeter Cathedral
Succeeded by
Alfred William Wilcock