John Sykes

A pupil’s view

Half way up the tower of Kingswood School was a door, usually left ajar, which opened into a wonderland – a chaotic place of wild imagination, in which every available space was piled high with books, music and LPs. There was a piano and on top of it were rows of more books, two deep. On the mantel piece above the gas fire was a photograph of Vaughan Williams mounted on card bending with age. Behind a curtain was a small washbowl, a few glasses and, no doubt, some bottles. The window offered what must have been one of the finest views of Bath. The air in the room never quite lost a smell of stale tobacco.

Here I came to learn music – and here I passed many hours challenged, cajoled and inspired by one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. John Sykes was tall, with a ruddy complexion and jet black hair which reached his collar. In those days, that was unbelievably long, and schoolboy rumour had it that he wore it so to conceal a sabre wound gained during hand-to-hand combat in the first World War. Simple arithmetic would have told us that could not have been so, and in fact he was a conscientious objector – something which needed considerable courage in those days – and spent part of the second World War in the Pioneer Corps, doing such things as building sewage farms.

With his lips pursed, his deep-set eyes seemed always to be looking beyond one – perhaps searching for flying saucers, about which he kept an open mind and a lively curiosity. Whilst never quite scruffy, his clothes were not stylish, with trousers that had long lost their crease, and a jacket whose shape bore little resemblance to that of the human frame. But the mind – ah, the mind had mountains. He was incredibly well read, and widely too, ranging from William Blake to modern science fiction by way of the philosophy of Swedenborg and the literary criticism of T.S. Eliot. On the science side, he was aware of wave-particle duality - and that was in the 1950s. An anonymous sixthformer wrote in one of those occasional literary magazines:

This man with pursed lips



As well as the bottle

I once asked him to write me a poem about himself. This he did with characteristic generosity, and although I have lost my copy, I can remember some of it:

I am - what?
I am wonderful - beautiful as the lily of the valley.
I am - a sot:
A thing picked up, bedraggled, in Dead Men's Alley.
I am - a Christian martyr, gored by circus lions.
I am - just absurdly quaint:
A thing too comical to merit damnation.
Don't ask me who I am - I know not,
And to you I dedicate this - do'nut!

He wrote poetry throughout his adult life - as well as learned papers for various school societies - and although this little frivol doesn't really tell us much about him, his writings as a whole shed a valuable light on his character.

John Sykes was born in India in 1909 - in India because his father was in the Indian civil service. Back in England he won a music scholarship to Clifton College, Bristol. There he was a pupil of  Douglas Fox, the famous one-armed organist , and, whilst still a schoolboy, gained his F.R.C.O. In 1928 he went up to Oxford as organ scholar at Balliol. In those days, you were not able to read Music as a first degree, so Sykes read History, and followed it up  with a B.Mus. One contemporary source considered him to have been the most distinguished music undergraduate of his time. He was president of the famous Oxford University Opera Club and active in the Music Club and Union. He was sufficiently important to be given a full-page spread in the undergraduate newspaper ‘Isis’ – which referred to his ability to ‘make a piano do anything but swim’. He was also a contemporary of W.H. Auden, Spender, and C. Day Lewis, whom he knew, so his poetic skill is perhaps not surprising. (You may have detected echos of Auden's style in the poem about himself, even though it was an unconsidered trifle, thrown off late at night.) One friendship he made in Oxford was with another poet, Randall Swingler, and this friendship lasted until his death. Both men's political views pointed to the left, and Swingler eventually became the Communist Party's cultural spokesman, as well as one of the leading lyrical poets of the second world war. The establishment were so concerned about Swingler's influence that MI5 appointed a mole to report on his (wholly innocent) activities. Sykes was later to set several of his friend's poems to music. After Oxford, Sykes went to London, to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition under Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. In 1936 he was appointed to the staff of Kingswood School, (a Methodist establishment, founded by John Wesley in 1748) and here he stayed, except for war service in the Pioneer Corps, until he died of cancer in the school Sanatorium in the summer term of 1962.

As Organ Scholar, he was responsible for all the music in the chapel of Balliol College. He took on the same responsibility at Kingswood. There are countless numbers of alumni who acquired painlessly an encyclopaedic knowledge of the masterpieces of the organ repertoire, because Sykes played them after chapel every morning - most of the Bach toccatas, preludes and fugues, the Widor toccata, Vaughan Williams' hymn preludes and, one of his favourites, Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm. We enjoyed bawling out the hymns to his encouraging accompaniment, and we especially enjoyed 'Disposer Supreme' to his own tune - originally written as incidental music to Dorothy Sayers' play 'The Zeal of Thy House'. This hymn tune was published in the supplement to the old Methodist Hymn Book. As far as I know, the only other work by him ever published was a Christmas anthem 'The Child of the World' (Oxford Choral Songs X41, O.U.P. 1958) - a setting of words by his friend from Oxford days, Randall Swingler.. Over the years, he wrote something like twenty anthems for the chapel choir.

He was an unworldly, or even otherworldly, character. For instance, he never (thank heavens!) owned a car, nor a house nor a flat. The world of his mind was more important to him than the material one about him, and I don't believe he ever wore a watch. This led to an incident in chapel one Sunday evening. A visiting preacher was in mid sermon, and Sykes was at the organ listening with his eyes closed, when our pious concentration was shattered by the loud and persistent ringing of a bell. With a puzzled expression, Sykes put his hand in his pocket and drew out an alarm clock. Of course the sound level doubled, and it was some moments before he could silence the offending mechanism.

From the experience of my own lessons with him, where I learnt from him, rather than was taught by him, I have to say that Sykes was not all that brilliant a teacher: but he was far more - he was an inspiration. Without ever forcing it on us, he filled the school with music so that it was a natural and exciting part of our lives - and I don't just mean those of us who eventually were to become professional musicians: it was for everybody. The school orchestra played in every school concert - and sometimes, international soloists were persuaded (Lord knows how!) to play with us. I remember in particular that we played the three great violin concertos (Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius) within the space of a year or so.

He took great delight in ad hoc piano performances - he would often stroll over to the junior house of an afternoon and play to whoever bothered to gather round the piano. A friend told me of his great delight in hearing Sykes play all four of the Chopin Ballades, one after another, in a similarly informal occasion. He was - especially in his younger years - a particularly talented pianist, and he once played the Emperor concerto with the Bath Symphony Orchestra. But I think his modest nature took more pleasure in intimate performance than in the glories of the concert hall. I know he never once refused to stand in at the last moment for Edith Tongue, who was the reheasal accompanist for the Bath Opera Group.

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