John Gavin Cullen 1936-2022
John was born in 1936 near Dundee, but spent his early life in Aberdeen where his father was in charge of the distribution of ‘house coal’ for the northern half of Scotland. Although not musical, his parents were committed members of the Church of Scotland, and as a teenager John regularly played the harmonium for hymns at their local church in Beechgrove.
Like many, his family bought their first television set in order to watch the Coronation Service on 2nd June, 1953. This experience had a profound impact on John, providing a first encounter with the music of composers such as Parry, Walton, Vaughan-Williams and Howells, all set within a magnificent liturgy. The sense of musical and spiritual possibility that John gained from this inspired him to want to be a church musician, and led to him studying the organ at The Royal College of Music in London. He was interviewed for this by Herbert Howells, who was the first to point out that John had perfect pitch. Following a year of National Service as a bandsman with the Royal Corps of Signals in Yorkshire, John was successful in gaining an organ scholarship at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He revelled in the rich musical experiences that this opened up for him, studying for his Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists with David Willcocks on the organ of King’s College, and being profoundly influenced by the musicianship of Boris Ord and Raymond Leppard.
At Cambridge, John also realised that it was as a school teacher that he felt called to share his love of music, and especially church music, with others. After a year of teacher training at Moray House in Edinburgh, he became Assistant Director of Music at Aberdeen Grammar School, contributing to a flourishing Music department through which many future professional musicians passed at that time. Alongside this, John was organist and choirmaster at St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Aberdeen where he revived and developed the choir. At the time it was regarded as the best boys’ choir in Scotland.
In 1964, John became Director of Music at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire. It was here that he met Mary, whose brother was on the Classics staff. They were immediately drawn to each other, soon became engaged, and were married on 9th April 1966 in Hereford Cathedral, where Mary’s father was Archdeacon and Residentiary Canon.
John and Mary moved to Tonbridge in 1967, as John became Director of Music at Tonbridge School. The impressive school chapel and large, three-manual pipe organ were great attractions, as was the fine musical tradition already existing at the school. John delighted in the opportunities that these provided and sought to develop all aspects of the school’s musical life. He was particularly keen that music and music-making were made accessible to every boy in the school, and so he developed what was then a pioneering curriculum for classroom music, initiated whole-school hymn practices in chapel each Friday morning, revived the House Singing Competition, and every few years put on a major work such as Handel’s Messiah or Orff’s Carmina Burana in which the whole school took part.
John felt extraordinarily blessed and grateful to work with such creative, talented and good-hearted colleagues in the Music department at Tonbridge, and was keen that members of the department felt encouraged and supported to develop their gifts and express their creativity within the musical life of the school. During his time, the school choir and orchestra performed a wide range of classical repertoire, as well as newer pieces such as David Fanshaw’s African Sanctus, and a fine setting of Psalm 122 commissioned for the whole school from Howard Goodall by former Headmaster, Christopher Everett.
Although these big works were highlights, it was the week-by-week rhythm of choral and congregational services in the school chapel that perhaps meant most to John. He loved conducting the chapel choir, again keeping it large and inclusive so that as many boys as possible could benefit from the experience. The school’s carol services were particular highlights for him each year. John had a natural harmonic fluency as a composer, and produced a large number of arrangements and compositions for choir and congregation to sing in chapel services during his years at the school.
John initiated choir and orchestral tours abroad, including to Vienna in 1977 and the USA in 1981 and 1990. He and colleagues later took the chapel choir for residencies at various English cathedrals.
Between 1972 and 1993, John was conductor and director of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society, performing a wide range of choral and orchestral repertoire, including Britten’s War Requiem, Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions and B Minor Mass, and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. He and Mary both treasured the friendships and sense of community as well as the wonderful music-making that they experienced through their association with the TPS over so many years.
The chapel fire in 1988 was a tragedy in John’s life, as in that of the whole Tonbridge community. The loss of what had been his spiritual home and professional workplace, as well as his personal organ music and some compositions, was distressing and disorienting, though he sought to ensure that chapel music and the experience of choir members remained meaningful and fulfilling nonetheless.
In addition to his teaching, for many years, John was an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. He was also President of the Music Masters’ Association in 1977, hosting the MMA’s conference at Tonbridge in 1979 which highlighted the innovations in classroom music teaching that he and colleagues were establishing at the school.
Alongside his professional work, John was very much a family man. He was absolutely devoted to Mary, and rejoiced that their three children, Christopher, Alison and Jonathan all went into school teaching, with Jonathan becoming a Director of Music at several leading schools. John and Mary loved attending concerts and shows that Jon conducted. John and Mary’s grandchildren, Nicklas and Daniel, brought them great joy, and they were both actively involved in caring for them in their childhoods.
After retiring from Tonbridge School in 1993, John and Mary lived briefly in Herefordshire and Horsham, before finally settling in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Here, John was much in demand as an organist in local churches, and for the last 10 years of his professional career, he was organist and choirmaster at St Martins’ Church in Bladon, Oxfordshire [where Churchill is buried]. Here he again began composing, creating musical settings for choir and congregation, and writings descants for a large number of hymns, collected under the informal title ‘In Tuneful Accord’ and now freely available at www.descants.com
John’s life and work were informed and inspired by his Christian commitment and faith. Robin Morrish has noted that like J S Bach, whose works were his greatest love, John could say that he made music ‘ad majoram Dei gloriam’ – to the greater glory of God. After retirement, he developed a deep interest in contemplative prayer, and for many years he and Mary held a contemplative prayer group at their home each Monday morning.
John finally retired at Candlemas 2017, leaving Bladon with a setting of a text and prayer that he especially cherished: ‘Come Down, O Love Divine.’
In his latter years, John’s health was significantly affected by arthritis and dementia, but he continued to enjoy times with family and listening to music with Mary each evening. He died peacefully at home on 1st July 2022.
A Service of Thanksgiving for John’s life will be held at St Mary Magdalene Church in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, on Saturday 22nd October 2022, at 2pm. All are welcome.
If you would like further details of this, please email
johncullenthanksgiving [@] gmail [.] com (copy this and remove brackets/spaces before sending email)
We have received enquiries about making donations in memory of John, and are very glad to suggest the excellent charity Help Musicians. Donations can be made via this page https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/support-our-work/make-a-donation
Many thanks indeed for any donations made.