Biography

GRAYSTON BURGESS

Donald Grayston Burgess (known almost always as "Grayston") was born in Cheriton, Kent on 7 April 1932 to musical parents and a famous grandfather, Caleb Burgess (1868-1943: an early Salvationist, composer, virtuoso Cornet player, and founder of the Household Cavalry Band). Grayston's father died of TB in 1934, leaving his wife Helen to bring up two small children - Grayston and his brother Peter (the elder by two years) - in the impoverished Thirties when the "Dole" was a mere 1/- (5p!) a week and the Widow's Pension 10/- (50p). Thus it was that Grayston was fostered by his grandparents, who lived near the Cathedral in Canterbury, and in 1940, at the tender age of eight, he followed his brother as a Chorister into the Cathedral Choir, each of them becoming in due course Head Chorister. Grayston's own reminiscences of this time can be read here, published in a 1999 piece for "Music and Vision", under the title of "A Chorister at War"

During this time (1940-1946) Grayston sang at the funeral of Archbishop Lang , at the enthronement, and later the funeral, of William Temple, and at the enthronement of Geoffrey Fisher. And in 1945 he was presented to the King and Queen, and to Princess Elizabeth.


It was while he was a Chorister at Canterbury (1940-46) that Grayston first met Alfred Deller, who was also in the Choir. Deller had single-handedly revived the concept of the modern Countertenor, and hearing him sing was to have a significant effect on Grayston.

In September 1946, at the age of 14, Grayston moved on as a Music Scholar to Christowe House, Cheltenham College (where he met Mary, undermatron at Boyne House, who was subsequently to become his wife). Grayston excelled at sports, and during 1948-1950 he played in the School's rugger 1st Fifteen and hockey 1st Eleven. Singing was in his blood, though, and inspired by Deller he continued to sing as a countertenor.

And it was as a countertenor that at the age of 17 he became in October 1950 the youngest choral scholar to be appointed to King's College Choir, Cambridge, under Boris Ord.

In theory he was up to read Modern Languages (and, later, History); in practice, singing and sport took up most of his time (by the time he came down in 1953 he'd played for the College Ist XV and Hockey XI, and for the University LX Club and Hockey Wanderers; academic study came a long way behind).

And such spare time as he had was utilised wooing Mary ... and they were married in King's Chapel on 16th June 1953 (and in time produced a trio of girls - Greta, Susie and Becky).

After a period (1953-1955) of National Service in the Navy, ex-Able Seaman Grayston, initially undecided whether he should become a Sports Coach or a Singer, plumped for the latter with the encouragement and assistance of John Whitworth, an earlier King's Countertenor who had then moved to Westminster Abbey Choir.

And so in November 1955 Grayston joined the Abbey Choir, to begin his career as a countertenor. While there he began to sing in small ensembles like Schola Polyphonica (conducted by the legendary Henry Washington, Director of the Brompton Oratory), the Ambrosian Singers, and the original Purcell Singers, and with the latter he appeared at the Aldeburgh Festival under Imogen Holst (daughter of the composer Gustav Holst; she was both Britten's music assistant and also one of the Artistic Directors of the Aldeburgh Festival). During this period Grayston also took part in the Handel Opera Society's productions at Sadlers Wells.

Grayston vigorously pursued a career in music, and there soon followed his debut at the Royal Festival Hall, singing Messiah with John Tobin and the London Choral Society (now the London Chorus), the Handel Opera Society's Royal Festival Hall productions of Semele, numerous BBC broadcasts, recordings galore (including a five-year contract with Argos Records), appearances at the Promenade Concerts under David Willcocks (singing Purcell's Come ye sons of Art and Monteverdi's Vespers), and (in the early '60s) several seasons at Covent Garden as Oberon. Here he sang in the revived production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, taking over from the American High Tenor Russell Oberlin in the part originally written by Britten for Grayston's mentor Deller. Grayston had previously sung the role at Schwetzingen (Germany) and Leeds, and he was in the Production when it later moved to Manchester, Edinburgh and Lisbon. In all this he also found time to sing on many occasions with the "Studio der fruehen Musik", a small early-music group based in Munich, to sing with the 1960s-founded Musica Reservata (with fellow singers Jantina Noorman and Edgar Fleet, and with a clutch of rebec, crumhorn, shawm, recorder, sackbut, nakers and tabor players), to give the first performance of Michael Tippett's "Songs for Ariel" with Virginia Pleasants at Fenton House, Hampstead, and to act - as a monk! - in John Osborne's play Luther.

His association with Aldeburgh and Imogen Holst led directly to the formation of the Purcell Consort of Voices under Grayston's leadership in 1963. Early Members of the Consort included Barbara Elsey, Susan Longfield, Ian Partridge, Geoffrey Shaw and Christopher Keyte. Later, Eileen Poulter took over from Barbara (who went with her family to South Africa), and Felicity Palmer replaced Susan (who died of cancer in 1969). The high point of this period was the Consort's appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.

In 1973 the Consort celebrated its 10th Anniversary at the Wigmore Hall. The concert included the first performance of Imogen Holst's "Hullo my Fancy", especially written for the occasion.

The Consort's performances and recordings became a benchmark for the highest standards of its generation, and the large number of commissions of new music remain a worthy testimonial to its courageous and forward-looking policy. The Consort travelled extensively, with numerous engagements around the world (in Europe, Australia, and Canada, and in several countries behind the Iron Curtain), and during this time it commissioned and performed many works by : Christopher Brown, Gordon Crosse, Geoffrey Burgon, John Gardner, David Gow, Jonathan Harvey, Robin Holloway, Imogen Holst, John Joubert, Elisabeth Lutyens, Nicholas Maw, Stephen Oliver, Humphrey Searle, Phyllis Tate and Douglas Young (amongst others). Additionally, in 1967 Grayston sang the role of "Hymen" (the god of marriage) in the all-male production of As You Like It (with Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic), and in 1973 took part in the first performance of Peter Maxwell Davies' opera Notre dame des Fleurs, with Vanessa Redgrave, Mary Thomas and The Fires of London (at the Royal Festival Hall)

In 1971, thinking of a possible future in Music Administration, Grayston joined the British Council as Music Tours Officer, sending British musicians abroad to represent our musical culture. Five years later, in 1976, the family, by then living in Wimbledon, moved out of London into the country, to deepest Herefordshire, buying a 46-room mansion, Pencombe Hall (now a private care home for the elderly), near Bromyard (between Hereford and Worcester). Grayston ran the house as holiday flats, and taught singing - and during this period he formed the Border Marches Early Music Forum which still thrives, having over 300 members.

In 1985 Grayston joined the Staff of Malvern College, as Head of Vocal Studies, and carried on teaching until retirement beckoned nearly ten years later, and in 1994, by now in his early sixties, and a strong supporter of the Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir, Grayston "retired" to his wife's family's locality - Histon near Cambridge (sadly, his wife of 44 years died of cancer in 1997, leaving Grayston desolate). Unable, though, to let singing go entirely, in 2000 he accepted an invitation to help form, and to direct, a local community choir to celebrate the Millennium. After its performance - of Haydn's Creation - this choir continued as a permanent feature in the form of Choir2000, which became his inspiration and to which he himself has been an inspiration. He "retired" again in 2007, and at that time became a resident - a "Brother" - of Charterhouse, which, being close by the Barbican and the Guildhall School of Music, and just north of St Paul's, is the ideal location for Grayston to indulge in many of the more interesting musical and dramatic sites dear to his heart.