Dr Robert Ashfield RIP

Dr Robert Ashfield passed away peacefully at about 1:40pm on Saturday 30 December 2006 at the age of 95.

Robert ("Bobby" or "Doc") Ashfield (as he was always affectionately known in Rochester), was the first Cathedral Organist under whom I [DHM] sang as a very new Supernumerary Lay Clerk in the autumn of 1970, learning the job by singing alongside one of the six regular men. Several other members of the Voluntary Choir (and formerly of the Special Choir) had also sung under Dr Ashfield’s direction in the 1950s/60s/70s.

He was born in Surrey in July 1911, but his family moved to the village of Eynsford in Kent in 1912. His first practical musical experience was blowing the organ in the village church while his mother played - and sometimes they reversed the roles. As a young teenager he attended Tonbridge School, where he excelled both at the organ and on the sports field. In 1928 he entered the Royal College of Music in London to study with Ernest Bullock (then Organist of Westminster Abbey). Having gained his ARCO diploma in 1931 and FRCO the following year, Bullock invited Robert to be his Organ Scholar at the Abbey. In 1934 he was appointed Organist of St John's, Smith Square in London (now a concert hall) and in 1936 he became Music Master at Westminster Abbey Choir School, gaining his BMus from London University the same year. In 1940 he returned to Tonbridge School as Assistant Music Master, and obtained his DMus the following year, before being called up for war service. After the war, in 1946, he went to Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire as Organist & Rector Chori. He moved to Rochester Cathedral as Organist in 1956 and the following year was also appointed a Professor for Theory and Composition at the Royal College of Music. Robert retired in 1977 but remained active until recently as a composer and concert promoter well into his late 80s, and was a regular attender at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday mornings. We last saw him in church on Christmas morning, just five days before his passing.

The Cathedral Special Choir had already scheduled some of Robert's music for the last weekend of December (as we often do): as the Introit at Evensong on Saturday (about an hour after hearing of his death) we sang his processional setting of "Of the Father's love begotten", and this was repeated at the New Year Carol Service the next day; at Sunday Mattins we sang "Fairest of morning lights" (17th century text by Thomas Pestel); and as a valedictory tribute at the end of the Eucharist we sang his best-known anthem, written for a Diocesan Choirs' Festival at Southwell in 1949 to a text by Lionel Johnson, based on Revelation 17:

"Ah, see the fair chivalry come, the companions of Christ!
White horsemen, who ride on white horses, the Knights of God!
They, for their Lord and their Lover who sacrificed all
Save the sweetness of treading where He first trod!
These, thro' the darkness of death, the dominions of night,
Swept, and they woke in white places at morning tide:
They saw with their eyes and sang for joy at the sight,
They saw with their eyes the Eyes of the Crucified.
Now, whithersoever He goeth, with Him they go:
White horsemen, who ride on white horses, Oh, fair to see!
They ride where the rivers of paradise flash and flow,
White horsemen, with Christ their Captain, for ever He!"

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.


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