The news was such that no one hopes to receive or pass along. Wednesday morning, upon returning from a successful European recital tour, and after a day of feeling 'not well', John Gavin Scott (1956-2015), director of music at St. Thomas Church, New York City, and one of the world's most highly regarded musicians, organists, and choral conductors, died of cardiac arrest at the age of 59.
This man touched millions, through his leadership of the choirs of St. Paul's Cathedral, London (1990-2004) and St. Thomas Church, NYC (2004-2015), the performances given with them and enjoyed during services and concerts, and through recordings and broadcasts. Any church musician worth the name, in any English-speaking parish anywhere in the world, laments this untimely death.
John Scott first appeared in the United States in 1980, in concerts with the Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. He had just turned 24 and, as sub-organist, was accompanying the ensemble in a week-long residency in Minnesota during a national convention of the American Guild of Organists. Recordings of that week's activities, including John's accompaniments and occasional solos, were key ingredients in the first 'pilot' series of PIPEDREAMS broadcasts that aired early in 1982.
• AGO 1980
John's work, as organist and choir director, appeared regularly thereafter in the PIPEDREAMS schedule.
I have enjoyed John's talents (and friendship) since those early days, marveled at the scope of his intuition and accomplishment, and delighted in his ability to wrest transcendent harmony from his singers. And to hear him move from the little Taylor & Boody pipe organ in the gallery at St. Thomas, playing Baroque repertoire in adroit and period-sensitive fashion, and then stride down to the console of the big chancel organ and launch immediately into the brilliant Prokofiev Toccata and follow that with a still memorable, chillingly dramatic and compelling performance of the Reubke Sonata on the 94th Psalm was to know that this, he, John, was no common talent.
John returned to Minnesota with his choirs (both London and NYC) and as organ soloist on several occasions, most recently at the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Minneapolis with the St. Thomas Choir in 2012 and as organ soloist in 2013. He had just completed a solo organ recital tour in Europe and Scandinavia. He made (as organist and choral director) dozens and dozens of exemplary recordings of repertoire spanning seven centuries, and if any proof is needed to justify the praises heaped upon John, those are Exhibits A-Z.
Young American composer Nico Muhly remembers:
I've spent the better part of the afternoon driving around Santa Cruz listening to every recording of John Scott in his various guises as conductor and organist I could find on my phone and other devices. It turns out there are LOADS there: hours, days, even?
His recording of the chant for psalm 37 on volume ninety-seven-jillion of the Psalms from St Paul's series remains one of my favorite things in the world. I emailed him this fact five days ago, and he wrote back from Sweden (his first trip, apparently!) seconds later, "Oh those divine Howells chants!" with his typical enthusiasm and joy. This was a man deeply devoted to the tradition of music and the music of tradition, to his service to the church, and to his ability to transmit the possibility of the divine to friends and strangers. It is insane to me that he died — like, actively unbelievable.
There are so many of us whom he touched as a recording artist, as a conductor, organist, educator, mentor, hero, husband, father, martini partner and interlocutor. He loved plainchant — Lent has never been so austere! — but could throw down a Howells Coll Reg with the lashings of cream and coulis required by such music. Any of the choristers — now grown — with whom he recorded in 2003, I'm sure, remember his insistence on the distance between repeated notes in Tallis's Salvator Mundi; when he played my music at the organ in 2013, I was consistently humbled by the freakish connection between his technical abilities and expressive musicianship; to watch him conduct the choir for a random Thursday's evensong was to watch an essay on simultaneous restraint and spontaneity: centuries of performance practice reanimated, stylised, and tightened.
I think of his influence as a form of epidemic: a great choirmaster infects everybody near him with an evangelical love for the music, the tradition, and the rigor required to get it done correctly but in the (liturgical) background: music for use, but music for the only use worth using. Even though the world feels dimmer without him in it, I am excited to spend tomorrow, the rest of the summer, and the rest of my life listening to his recordings, thinking about his influence on all of us, and thinking about the subtle magnificence of his contribution to the world in which we all live. We are all better musicians because of John.
Another organist colleague, Haig Mardirosian, now Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Tampa, reflects:
A sleepless night as I wrestle with the sudden loss of our John Scott. I hesitate to use the term colleague for, while that is true narrowly, it must also not imply parity. John was just better in every possible way. And this is no confessional pouring out. One can do that for oneself. Rather, I am taken — deeply taken — by the intensity and breadth of the hundreds of reactions and postings that I have seen from so many — both familiar and afar — on John in a mere twelve hours or so since this news spread.
Make no mistake, ours is a community in deep and unalloyed grief of a magnitude not seen before, even at the loss of John's beloved predecessor at St. Thomas Church. What is one to make of this?
Perhaps the most jarring reality is that John embodied, like so many immortals in the arts, a promise of near-perfection that, itself, can never die. Just as the voices of all the giants can never be stilled, neither can his. But the difficulty is that, while none of us knew Bach, for instance, John was also ubiquitous in this community. Far and near had people heard him, live or virtually, and because we all share in not only our feebler attempts at doing such work, but in the enduring enthusiasm for that work, John was real: a teacher, a model, a friend, a hero, an inspiration.
I cannot claim a deep friendship with John at all. Our paths crossed professionally and, a few times socially. But they were magical encounters - sparkling conversations in the company of a few brilliant people. At one level, I felt entirely unworthy of this company. At another, I was profoundly honored to simply be in the room, at the table, in dialog.
And the darting threads of that discourse, that entire circle, from music, to the new organ of St. Thomas, to life on Fifth Avenue, to his young wife Lily's interest in the theatre, all bespoke a complex constellation of real genius at work. These were golden moments; ask anyone sitting there.
What is so profoundly and broadly gut wrenching now is that the promise and future of all of that has been denied. This is neither a case in which one should simply rationalize death through the platitudes, true though they may be, suggesting an end to suffering or a greater rejoicing "upon another shore." Was it suffering that, by all accounts, John had played triumphantly well in Europe just hours before?
Nor is this the opportunity for reflecting back on the long career of a "good and faithful servant." The sum of John's work had surely not been accomplished, neither in music nor in the building of his own family and the greeting of his yet to be born child. What pain that thought and how can Lily endure such?
No, I am afraid that all of us yesterday saw death close up and square on. This will test us. It will linger long. It will hurt badly.
I mourn with the musical world, I mourn with and for his young wife Lily and her and his family, and the soon-to-come new child. We have lost a great talent, and a marvelous human being.
Perhaps from all of this we bring away one good thought. John, by his exceptional gifts, showed us 'how it could be done'. His many recordings, and our memories of his performances, stand as reminders. Now it is our time to 'do' likewise, and make his testament ours.
R.I.P. John Gavin Scott (1956-2015).
—Michael Barone PIPEDREAMS host/producer