Lost composition written for Northampton church by English songwriter found in county's record office after 60-year hunt

After a 60-year search, a lost original score written by the BBC's former director of music has been found in the Northamptonshire Record Office.

Friday, 27th July 2018, 1:15 pm
Updated Friday, 27th July 2018, 1:19 pm
The lost score was found after a 60-year search. Picture: William Miller

The hunt for Elizabeth Poston's Festal Te Deum composition was prompted by the publication of a book by John Alabaster about the songwriter, most famous for her Jesus Christ the Apple Tree Christmas carol.

Dr Alabaster, a retired fisheries scientist and musician, was a personal friend of Poston - once the director of music in the BBC's European Service - and worked with her literary executor Simon Campion at her house Rooks Nest House in Old Stevenage on cataloguing her 980 compositions, 670 of which were published.

Festal Te Deum was commissioned by St Matthew's Church in Kingsley, Northampton for their patronal festival in 1959.

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Retired environmental consultant William Miller, a fundraiser for St Matthew's, helped find the missing score.

"It's terribly exciting because Elizabeth Poston is a rare example of a female composer and in this MeToo environment we're in at the the moment I think it's important she is put up there so young people will be inspired by this story," said Mr Miller, 67.

"When Dr Alabaster showed me his book he told me there were some pieces missing.

"And one of them he knew was written for the church so I immediately 'I'm going to find it' and I did!"

Mr Miller became involved as he is a long-standing friend and ex-employee of Dr Alabaster - he also met Poston at Rooks Nest House in the 1970s.

Since Mr Miller had been a choir member at St Matthew's for many years and was actively involved in fundraising, and interested in the church’s history, he offered to help with the search.

So began his detective story. The score was not at the church, and Justin Miller, the director of music, did not have a copy, nor did anyone else.

Northamptonshire Record Office at first reported that they did not have it. Some of the works commissioned went to the Pallant Gallery in Chichester but they didn’t have it.

So Mr Miller referred to Hussey’s autobiography which stated that Festal Te Deum was commissioned during the period when John Bertalot was director of music. This concurred with correspondence that Dr Alabaster has seen at Rooks Nest House.

Dr Bertalot is currently Organist Emeritus at Blackburn Cathedral, and he remembered handling the original score and passing it to a successor in the job, Andrew Shenton, who now works in the USA.

While Mr Miller wrote to Mr Shenton, and before he received a reply, he used his knowledge of the Northamptonshire Record Office and decided to contact them again. His knowledge told him that the record office has never had sufficient funding to catalogue everything in their collection.

He asked them if they had any uncatalogued boxes of archives relating to St Matthews Church. After an extensive search the answer came back: "yes, about 20 boxes."

After a further detailed search by the senior archivist, Matt Bazley, the original score was found having been almost unknown since it was first performed at St Matthew’s at the 1959 festival.

Now found, copies of Festal Te Deum been made immediately for Dr Alabaster for and Justin Miller.

William Miller believes the discovery is of great importance.

"It's definitely of national significance," he said.

"Elizabeth Poston was an internationally known composer with 670 published works.

"Women composers are rare and she was special as she was able to get so many pieces published."